A River Walk (Lewes to Peacehaven)

I’m not a huge fan of riverside hikes. I hate how a long stretch of walking beside a meandering river covers so little distance. Despite that, when some friends suggested a walk along the Ouse I decided to join them.

I took my first trip on a train since March. The train station was strange and oppressive, and also very quiet. We set out for the Ouse via the ruins of Lewes Priory.

We’d started out early, but the heat was already brutal. I kept slathering on the suncream and went through my drinks faster than planned (last night I ordered a couple more aluminium bottles ready for future hikes this summer). Waterbirds darted about and, on the opposite bank were a menacing line of cows, the young ones sheltering in their parent’s shadows.

The landscape south of Lewes is beautiful, with views of Firle Beacon, Mount Caburn and Lewes castle. And, while the river was taking long loops it didn’t feel too irritating. As Frankie pointed out, it meant our view of the scenery kept changing. The route was more interesting than the equivalent section of the South Downs Way, where you have the same ridge of the hill ahead of you for hours.

We did walk a tiny section of the South Downs way when we met it at the Southease swing-bridge. We walked from one side of the bridge to the other than back to continue our journey along the Ouse’s west bank.

On the east side of the river, we found a short trail of muddy hoof prints.

We couldn’t follow the banks of the Ouse the whole way, since private property forced us inland near Piddinghoe. Instead we had to follow a fast stretch of road with little pavement – but at least it gave us some shade.

The river was very low and, in the end, only one of us took a dip. I sat on a bench and enjoyed the view of Itford Hill.

For some miles, we’d seen thick smoke rising from Newhaven. At Piddinghoe we encountered a couple of walkers who’d left the town for the day to avoid this cloud. When the wind changed for a time we could see and smell the smoke, so we decided to change our plan of heading to Newhaven and strike out south-west for Peacehaven.

There was a path clearly marked on the OS map, so we took that for it. I learned a useful lesson: just because a path is clearly marked, it doesn’t make it easy to navigate. This one was thick with brambles, some of which drew blood from Frankie’s legs. The branches were also thick with fruit, which I guess is a fair exchange, and Frankie emerged with an armful of forage. The hedge beside us was also full of butterflies.

The difficult part of the route did not last too long, but it was definitely one of those neglected paths which seem to have been actively made unwelcoming. The footpath was actually blocked at one point by a low fence.

But we did have some great views on our way to Peacehaven’s Centenary Park, from where we headed to the the meridien marker before taking an Uber home. It was a good day out, and walks in company are generally much more fun that solitiary ones – I even learned about how PCR testing works. And I managed to add another 10 meters towards my re-walking of the South Downs Way.

Thinking about other problems with nature writing

After encountering a reference in a review, I ended up reading a lot about Scottish writer Kathleen Jamie. To my shame, I’d not read her books before, although I’ve since picked up Findings on the Kindle. What attracted to me about Jamie was her aggressive critique of nature writing, particularly how it relates to class and gender.

Considering such things is not just virtue signalling on my part; and any responses need to go beyond writers just acknowledging their privilege. I think there is a deeper question about how people from comfortable backgrounds justify their writing (in the same way that many writers from minorities might feel forced to as a matter of course).

I’ve been thinking about this in relation to my writing about the South Downs Way. It’s not simply about being ‘better’, which reinforces the idea of writing as a competition for scarce audiences. For me, it is about being aware of what makes my writing worth showing to anyone else. If I simply write from a position of privilege, I am merely a ventriloquist for society. Instead, I need to ask what I can say that nobody else can, and make sure I am doing that.

Jamie wrote in her 2008 LRB essay:

What’s that coming over the hill? A white, middle-​class Englishman! A Lone Enraptured Male! … Here to boldly go, “discovering”, then quelling our harsh and lovely and sometimes difficult land with his civilised lyrical words.

Jamie is not fond of nature writing, saying in one interview I can’t even say the words ‘nature writers’, I can’t get it out of my gob … “. In an New Statesman piece, Death of the naturalist: why is the “new nature writing” so tame?, Mark Cocker linked Jamie to another writer, Jim Perrin, who

argues that new nature writing is quintessentially an urban literature with a primarily metropolitan audience. [Perrin] suggests that for both author and reader, engagement with nature is an act of remembrance rather than a daily, lived experience. Given that most Britons now dwell in cities, one could argue that it is therefore a perfect literature for our times.

As Cocker continues, this literature often involves:

clothing a landscape in fine writing, both the writer’s own and that of other historical figures… John Crace’s mischievous “Digested Read” for the Guardian of Macfarlane’s latest book, Landmarks, defines “Macfarlish” as “the process of praising other authors to make your own book better by association”

In a 2019 Guardian interview, Jamie talked about how “has been colonised – by middle-class white men“, suggesting that “if you understand how that’s happened, you understand the whole godforsaken political state of this country.” The same type of people as usual have emerged at the top of a field that Jamie says was “barely there” 15 years ago. The same calm competence ends up running things again.

One of the assumptions this leads to is the idea of ‘the wild’. This means different things to different people, depending on how secure they feel, their sense of safety, and, yes, their financial background:

There’s nothing wild in this country: every square inch of it is ‘owned’, much has seen centuries of bitter dispute; the whole landscape is man-made, deforested, drained, burned for grouse moor, long cleared of its peasants or abandoned by them…

James also points out that our relationship to the wild has changed because

with our (almost) guaranteed food supplies, motor engines, vaccines and antibiotics, [we] have begun to make our peace with these wild places, and to seek recreation in land which was once out to kill us, where we can be reassured, in some way

These points raised by Jamie link in with the issues raised by Angus Carlyle when he was interviewed on Justin Hopper’s Uncanny Landscapes Podcast. Where does the authority and competence of these writers come from. Kathleen Jamie describes our interaction with this figure:

The danger of this writing style is that there will be an awful lot of ‘I’. If there is a lot of ‘I’ … then it won’t be the wild places we behold, but the author. We see him swimming, climbing, looking, feeling, hearing, responding, being sensitive, and because almost no one else speaks, this begins to feel like an appropriation, as if the land has been taken from us and offered back, in a different language and tone and attitude. Because it’s land we’re talking about, this leads to an unfortunate sense that we’re in the company, however engaging, of another ‘owner’, or if not an owner, certainly a single mediator.

There is an important question here about how I write about the world around me. How can I move beyond an assumption of universality? How do I move beyond simply explaining, particularly when that act of explaining often masks an act of appropriation? How do I introduce a space for doubt, for appreciating the beautiful spectrum of approaches other people will bring to a natural space? I think there is a space to talk about my experience of landscapes, but I guess the question is how to do that without assuming that my subjective experience is everything.

Lockdown Day 142 – Winter is… approaching

It’s a shock to realise that it is over 140 days since I took the option to work from home because of the pandemic. I knew I would be away for a while, but I honestly expected things to be mostly back to normal during the summer. The Government has now has given up making any promises about an end to the crisis, let alone talking about ‘normality in twelve weeks’.

I’m struggling with how to live in this new world. Lockdown was relatively easy, as it was temporary and straightforward. All that was asked of most of us was to stay home. Now, we need to decide how to approach the current situation. How do we balance the need for human contact with the dangers of Covid-19?

(A good friend of mine has been suffering from ‘long-tail Covid’ and it is horrific. There is evidence of serious long-term heart and lung issues even after ‘recovery’. The longer I can avoid catching Covid-19, the better – hopefully, until after science has worked out how to limit the disease’s non-lethal effects.).

I was very lucky with the initial lockdown. I have a quiet flat to myself, my parents are relatively safe, and my employer has promised to make no redundancies in 2020. There were difficult points: I personally found the empty shelves very threatening; and, at one point, computer problems threatened to leave me isolated. But those problems are tame compared to most other people.

Winter is on it’s way, with the threat of renewed transmission of the virus. My best friend is moving to Norwich this week, and while I’m very excited about this, I’m also aware that this could leave me isolated. I need to work out how to make connections in the pandemic world, while staying safe.

(Zoom really doesn’t work for me. I spend much of my day on calls for work. And zoom is not a replacement for real-world communication. When you end a zoom call, a flat to myself feels like the loneliest place in the world).

I’m starting to think ahead to Winter. I’m considering what do I need in order to make my house calming and comfortable. I need to invest in a good raincoat for wet-weather winter walks. I’m looking for new people to do my daily walks with. And if the worst comes to the worst, I guess there’s always Animal Crossing.

Hiking the South Downs Way 1: Belle Tout Lighthouse to Alfriston

After very little recent hiking (my last proper walk was June 20th), it was good to get out again. Even on the day itself, it was hard to leave the safety of my nest, but worth it once I was out. I’m hoping to walk the whole of the South Downs Way in August/September, so this 9 mile section was a good start.

Obviously, the Belle Tout lighthouse is not a traditional starting point for the South Downs Way. Katharine thought the trail started from Beachy Head, and I thought she wanted to keep the distance down. Either way, we will have to come back and do that missing three mile section. It’s an opportunity for me to walk the Jevington route, the alternative path for cyclists.

The weather was pretty much perfect for hiking – sunny but breezy, not too hot. My fitness wasn’t so good – I had to rest a few times when climbing the seven sisters. I’ve also developed a bad back during lockdown, and fell over when I slipped on one of the downhill sections.

But the white cliffs were stunning and we even had a flyby from a couple of spitfires, which performed acrobatics above Beachy Head.

At the end of the Seven Sisters was Cuckmere Haven. I recently read about how the valley was once filled with defences to resist the planned German invasion. From there we walked through Friston Forest through to Litlington, where Katharine spotted a turn I blithely missed. From there, we strolled the meadows leading to Alfriston, where we had lunch before heading home.

But, before leaving Alfriston, we popped into Much Ado Books. My first trip to an actual bookshop in months, but they made the whole thing friendly rather than weird. I ended up buying a couple of books, one on foraging, and one I couldn’t resist for the title, The Museum of Whales You Will Never See: And Other Excursions to Iceland’s Most Unusual Museums. I’ve been buying from that virtual bookshop recently, and I’d forgotten the joys of a proper bookshop.

The bookshop was giving out vintage postcards with all purchases, so I now have a lovely postcard of Budapest to send to someone. Also, usefully, there was a chart to help you see which authors are the same size as you.

After weeks without a proper hike, it was good to get out again. Katharine had been feeling the same frustrations as me about walking alone. We talked about old friends, future plans and our fears. The best conversations happen when hiking. Next up, we need to book in the Winchester leg.

Monthnotes: July 2020

July has been something of a nothing-month. I did no significant hikes, and had little energy or enthusiasm. The main thing that happened this month was a much-delayed trip to visit family. Other than that it’s daily walks and work.

My step count was 344,666, 10% lower than in June, despite July being a longer month. My lowest total was 10,211, barely above my target, my highest just 15,490. I used to hit my totals easily, running errands, commuting or visiting people. Now it’s a drag doing the bare minimum.

I watched 4 films, remarkably all of them in the same weekend. Rambo: Last Blood was both terrible and unpleasant; See You Yesterday was a good spin on time-travel films; Dolemite is My Name was fantastic. The biggest surprise was Everybody’s Everything, a documentary about L’il Peep, a soundcloud rapper who died at 21. This story was sad in some places and ridiculous in others. But it did a great job in telling the story of a scene and the people involved. I finished a handful of books, including Olivia Laing’s The Lonely City, which was gripping and uplifting.

(Oh – one film I almost forgot, the Netflix documentary about Walter Mercado, Mucho Mucho Amore)

While I’ve enjoyed the quiet of lockdown, enough is enough. I really need to think of things to do so that August’s monthnotes are longer and more interesting.