A Year Writing About the South Downs Way

It’s a year today since I started working on my project about the South Downs Way. What started as a theme for some linked short stories has sprawled in the most amazing manner, and become something much more ambitious. This is by far the largest writing project I’ve worked on.

The full project will emerge as around 150 short stories all based upon the hiking trail. One of my favourite things about hiking is how the stories of the landscape and the walkers intertwine. There are the stories of the places you pass through, and the stories you swap with your companions. And then there are people you encounter, the little things they tell you. This is something you only experience when travelling at two miles an hour and I wanted the collection to capture this.

I’ve spent most of my life in Sussex, so my own stories are spread out along a section of this trail. But I want this to be more than just an anthology of Sussex stories (with a few in Hampshire on the west end of the trail); I want this to be a novel. During my MA, Nicholas Royle made a passing comment that “you can’t make a novel out of vignettes”. Producing the satisfaction of a novel from tiny independent stories is going to be tricky, but I’m sure I can pull it off.

I’ve produced three books so far. While the nights are drawn in, and I’m walking on the Downs less, I’ve been re-organising things a little, and preparing lots of new stories to add to the 44 published this year.

The South Downs Way: Part 3 published

It’s the last day of September, and I’ve just got hold of copies of my latest collection of stories about the South Downs Way. I’m really pleased with how this has turned out. There’s a mix of stories here, but I’m starting to see how the whole collection will fit together.

If you’d like a copy, let me know in the comments and I will put one in the post to you.

Now to start work on part 4. I’m considering not finishing the stories on physics just yet. Instead I’m thinking about writing a collection of stories about shepherds, churches, the devil, and the shepherd god Hastur. Let’s see.

We need a new calendar!

One of the strange things about the pandemic is not having plans for the future. My calendar used to be packed. Even as the world starts to recover, I still have mostly blank squares ahead of me.

Someone joked about how Groundhog Day in the pandemic wouldn’t work, as it would be days before Bill Murray’s character realised things were repeating. In Brighton, we’ve lost the normal markers of the year. The Fringe Festival and Pride were cancelled, along with various smaller events and parties. Some people have joked that we in an endless March, and there is an online calendar suggesting that the date is March 179th 2020 .

It got me thinking about something John Higgs wrote about the Celtic calendar in his book Watling Street.

The old Celtic calendar comes from a time when life did not change rapidly… it divides time up into chunks of about six weeks, each separated by a party, which is an agreeably human way to think about your life. It tells you that things more than six weeks away are things that you don’t need to worry about yet.

That sounds quite promising. The end of this pandemic is more than six weeks off, but maybe it’s best not to worry about exactly how far beyond the horizon it is. And a celebration every six weeks would certainly help to break up time until then. As John writes, “The Celtic calendar doesn’t come with quite the same level of stress and anxiety as the Gregorian one.”

There are lots of other possibilities that can be brought in. Some friends of mine bought a French Revolutionary Calendar, and celebrated Jour de la vertu with a running race. Rosy always makes sure to celebrate Patrick Swayze’s birthday on August 18th. (I missed it this year, but will be watching Roadhouse on Netflix this weekend). November brings Diwali, which will be difficult for some of my colleagues this year, but I will try to do something to mark it for my team. And, as an Erisian, I could also add in The Discordian Calendar.

But the Celtic Calendar looks like a good basic rhythm for pandemic time. The next celebration is the September Equinox on September 22nd (also the first day of the French Republican Calendar). This is known as Mabon and is a harvest festival. In a world without crowds we need new new festivals – possibly asynchronous ones that allow people to gather and meet in abstract ways. But we still need to celebrate.

Two Short Walks on the South Downs Way

I feel like I’ve been suffocating this summer: sitting indoors, every day the same, becoming so bored that I pretty much stopped walking. At the start of August, I decided to waste no more days sitting inside. Last Saturday (the 15th), I headed to Pyecombe with a couple of friends and set off east towards Ditchling Beacon.

The day was overcast and cloudy, with visibility heavily restricted. Coming up from Pyecombe it felt as if we were heading in the wrong direction until we reached the ridge on the Downs.

It was another day of excellent foraging. The brambles were thick with fruit, all freshly-washed by the rain.

We stopped for lunch under a thorny tree where the ground was dry, just near an empty dew pond, and shared our picnic lunch. It was a place I’ve stopped before.

The coffee wagon was at Ditchling Beacon, same as it had been the last time I’d been here, just before lockdown. We bought drinks for the next stage of the journey, cutting back through the hills to the woods near Stanmer Park. Here, someone had written ominous messages in chalk on the trees:

The Stanmer estate was as lovely as ever. And it was good to see the sculpture near the house, which we used to refer to inaccurately as ‘the bear tree’.

It was a good short walk, and I’d avoided the promised storms once again. I was starting get complacent, telling my friend on the Sunday walk that the weather would be OK, whatever the forecast said. (Besides which, as they say, there’s no such thing as bad weather, only a poor choice of outfit).

We took the train to Southease where we joined the South Downs way, intending to walk west until we reached the A27 crossing, when we would head back into Brighton.

It’s a familiar stretch of path, but one I love. There is the Norman church at Southease, with its round tower, currently closed:

Between Southease and Rodmell is a lovely valley, which heads towards Telscombe if followed all the way.

As we headed onto the yellow brick road, we could hear thunder behind us, and Seaford was blotted out by the clouds. We were going to be caught in the rain. It wasn’t the epic storm we’d been promised, with a disappointing lack of lightning, but it was wet. The choices were to head straight to Lewes (2 miles away), head to the coastal fringe to get an Uber (3 miles), or carry on the the current walk. My friend was getting soaked so we decided to head down the hill to Kingston and, from there, aim for Lewes Station, guided in by the This Way markers. The route led us along the meadows to the edge of Lewes.

The highlight of the walk was the wild sunflowers growing near the yellow-brick road. Two short walks across a weekend, but good opportunities to explore small slices of the South Downs Way. And both walks, despite the weather, were better than staying cooped up indoors.

Amberley to Devil’s Dyke

I booked a Thursday off to do some hiking, waking up ridiculously early to travel to Amberley before rush hour. I’m not actually sure whether rush hour is a thing that still happens, but decided not to find out. My colleagues had warned me that there would be thunderstorms all day, and when I left home at 5am it was raining after days of hot weather. The weather turned out to be pretty mild, with some cooling winds.

I’d walked this route recently, and I remembered the way pretty well, knowing the paths before I saw the signposts – including the first devious turn where the signpost is hidden by a fresh growth of bushes. It took a little time to get my muscles moving. After my last trip, I’d actually packed enough water, so my rucksack was heavier than usual.

I ate breakfast on a hill barrow. The path around Amberley is a good one, bouncing over hilltops where you can’t see too far ahead, and there are always new views unrolling. All along the way were bushes thick with blackberries and I plucked a couple of them, loving the sweet taste and crunching the pips.

The walk is a familiar one – along the hilltops towards the Adur valley, passing through a pig farm on one side, then Truleigh Hill on the other, before following the edge of the Downs to the Dyke. I think the bullet-riddled roadsign on the A24 has been replaced, but still has the ‘bullet holes’. I also passed three signs within a short distance of the road which gave different distances to the Adur.

I reached Chanctonbury Ring about 10am, where I stopped and read for a while. I am writing about that stretch of the walk for someone else, so I won’t not talk about it here. It was a good, calm walk, relaxed and enjoyable, more so than the frantic ones in the first days after lockdown was lifted.

A while back, I went to a talk by writer Tristan Gooley. He’s an excellent public speaker, and in an hour gave the audience the feeling that, just by paying more attention, we could understand the landscape. And, a few days ago, I read a piece in the Guardian about Nick Hayes’ Book of Trespass. Walking along, I thought about how, in the English landscape, there is more that needs to be understood about fences than birds.

The South Downs Way ran between two fences much of the way. Most of the time, the ownership is hidden. I can’t read the landscape in terms of ownership, and how I’m not supposed to. And then I found a little sign on a fencepost, showing the local farmer. It told me that the land I walked through was owned by ‘The Norfolk Estate’. This is actually owned by a hereditary line dates back to the 13th Century and King Edward I.

Another thing I’d been reading recently was James Meek’s How to Grow a Weetabix an excellent article about farming, which looked at the economics – how much the subsidies paid to some of the richest landowners are. There has been so much in the press about the difficult financial problems farmers have. The solutions always involve subsidies of one sort or another – rather than, say, removing the rent on the land they pay for. And why are the richest people in the country receiving subsidies in the first place?

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.

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.

The Uncanny Landscapes Podcast: Problems with Nature Writing

Justin Hopper, author of The Old Weird Albion, recently launched a podcast called Uncanny Landscapes. The first episode contained an interview with Angus Carlyle, a writer I’d not heard of before, but whose books I immediately hunted out.

The interview with Carlyle described something that has troubled me for a while. Carlyle was discussing the compilation of two of his books, Nightblooms and A Downland Index. Nightblooms contains poetry and photographs taken with a smartphone and torchlight while running on the downs. A Downland Index consists of a hundred pieces, each 100 words long.

Both books were initially written as entries on social media platforms – A Downland Index as “an obscure Tumblr”, and Nightblooms on Twitter and Instagram. While the use of these services in the book’s production is not foregrounded, Carlyle says that he was fascinated by the relationship between the timestamps used in these services, which put the uploaded item into an almost-legal framework, and the ambiguity of the thing being timestamped.

Carlyle used this to explore his feelings about nature writing. For Carlyle, such books depend on a “mantle of truth-telling“, but it is hard to know how authentic this is: “Did they really know at this time they described themselves knowing it?” There seems to be a “projection of a certain expertise… the nature writer is a virtuosic inhabitant of the familiar or unfamiliar. Even in the unfamiliar they rely on beautiful writing [or] a transparent reflection of their own emotions, reporting back their experience“. How do you seperate the lived experience from the writer’s later research?

The digital services used acted as witnesses to Carlyle’s immediate presence, exploring “how to use something as clean and digital and unnatural as the internet architecture around these clocks that are constantly logging activities like me uploading things… as a way of inserting some kind of doubt into the process of nature writing”.

It was an exciting discussion, and arrived while I was wrestling with a question around my own writing. I’d been asked to provide documentation of a favourite walk, but there seemed to be various traps around this. I did not want to fall into the role of a man wandering about noticing things then explaining them. Carlyle’s assertion of presense feels like an useful thing to consider.

I’m going to write more about Carlyle’s book soon, particularly A Downland Index. Indexes do not appear often enough in creative writing (one notable exception being JG Ballard’s story The Index.) Carylye begins his book with the index and it’s an interesting way to present a book. Why are there more entries for cars than chalk? How does this format affect my feelings about the coming book?

Justin’s podcast is beautifully produced, and his voice is perfect. The third volume arrived in my RSS reader, and I’m looking forward to listening to it this afternoon.

The Peaks of Brighton

I’ve always been a little jealous of people with the time and location to collect Munros and Wainwrights. All the interesting climbs in Britain are some distance from the south coast. The chalk geology of Sussex does not lead to exciting peaks – the highest point is a mere 280m, at Blackdown. I mean, it’s better than Essex (highest point 147m) or Norfolk (103m), but it’s not much.

In November 2017, the Brighton Urban Ramblers did a City Three Peaks, but they went for steepest streets rather than highest points, picking Dyke Road, Preston Drove, and Southover Street. Still, there are high points in Sussex, which means they can be collected.

There is a list of Brighton Hills in Tim Carder’s Encylopedia of Brighton which is reproduced on My Brighton and Hove, although the heights are given in feet. Taking an arbitrary cut-off at 100m, the ‘peaks’ within the borough are:

  1. 645 Bullock Hill, Woodingdean
  2. 584 Hollingbury, Patcham
  3. 580 Holt Hill, Patcham
  4. 534 Falmer Hill, off Falmer Road
  5. 531 near Pudding Bag Wood, StanmerPark
  6. 510 Varncombe Hill, Patcham
  7. 509 The Bostle, Woodingdean
  8. 503 Heath Hill, Woodingdean
  9. 485 Tegdown Hill, Patcham
  10. 476 on Ditchling Road south of Old Boat Corner
  11. 463 Race Hill, by Bear Road
  12. 435 Scare Hill, Patcham
  13. 430 in Stanmer Great Wood
  14. 430 Red Hill, Westdene
  15. 427 Sweet Hill, Patcham
  16. 417 Race Hill, by the Race Stands
  17. 417 Telscombe Tye, Saltdean
  18. 411 at Balsdean Reservoir
  19. 410 Ewebottom Hill, Patcham
  20. 398 High Hill, Balsdean
  21. 396 Whitehawk Hill, Brighton
  22. 387 Coney Hill, Westdene
  23. 367 Mount Pleasant, Woodingdean
  24. 355 on Dyke Road Avenue, near Dyke Road Place
  25. 352 Red Hill, Roedean
  26. 334 Tenant Hill, Saltdean

That is a lot of hills. I decided that a better starting point would be the trig pillars, since they should have good views and account for Topographic prominence. There is an excellent database of trigpoints at trigpointing.uk, which includes all the trig points around Brighton. Some of these are listed as destroyed, but are still useful target locations. Their catalogue of Brighton trig points includes 6 pillars:

I’m going to take this as the starting point for my ‘Brighton Peak bagging’, although it makes sense to expand this into the wider Brighton Downs – using the arbitrary definition of the area covered by Dave Bang’s book A Freedom to Roam Guide to the Brighton Downs. This would expand the area to cover Beeding Hill through to Lewes, also including the north slope of Clayton Hill and Ditchling Beacon. So far, I’ve done one of the trig points, now I just need to divide the others into a few sensible routes.

Anyone interested in joining me for a session of Brighton peak-bagging?

Microfiction collection: Days and Nights in W12 by Jack Robinson

I’d not heard of Jack Robinson before Tim Blackwell sent me a copy of his book Days and Nights in W12. It’s a stunning collection.

I love works made up of micro fictions. There are some great examples of this, such as David Eagleman’s book Sum, Einstein’s Dreams by Alan Lightman or Sarah Salway’s Something Beginning With. It’s tricky to get right, since it’s easy to sound glib with such short stories.

Robinson’s book consists of stories responding to photographs of W12. Obviously, I love this because the combination of text and pictures is what we do in the Not for the Faint-Hearted workshop. Robinson has some outrageous tall tales, doing a great job of describing and enchanting the city. You might describe this as a work of psychogeography, if we still used that word.

But it’s even better than that! It has an index. There aren’t enough works of fiction with indexes (JG Ballard once wrote a short story in the form of an index in his collection War Fever and it’s one of the best short stories ever). Robinson has cross-references between the stories too, recalling Geoff Ryman’s book ‘Internet novel’ 253.

I’d always loved the idea of writing microfictions about Brighton. But this book describes London so well that I don’t think I could write such stories about an urban area anything like as well.

As if there was no enough to love about this book already, Jack Robinson is a pseudonym. Tim pointed me towards an interview with the actual writer, Charles Boyle. He runs CB Editions, Robinson’s publisher, and there are several other writers on the list that are also Boyle’s alter-ego.

I can’t believe I hadn’t read Robinson before. These sort of discoveries are so exciting, as they suggest the possibility of other equally-thrilling books waiting somewhere for you. And I was so sure that the Glass Hotel would be my book of the year.