Re-tracing the Pennine Way with Simon Armitage

I started reading Walking Home, Simon Armitage’s book on the Pennine Way, just before Armitage was appointed Poet Laureate – and I considered giving up on the book right then. Benjamin Zephaniah has already explained why honours in the name of the British Empire are a bad thing:  Armitage has compounded the shame of his CBE with his recent appointment as a paid flunky.

Still, Walking Home is not a bad book. At the start, Armitage slightly oversells the toughness of the walk – I guess he’s trying to add some drama – but I’ve seen some fairly unfit people get by just through persevering. The book that follows is a gentle description of the people he meets, the scenery and his poetry gigs along the way.

The best thing about the book was reliving the trail. Armitage does it in the less popular direction (i.e. into the wind) and was unluckier with the weather than most people – his experience of Pen-y-ghent was as rough as mine. There are some great descriptions, particularly an early one of the Cheviots – “The view in every direction is delicious: a solar system of summits, majestic but benign hills overlaid with lush grass and the odd rectangle of planted conifer., And, somewhat incongruously, in the far distance to the east, the sea.

While Armitage says he wouldn’t walk the trail again, the book made me want to go back, not least because of things I’d missed. For once, I didn’t realise that Jodrell Bank was visible from the Pennine Way. And I’d love to walk the Cheviots again.

There’s something interesting about how walkers can have such different experiences of the same path. It reminded me of the way we interpret texts differently, based on what we bring to it ourselves, and the conditions at the time. The route might be the same, but the walk is different – just like we have different readings of the same text.

And there are similarities too. Armitage had the same sensations of space as I did, the amazement that our ‘overcrowded island’ contains areas so wild, so barren. Armitage also wonders about the flagstones, a thing of controversy for some walkers, since they make difficult paths accessible in tough weathers. Armitage points out that these huge stones are sinking and will, in time, disappear into the moorland.

The most disappointing thing about the book is that Armitage does not actually complete the trail – he abandons the final day for the comforts of home. I’ve spoken before about how we pick our own rules for hiking. But when you’ve chosen the terms of your walk, you have to complete it on those terms. Armitage’s failure to complete the last stage is only mentioned at the end of the book, where he tries to frame it as something that doesn’t really matter. This seemed dishonest.

Not completing the route is something of a trope in successful books about hiking, as Robert Moor pointed out in a 2015 New Yorker article, Why the Most Popular Hiking Memoirs Don’t Go the Distance. Discussing Bill Bryson’s A Walk in the Woods, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild, and Paul Coehlio’s The Pilgrimage, Moor asks “why are the three most famous accounts of hiking three of the world’s most famous long-distance trails written by people who did not hike the whole distance?” It’s a good question, and Walking Home provides further evidence that this is indeed A Thing.

Returning to the London Road Stone Circle

 

Back in August 2017, I blogged about a walk around the London Road stone circle. Last week, I repeated the journey with a friend who lives nearby. It looks like a few of the stones have been lost to development, and that it might be time to form a London Road Stone Circle Conservation Alliance.

The circle itself dates back to 2014/5, and was placed there by an artist’s group, The Brighton School, with the assistance of  the council. It was funded by European Regional Development Fund, along with local developers under section 106. The artwork consists of numbered stones embedded in the pavement, in a circle that passes through Preston Circus, the level and Brighton station. It claims to be the first urban stone circle, and is a great addition to the environment of London Road.

We started with the first stone, at the south-west corned of Preston Circus. Despite the superstition that it is unlucky to count standing stones, we followed our way from 1-50. A few times the numbers leapt up suddenly with no explanation. There was a section on Stanley road that went straight from 14-7 according to the map we had. My friend Laura suggested the stones might have moved, like in the film Labyrinth.

Drawing of stone 25 by Laura Ryan (lauraryan.co.uk)

The ones in the Level have been marked with scratches – perhaps the local tribes are superstitious, and have scratched the surface of the stones to ward off bad luck?

I think some of the stones were hidden in gardens when the circle was made and are genuinely inaccessible. But others are being lost due to development. We found stone 40 on Blackman Street, but couldn’t find another until 43, up near Brighton station. According to shardcore, 42 “survived the station renovation and is now visible again”, but 41 appears to have been buried under the new Unity building.

For me, this artwork is a powerful and moving engagement with place. The circle passes through several places that I’ve lived and loved, connecting them. It adds a shared myth to a place that definitely needs one; and it is now facing the first signs of neglect. I know there are bigger problems in Brighton; but I also think this is something worth protecting and keeping.

 

 

 

A Walk Across the Downs

In the run-up to the Cerne-to-CERN pilgrimage, a tarot deck was compiled: each pilgrim had to create an image for the deck to represent themselves. My card was The Walker, because of the importance walking has to me. But, as we were reminded by the Book of Synchronicity during the pilgrimage: “More deeds and fewer words”. Despite being The Walker, I’ve not done all that much walking recently.

So, I’ve started wearing my fitbit and feeding it 10,000 steps a day. While the benefits of fitness trackers are debated, they’re good for establishing a basic threshold.

And I decided to do a bit of proper hiking last week. I got up early on Thursday morning and took the train to Amberley to join the South Downs Way. I was on the trail by 7:20am, possibly earlier than I needed to be.

Given I was on my local trail, and one I’d walked before, I was very casual about setting out – no hat, no suncream, only a little water. I didn’t remember the first bit of the trail, and I was nervous about finding my way – I had no map or guidebook for the day’s first section. But every trail has a grammar to their signposts. Some, like the Limestone Way are poorly marked, but the SDW has  regular signs, and it’s easy to tell if you’re straying – particularly with a quick check on google maps (yup, all the art’s going out of hiking).

It was good to be in the countryside. From the field beside me a flock of songbirds noisily took to the air, and I wish I’d installed that Shazam-for-birds app. It was almost an hour before I encountered anyone, a woman walking seven dogs. She was grateful for the weather being better than the day before, so that  she wouldn’t have to dry all the animals. I said I thought the job would be better than being in an office, even on a rainy day. She’d had such a job for twenty years, she told me, and became a dog-walker after being made redundant. It didn’t look like a bad life.

I stopped for a first break (and coffee) after almost exactly an hour, having eased the Fitbit past 10,000 steps. There aren’t many great places to sit on the South Downs Way, but I found a wooden fence bar and sat there – it looked sturdy enough. About to start eating, I shifted and found myself on my back, looking at the sky. The fence was less robust than I’d thought. I fixed it up, then found somewhere better to sit.

I took the second section slower, but a mere 8,000 more steps took me to Chanctonbury Ring, and it would have been a shame not to stop there. Immediately after that, I could see the i360, meaning that just a couple of hours into the walk, it felt like I was almost home.

The third section was the longest, from Chanctonbury Ring to the Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel. To get there I had to cross the Adur Valley and the A283. It’s a somewhat depressing section, as the west side of the valley goes through a large pig farm. The sight of so many doomed animals makes the atrocity of the meat industry feel very present, in a way that the cows and sheep I saw earlier hadn’t. I’d been reading about another environmental obscenity the day before, the Apple Airpod, and dark thoughts gathered with the rainclouds.

I listened to some music as I walked across the Adur valley, just ahead of the incoming rain showers – Nick  Cave’s Skeleton Tree, since the first song mentions the River Adur. I remembered once being told about a concept in Basque mythology, Adur, described to me as how everything that has a name exists.

Whenever I pass people and I’m listening to headphones, I take one of the ears out so I can say hello. It seems unfriendly to be walking past people and not being present in their environment. Maybe it’s silly, but I always felt annoyed when mountain bikers would roar past me on the South Downs Way, listening to music and ignoring other people.

Beeding Hill is a slog. I rushed up on my first time walking the Way, desperate to get it over with. A mile from the top is the Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel; I arrived there at noon and stopped for lunch in the cafe. Another forty minutes after lunch took me to Devil’s Dyke. It was only early, but I couldn’t be bothered with the trudge down to Hove, so called an Uber just before half one. The 18 miles had taken just over six hours, much faster than I should have walked.

But it was good to get out on the Downs again, to remind myself how much I enjoy walking. More, soon.

Walking and magic: Werner Herzog’s Of Walking in Ice

There are many examples of walking as a spiritual practise, but relatively few of walking as a magical act. One example comes from the film director Werner Herzog, whose text, Of Walking in Ice, is a remarkable little book. I first heard of it from Warren Ellis.

“it’s the story of Werner Herzog’s walk from Munich to Paris to visit a dying friend — on the magical belief that if he walked there, the friend would not die. That’s six hundred miles. It’s kind of heartbreaking, in its way. And it’s the dead of winter, so Herzog is walking face-first into horizontal snowstorms for a lot of it. But it’s also very beautiful”

Herzog travelled through the bitterness of winter, in November and December 1974, because he felt German cinema could not manage without the critic Lotte Eisner.  Ellis describes it as “weirdly life-affirming, even as he treads through the dead world towards a deathbed”. Herzog is ill-prepared, and forced to break into holiday homes for shelter. Strange little narratives intrude upon the text, sometimes dreams, sometimes flights of fancy. The trudge of hiking is summoned almost as well as it is in the walking classic, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road.

There are issues with the book. Some people will consider Herzog as cheating when he accepts lifts – but then the rules of walking are very much set by oneself. There’s also a slightly strange manner in which Eisner’s sickness becomes a reason for Herzog’s quest, while not informing it very much. Her illness turns into his story, something that he has power over.

My edition of the book was missing what I consider the ending of the story. Herzog reached Eisner, and she survived her illness, going on to live until 1983. I can’t find a reference for it, but the story I was heard was that Eisner grew tired of life and asked to be released from the magic. Apparently, some editions include the valedictory speech where Herzog performed this mercy: “Lotte Eisner, we want you with us even when you are a hundred years old, but I herewith release you from this terrible incantation. You are now allowed to die. I say that without any frivolity, with deep respect for death, which is the only thing we can be sure of.

As Geoff Nicholson points out in The Lost Art of Walking, “Walking in order to keep somebody alive, may be eccentric in the extreme, but if it works, then maybe there’s nothing eccentric about it whatsoever

Brexit Hiking: Who had the better march? (part 1)

We’re not going to settle the leave or remain argument, so let’s talk about who had the better march last weekend.

 

Long after all this is over, school children will write essays on the 2016 referendum: 15 marks for a summary of whose argument was more compelling, making sure to consider the claims of both sides. The marking scheme will call for answers that provide a balanced argument, with the benefit of hindsight.

None of those children will understand how batshit crazy this all feels, and how irreconcilable the two sides are. Leave or remain is not something that can be solved with rational debate. I’m not even sure it matters – the bitter division in the country might actually prove more dangerous than either option, leave or remain.

How much better if we settled this, not with anger, death threats and eventually violence, but through the medium of hiking?

 

I did a bad thing this weekend. I know I was supposed to go to London to march with the million. But I wanted to catch up with family and, you know, I still feel disappointed over the Iraq march. No, not the big one everyone went to, but the next one, in March 2003, after the bombs started dropping, when most of you didn’t bother. So I went to the Midlands instead of to London.

But then I realised that the other march, the leave one, was passing near the Burt family estate, so I decided to pop by to take a look.

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Cock. I’ve turned up at the wrong march.

I missed the Saturday march, which included an appearance from Nigel Farage cameo (described by my friend DaveP as the Earth-1218 version of Sir Jim Jaspers). The times on the march invite were vague, so we went along later, arriving after the speeches happened and the walkers set off. We drove around looking for the marchers, couldn’t find them, and I realised I was near Sherwood Forest, and eight-year-old me is still disappointed at never having seen the Major Oak, so we went there instead. So that was good.

The Major Oak
The Major Oak

The Remain march took place on March 22nd. It was organised by the People’s Vote and travelled a mile or so through central London. Estimates are that a million people took part, making it one of the largest political protests in British history.

The March to Leave is a cover version of the Jarrow March, travelling from Sunderland to London. It set off on March 16th, aiming to arrive in London on March 29th – orginally planned as Brexit day, now just Friday. A core group of about 75 marchers are joined by local people each day, with speeches as they set off. These core marchers paid £50 through PayPal, and received accommodation as well as food and transfers to the start and end points for each day. This is actually a pretty good deal if you wanted to do a hike.

The March to Leave’s website describes their aims:

It is now clear the Westminster elite are preparing to betray the will of the people over Brexit. To counter this, Leave Means Leave are undertaking a peaceful protest to demonstrate the depth and breadth of popular discontent with the way Brexit has been handled. The UK has a long history of successful popular protests, where the establishment have been forced to deliver much-needed reform by widespread demonstrations of large scale dissatisfaction.

One of the most common arguments given by the leave side is about democracy, and the March to Leave claims that, given the referendum saw the highest turnout in a UK ballot, “Failing to deliver a true Brexit will permanently damage the British people’s faith in democracy.

I am not sure what a true Brexit is, as it was not one of the options on my ballot paper. Any research I do for this essay is unlikely to answer any questions about Brexit. And then there are the associated questions about democracy. Throughout the last two years, we’ve been talking about different ways of deciding the ‘will of the people’. Does a referendum trump MP’s votes? Does a petition cancel out a referendum if it hits the same numbers? Does a political party leader gain their power and authority from the country, their voters, their party members or their MPs?

These are not questions I am qualified to answer. Instead I will stick to my area of expertise. I am quite capable of figuring out which of the two events was the better hike: the ‘Put it to the People’ march, or the ‘March to Leave’?

 

Broadly put: remain had the numbers, leave has the distance. Does a million people walking a single mile trump a couple of hundred people walking a couple of hundred miles?

A lot of people are mocking the March to Leave, claiming they are not doing the hike ‘properly’. ‘Proper hiking’ is something I have strong feelings about. I have watched and occasionally participated in debates about whether it counts if you miss a bit, whether you have to walk to the accommodation, and what needs to be carried. I might not be able to solve the Brexit crisis, but I am qualified to judge the two marches as hikes.

But I’ll stop there for now. Next up, will be my account of my visit to the March to Leave.

 

A story of hyperpedestrianism, and two walks

The random page link on wikipedia is amazing. Sampling the site in this way gives you an idea of the shape of the what’s recorded there, and how odd it can be (there is an a list fictional pigs.  Really, fictional pigs!) And the random pages sometimes offer trailheads to strange explorations and wikiholes.

One recent trail led me to Captain Barclay, who trained the bare-knuckle boxer Tom Cribb; but he is more famous for hyper-pedestrianism. In 1809 he took a bet to walk 1000 miles in 1000 hours, walking a mile each hour. A huge crowd gathered to watch him, and kept getting in the way, almost putting his endeavour at risk. People were so excited about the end of the walk that every available guest room in Newmarket, Cambridge and the vicinity was taken.

In 1864, a woman named Emma Sharp set out to duplicate this feat. I’d not heard of her before, but there is a contrast between her attempt and Captain Barclay’s. She completed the challenge on 29th October. Wikipedia states “[Sharp] rested in the Quarry Gap pub in between walking approximately two mile stints every 90 minutes and completing 14,600 laps of 120 yards over the course of 1000 hours.” And then continues, “It is reported that her food was drugged and people attempted to trip her to prevent her from finishing, for the last two days she carried a pistol to protect herself.”

Wikipedia mentions there was a great deal of money wagered on Sharp, and many accounts so this was why she was harrassed. But this is a story I’d love to know more about – more than can fit into a wikipedia page.

Still seeking the Man in the Iron Mask

There was an excellent article in this month’s Fortean Times, Walking around the World: From the Annals of Human Hyperpedestrianism. This is the first of a pair of articles from Jan Bondeson, and is an excerpt from their book The Lion Boy and other Medical Curiosities.

A few years back, I wrote a chapter in the Odditorium book about a mysterious walker called Harry Bensley. I’ve been obsessed with the story since 1998, when I read about it over breakfast in a Norwich Guesthouse. Over the years I found various English newspapers which described Bensley’s lecture tour in 1908, before he set off. It is claimed that Bensley had almost completed the challenge by 1914, but there is little evidence of him actually making the journey.

Bondeson’s article tells the story of George Matthew Schilling, who was born in Pittsburgh, in 1874. After causing a stir by walking 1000 miles in 21 days, Schilling took another bet and set out on 3rd August 1897 to walk around the world. A boxing-and-theatre impressario had offered a wager of $5,000.

Like Bensley’s challenge, Schilling’s bet had a number of strange conditions, including not being allowed to beg, borrow or spend money. Schilling set off dressed in a suit of newspaper and went from New York to Southern California, where he couldn’t find a ship to carry his dog, causing him to travel yet further to Vancouver. He later travelled Australia, giving talks about his adventures.

By August 1900 Schilling reached Colombo, in what is now Sri Lanka, and reached South Africa in October 1901. Despite an extension due to wars on the way, Schilling lost the bet, and in November 1904 he reached London, giving further lectures around the UK. He remained in Britain for many years, performing stunts to make money. He returned to the US in 1914 and died there in 1920.

The story of Schilling reads like a template for Benson’s adventures, but with more evidence of him actually doing the walk. There are even earlier stories, like a Russian called Greathead, who was bet in a Vancouver club that he could not travel the world without money or luggage. It’s really exciting to learn that Bensley fitted into an ongoing tradition, and a shame I had not found more trace of this myself.

Bondeson’s article is the first of two, and ends with a tantalising mention of “The Masked Walker (who we will meet in a future issue) [who] was a hoaxer who never left England”. Hopefully, Bondeson can settle the story of Harry Bensley.

The North Downs Way Stage 3

(This walk was actually at the end of April and is the most recent stage of the North Downs Way. Progress has been slower than we’d like, but we should be finished in the Autumn)

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1 – The third stage of the North Downs Way was an odd one. The scenery was slightly underwhelming compared to the previous sections. Cramped accommodation and long days made tempers fray – finding suitable places to sleep has become more difficult, as has the logistics for the start and end of the trails. And there was something odd about the whole weekend. The death of my phone at the start (which also meant no camera) felt like an omen. I passed through the five stages of grief about the device as the weekend continued. The photos here were taken by Katherine (except for one).

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2 – It took a long time to find our way back to the Way. I parked my car on a country lane and we followed a road route to the trail. It looked all right on the map, but turned out to be a fast road with no pavement hedges either side. We kept in close, cars forced to go around us.

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3 – The overall impression of the walk was the bluebells. The first day we walked through places thick with them. We saw fewer bluebells on the second day; Bluebell Hill wasn’t.

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4 – We crossed the Medway at the start of the second day. It’s an impressive bridge, passing high above buildings and water. Racist graffiti was scrawled on the Samaritans sign, “All w–s and non-UKs can jump”. The small sad ways that national politics stirs up local hate.

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5 – Travelling further along the trail, I begin to confuse the cafe and restaurant staff. They assume one of the women has ordered the vegetarian breakfast, and put meat in front of me. When they enter a restaurant ahead of me, I get asked how many of us there are. And they assume I must be drinking beer not wine.

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6 – It was a good walk. We walked through dandelion druff in the morning air, and in the afternoon the air was thick with fat flies. I loved the cross on the edge of the hills, a pack of wild horses standing nearby. As usual, I was surprised at how few people were out on the path. The contrast between these trails and the city I live in is massive.

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7 – Hidden by the side of the path, a cache of books for sale.

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The Pennine Way Day 4

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1 – Day 4 of the Pennine Way started with one of the most difficult bits of hiking I’ve done. The forecast had predicted rain, and I’d hoped that we would be lucky and the storms would pass us by. No such luck. We set out in wet-weather gear, heading into town with Emma and Charlie. After separating, Dave and I followed the path along the canal. Soon after, it took a steep turn uphill.

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2 – If Dave had suggested jacking it in at that point, I would have gladly done so. I’ve never been so close to giving up on a walk. Looking at the book last night, I learned that this was one of the most difficult ascents of the entire walk.

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3 – As the saying goes, there is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing. We were lucky this was on our last day, as it was a good lesson. I’m going to invest in some better rain gear than my poncho. I’m also going to have a change of clothes waiting at the car for all future walks. Despite the rain, the day was better than pretty much any day that I’ve spent in an office.

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4 – One of the interesting things about a trail like this is that you hear about the people ahead of you. We knew there was an Australian woman ahead of us and we finally met her on the final day. We decided to walk together, which was an interesting change of pace (and conversation). The Pennine Way was the first of a series of adventures around the world that Carolyn had planned.

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5 – It turned out on this walk that Dave is incredibly good at recognising different types of birds. He also knows a lot about farming. I learned that it isn’t possible for sheep to deliver triplets without human intervention – without help, the third always suffocates. The sheep were full of bedraggled lambs, which Dave told were about a day old. Our group was silenced by the sight of a dead one in the grass.

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6 – I need to do a whole post on walking and Lord of the Rings. Tolkein’s classic is basically a book about hiking with a load of battle scenes thrown in. I think this is something the movies got wrong, not paying enough attention to the walking. Our walk had its Tolkeinesque moments, with Hebden Bridge providing our hearty Rivendell-style welcome. And, tramping along the damp moorland paths, it was easy to recall the grim tramping of the second book.

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7 – We crossed the moors towards Top Withens, a ruined famouse that is said to be the inspiration for Wuthering Heights – despite looking nothing like the house in the book, and there being no evidence for a link. A slightly sniffy sign protests its own presence, saying it is only there because of tourist demand. I was more than ready to take shelter behind the ruined walls. Fortunately Dave looked round the side and found a dry indoor shelter. I’ve been in posh hotels that felt less welcoming and luxurious than this hut with its dirt floor. It was so good to be somewhere dry for a bit.

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8 – We said farewell to Carolyn at Ponden and then walked on to Stanbury. A succession of buses and trains took us back to Edale where we’d started the walk. The first quarter of the Pennine Way was complete. We’re going to continue in September.

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This Way: Brighton, Lewes, Rottingdean

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Some time back, a friend of mine produced a map of footpaths between Brighton and Lewes. I followed one of the two routes on my birthday last year. I’d not got around to doing the other, but needed a route to walk as practise for the Ridgeway (I’m walking with someone who has not done a long day’s hike). So, on Sunday, I walked to Lewes and back.

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The route goes along Brighton seafront to Rottingdean before turning North and passing through the abandoned village of Balsdean. A path through a field of crops eventually leads to Kingston and Lewes. On the way back the route followed the Juggs Road for much of the way, re-entering Brighton near Woodvale Cemetary.

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It was a good walk. I exhausted myself and got sunburned, but it was so nice to get out for the day.The whole route turned out to be about 50,000 steps, which my fitbit claimed was about 22 miles. It’s probably nearer 18 miles and we did it quite quickly, not stopping for long breaks. We stopped for lunch in Lewes where we overheard a conversation at the cafe about the kitchen clock being slow. Apparently this always happens, because the works get gummed up with grease.

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I’d somehow not walked Juggs Road before. This was the old route used to carry fish from Brighton to Lewes by donkey. It featured an impressively steep hill that nearly got the better of me on such a hot day. According to the Internet, a jugg is a name for Brighton fishermen, or a basket for carrying fish. The Revd WD Parish’s sussex dictionary suggests that Jug(g) is a generic nickname for Brighton people.

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Once summer calms down a little, I am heading to Bath to try out the second This Way map.