Apparently you can buy coats designed to keep the wind out. I never thought I needed one until yesterday’s walk, crossing the Downs with the wind cutting through the layers I was wearing. I realised that last year’s winter Cheeky walks were all urban ones, and that doing the rural ones in February might not be a good idea.
Despite that, the Earth, Wind and Fire walk was a good one, starting in Pyecombe and taking in the Chattri, Jack and Jill Windmills and the Clayton Tunnel. It was fairly similar to a walk taken with Jamie and Jen last year (although the windmill is closed to visitors until May). Still, despite the cold, the views were amazing.
There are only two occasions when it is acceptable to wake up and have a drink before 10am. One is Christmas morning and the other is at an airport before a holiday. On 25th December 2015, both of these conditions were satisfied, so I drank a half with breakfast at the Gatwick Airport Wetherspoon’s (‘the Beehive’). I was flying to Goa, where I’d booked a holiday to laze around on the beach. Then, after ten days, I would head on to Varanasi for something more active.
As well as swimming and reading, I had another plan for my trip. I recently read Lizzie Collingham’s book, Curry: A Tale of Cooks and Conquerers. She describes it as “a biography of the curries of the Indian subcontinent”, promising that “each recipe tells the tale of the different people who prepared and ate the dish”. It’s an excellent book, explaining where the dishes on the English curry-house menu come from.
My usual curry order is a vegetable vindaloo. Sometimes they are good, other times disappointing, but at least you have an idea how spicy it is going to be. Reading Collingham’s book, I discovered that this much-maligned dish had a tangled, curious history, spanning five hundred years.
Travelling on Christmas Day has its advantages. It meant I got a chocolate with my airline Christmas dinner, and there was a brief visit from Santa Claus. I landed at about eleven on Christmas Day but it was well into Boxing Day before I passed through immigration and found a taxi to Mandrem Beach. It was about two before I was in bed. Spending the day in planes and airports meant it wasn’t the most exciting Christmas Day of my life, but it did mean I woke up in Goa on Boxing Day.
And it was pretty good. I was about three minutes walk from a quiet beach – Mandrem is very peaceful compared to its brash neighbour Arambol. I found my way to a seafront cafe and had breakfast. A little later I came back and installed myself on a sun lounger. Once an hour I would go swimming, but the rest of the day I read. Every so often I would move the sunbed back a little to stay in the shade.
I’d read about goan food before setting off, and was impressed by the dishes available at Brighton’s Goan takeaway, the Nishat Tandoori. The thing is, most places on the beaches didn’t go much for local cuisine. They had a few dishes, maybe a vindaloo or a xacuti, but these were crowded out by the usual traveller fare. Some people refer to India, Thailand, Laos, Cambodia etc as the ‘banana pancake trail’ because of its reliance on certain standard dishes. Many of the Goan cafes and restaurants had menus similar to the ones I had seen in North India or Nepal. Even worse, the few goan dishes they had contained meat, which is no good for me as a vegetarian.
So, while I was content to laze around on the beach for a few days, seeing out the last of 2015, I’d need to explore a little to find an authentic vindaloo.
Ernest Journal is one of my favourite magazines. It describes itself as being “for curious and adventurous people”. Recent issues have featured ghost villages, numbers stations, some amazing travel features, and Queen’s Brian May writing on Victorian Diableries. The most recent issue, number four, includes writing by me about the Antarctic explorer Apsley Cherry-Garrard. The magazine also smells truly excellent, which is an important consideration for paper-based goods.
The piece came about through meeting the editor, Jo Keeling, when I was speaking at Wilderness Festival last August. Jo was running the Odditorium, the venue where I spoke. Nervous before my performance, rather than have an actual conversation, I told Jo at great length about Cherry-Garrard. Instead of making excuses to get away, Jo invited me to write an article about it. I sent her a slightly strange outline and she said she I should go ahead with it.
I first heard about Cherry-Garrard through a friend’s recommendation. I ended up reading his book, TheWorst Journey in the World, among a lot of Antarctic literature for my MA dissertation (I read about a dozen books for this, which ended up as a mere 2 pages of the final text). The Worst Journey refers, not to Scott’s fatal mission, but to the miserable trek that Cherry-Garrard engaged in with two companions.
It’s strange to think that most of Cherry-Garrard’s reputation rests upon a single section of his work, where he describes the stubborn fortitude with which he and his companions faced the grim, unrelenting cold – just to collect a couple of penguin’s eggs, needed to support an evolutionary theory that was dismissed without needing his sacrifice.
My article was particularly inspired by the work of Sara Wheeler. As well as writing a biography of Apsley Cherry-Garrard, Wheeler has written an account of her own time in Antarctica, Terra Incognito. It’s a powerful, emotional book, as well as being incredibly funny in places.
I’m currently working on my next article which will be about… something odd and unrelated. And I love that there are places like Ernest with spaces for this sort of writing. My piece sits alongside an article on modern reproductions of Shackleton’s clothing (featuring a rather grisly fact) and a guide to wild butchery (“Remove skin and store away – you can use it to make a rug later”).
Ernest 4 is amazing and is available here – and if you’re in Brighton, the magazine shop on Trafalgar Street should have copies.
The last entry in the Cheeky Walks book – and the longest outside Brighton – is the Perfect Walk in Arundel. I don’t like to read too much of the walk in advance and assumed Arundel meant twittens and history. Instead this was a country walk, with long, scenic stretches beside the river Arun and deep woods. So, probably best not to do it in Winter. Right from the start it was thick with mud, and Lela had decided to wear her trainers instead of hiking boots or wellingtons. But we pressed on – for 8½ miles.
It was pretty good though. Arundel castle appeared and disappeared, providing a regular reference point. There were turkeys. And there was a wooden suspension bridge. And the least level cricket pitch I’ve seen in Sussex. But the mud was incessant and exhausting. The mess around the stiles did make for fun puzzles – which route to take to avoid getting wet feet?
We didn’t have a hope of a table at the George and Dragon in Belpham, but easily found a riverside table at the Black Rabbit. Sadly the food is less wonderful than it was many years ago in 2012 when the guide was written. They don’t do veggie roasts, and the veggie burger was underwhelming. Still, they had a fantastic location and gherkins that looked like worms emerging from the burger.
One of my favourite things about the cheeky walks is you sometimes feel like the directions are about to lead you wrong, but they never do.As the book gets older, the directions become less accurate. In this one, it warns at one point “if you pass the phone box, you have gone too far”. The phone is gone, but the box is now an information resource:
The weather may have been poor, but we saw the first signs of Spring. Maybe not a perfect walk, given the ground underfoot – but it might be worth trying again on a summer’s day:
Last year I decided I to do all the tours in the Cheeky Walks guide. In the end, I managed 9 out of 21, failing do do any of the ones outside Brighton. It was good fun and this year I’m going to actually finish the book. Not least because it is now four years old, and some of the directions are going to fall out of date.
(29/2/16 – Edit – as Tim points out in the comments, the new edition of the book is now out, with everything updated. I will be sticking with my old edition, as I am determined to finish this book)
Last weekend it was the turn of the penultimate Brighton entry, “Sex and the City”. This walk was less epic or curious than some of the others and, going from Brighton Station to Kemptown, was also less scenic. But that’s not to say it wasn’t interesting – I learned that Aubrey Beardsley was a Brighton resident, and that the houses near St Nicholas church were once a home for penitent prostitutes:
There were also some funny asides in the commentary, and certain locations led to interesting anecdotes. A few of the features had gone, such as an alleyway to a sex shop in Ship Street and the moving of the bodycasting shop.
We ended with a drink at the Barley Mow pub, chosen as the ending point because of its ‘sperm table’. It was a good day.
We have nine more walks to go, most of which are far outside Brighton.
Towards the end of last year, I noticed a couple of numbered stones in the pavement around the New England area. I was curious – there had to be a reason why they were there – but I couldn’t work out what they were for.
During a conversation with Jake Spicer, I found out that the stones were part of a circle laid out around by The Brighton School. This circle was their first work and featured stones laid in pavements, on the Level and in private gardens. Apparently this is the “first urban stone circle in England, and probably the world”. (A good description of the work is here). I love this project – it’s playful and connects to some fascinating English traditions.
Last night I was reading Britannia Obscura by Joanne Parker, a book on ‘mapping Britain’s hidden landscapes’. The third chapter of this was about megaliths and includes an interview with Philip Carr-Gomm, who heads the Order of Bards, Ovates and Druids.
Carr-Gomm explains how the stone circles are part of a magical landscape that includes some very modern features: “We don’t worry about time… Whether a monument or a hundred years ago or a thousand, what matters is that it’s important to me today. There’s a reality between linear time.” The druids even worship at some ‘fake’ stone circles made in the nineteenth century – so the London Road certainly has the potential for power.
Parker also refers to the tradition that some stone circles could not be counted. She suggests that this is because it is sometimes hard to tell which rocks should be included, but also refers to folklore – a baker who tried to count the Rollright Stones by putting a loaf on each one, only to find they were disappearing. Given that some of London Road’s stones are on private property, they are equally hard to count.
The chapter concludes by questioning what gives stone circles their power. It can’t simple be their scale or the work involved, says Parker, as there are many larger man-made objects. After considering some sort of healing effect, Parker concludes that they put us in touch with a deeper sense of time: “maybe, just maybe, something of what we are and do might endure beyond our scores of years”.