It’s here! The South Downs Way Volume 2: “The Devil”

Here it is! My second booklet of flash-fictions based around the South Downs Way. This one is about the Devil, a figure who is intimately connected to Sussex. The county contains a number of landmarks linked with him, including Devil’s Dyke and Chanctonbury Ring (if you run seven times round the trees at Chanctonbury at midnight he will appear to you). According to Bede, Sussex was the last place in the country converted to Christianity. It is still a strange and pagan place.

This is a more abrasive collection than the other one, but it’s also fun in places. I particularly enjoyed writing the character of the Devil, and may return to him later in the series.

If you’d like a copy, email me, or leave a comment on this page and I will put one in the post (I won’t publish any addresses written in the comments).

I’m not sure exactly how big this South Downs Way series will be. This is the second volume, I’ve drafted most of the third, and I have written significant portions of another two. I love digging into the history and folklore of Sussex, and the challenge of linking together independent stories. I suspect it will be around 12 collections of this size, but given how many stories are emerging it might even be a little longer. We will see. I am going to keep writing stories now until late August, when I make a selection for volume 3. I’m planning for the next collection to be exclusively made up of nice stories.

A Walk to the River Adur

I’ve mentioned recently about how frustrating Brighton is for hiking. We’re not supposed to take public transport unless necessary, so I’m currently confined to hikes that start from my house. There are only so many routes to the Downs within walking distance, all of which involve long stretches of built-up areas.

On the last day in May, rather than setting out West or North, I went West, striking out for Shoreham. This meant a long stretch of walking along low-grade industrial areas. I still found a few surprises, like this poem written on a piece of slate:

I took breakfast at the lighthouse, watching a boat come in, and was in Shoreham itself just before eight, joining the Downs Link Path near the Ropetackle Center.

I’ve talked in the past about how unsatisfying I found the Downs Link. As a former railway line, it’s straight and flat with trees blocking the views on both sides – although I was glad for the shade on this occasion. I imagine it is more fun to cycle the Downs Link than to walk – and there were lots of mountain bikers, some of them giving little quarter to pedestrians.

Near the old cement works, someone had stored the bases from the ornamental snails that had been placed around Brighton a couple of years back:

Walking by the Adur was pleasant. The river turns up in Nick Cave’s song Jesus Alone (You fell from the sky / Crash landed in a field / Near the river Adur / Flowers spring from the ground). The word Adur is also, by coincidence, a concept in Basque magic related to the magic of naming.

At one of the bridges across the Adur, the Downs Link crosses the South Downs Way. I had considered heading further west to Chanctonbury once I reached the South Downs Way, but I wasn’t in the mood for the 3-4 hour round trip, particularly when my big toes were still bruised from the Brighton and Hove Way the week before. Instead, I crossed the A283 and headed up Beeding Hill. I even took my hoodie off, since I’d remembered the sun cream this time. It’s a good little walk, and one I like.

Sometimes I wonder what I get out of these walks. I like the exercise, I like the scenery, but distancing is making me too aware of my familiarity with these paths. Also, the geology of Sussex is so fucking boring. The landscape has none of the interesting features found further North. The need to go out to the same places every weekend is draining some of the joy from walking. And having to walk alone underlines how much more I enjoy the social sides of walking.

At the Youth Hostel, I stop on one of the picnic tables, now placed to block access to the camping area. A couple of men pass on bikes, their stereo loudly playing Eminem, and I try not be be irritated by how they’ve inflicted their choice of music on other people.

The hills bounce towards Devil’s Dyke, and I’m thinking a question raised by a project I’m contributing to: how should writers record walks? There is a lot of writing about walking, some of it very good – The Salt Path is one of my favourite books. But nature writing and accounts of hiking can easily devolve to men wandering about, noticing things. It doesn’t matter how clever the noticings are, it’s still wearing. How do you write about place without devolving into that debased psychogeography which is men writing to show where they’ve been, like dogs pissing on fenceposts?

I wonder if I’m spending too much time by myself. I wonder what type of walking-writing I would most like to read, rather than that I find easiest to write. I have lived my entire life within sight of these hills, bar a few months here and there. Does that matter? Should it matter?

The Brighton and Hove Way

Bank Holiday Monday (May 25th) I woke with an headache like a hangover, which was disappointing since I’d not had a drink in days. I showered anyway, shouldered my pack and headed out to walk the Brighton and Hove Way, which I’d heard about through the Brighton Explorer’s Club. The Way’s website describes “the 27 Km trail” which takes in many of the hills around Brighton. It was pioneered in April 2017, and seemed like the perfect way to get out of doors and to see more of the area.

As a quick summary – it’s a great trail, albeit 27 miles rather than kilometres as the website promises. The scenery is excellent, although for a circular around Brighton, a 7 mile stretch of seafront walking is unavoidable. The paths taken are occasionally a little obscure and, even with the aid of a GPS route, I got lost in a few places. So, I would enthusiastically endorse the trail, with the reservation that you follow it a little loosely in places.

As I walked towards the seafront, I passed Small Batch, where a couple of the staff were collecting the post. It felt good to see them again, even if a re-opening is some time away.

The first bit of the trail was mundane, walking from Hove down to Saltdean, which took me through till 8am. I was better prepared than on my previous walk, with suncream and adequate water. As I entered Saltdean, I took my first wrong turn, missing the left at the church. Last time I’d been here, it was to cast proxy votes in the Referendum.

I joined up with my route from the week before, when I had come up from Rottingdean, and took my morning coffee in a small fairy ring.

At Balsdean reservoir, I had my first real problem with the trail. The path divided into two, with one part a familiar route to Balsdean, and the other off to the North West. According to the trail, the route I wanted went between these.

It wasn’t obvious where to go, but I found a stile hidden over the brow of the hill, which had a footpath sign, suggesting I was on the right track.

Despite the footpath sign, the trail here was not obvious, running alongside a buried fence.

In the next field, the path disappeared completely, despite being marked on the map and at the stiles.

The lambs from this spring were rowdy as I walked down into Balsdean valley. I needed the GPS app again to find the exact trail, which ran parallel to one that my OS map named “Snake Pass” – although this was much less grand than the one in Derbyshire. Here I had more trouble finding the right path, the apparent route blocked by thorns.

I left the valley by another route I’d used recently with my friend Sophie. From here I was on a familiar path to Woodingdean, and from there took the scenic B2123 to Falmer Village

In Falmer, the Way follows the boundary path around the university. This is a lovely bit of woodland, and it was good to be there: across the valley, I could see Park Village, my first residence in Brighton. The waypoints here were either slightly off or too far apart, and the exact path was a little hard to find.

Stanmer Park was lovely, with more woodland paths. After this, and on the other side of the road, was another tricky bit to navigate, where I found myself at a dead end. The Brighton and Hove Way makes excellent use of access land and obscure paths, which can be a little hard to follow. However, it was good to find some routes I’d never walked before – even if some of them were dead ends:

A short skip from here to the Chattri, where I terrified a woman as I emerged from the bushes, having once again strayed off the route. At the Chattri, I was still convinced that the trail was 27km, despite the mounting evidence to the contrary, and corrections from the Brighton Explorer’s Club Whatsapp Group. I found some shade here and had a nap.

The last stage crossed the A23, and passed through the Brighton and Hove Golf Club, along some lovely paths towards Portslade. I reached the outskirts of town at Foredown Tower, where I’d entered the Downs on a walk just before lockdown. There aren’t that many routes from Brighton onto the Downs.

From here it was a simple route back through Portslade, where the village was older and more interesting than I realised; then through a series of very busy parks between Portslade Village and the seafront. I decided against walking along the promenade as it was uncomfortably full, with closely-packed queues outside the off-licenses. The end of lockdown was apparent.

Conclusion – a good walk with a few obscure moments, but well worth doing.It would have been a little easier if I had a better idea of the distance, but that is my own fault. And I don’t think I’ve ever had a bad trip to Balsdean

How can I complain about a day’s walking with scenery like this?

Ways to Walk

For the time being, my walking is restricted to a daily exercise session, with longer hikes at weekends. I’m actually finding it quite boring and grind out my 10,000 steps on the same route most days. I miss walking with company. I’m finding it harder and harder to do a full session of walking in one go.

The Daily Mash gets it right

I made a list of things I could do to make my walking more interesting:

  • Alaistair Humphrey’s concept of microadventures are still possible under social distancing.
  • I’m not sure how geocaching is impacted by Covid-19, but there is only one way to find out.
  • A common technique for walking is to use a map for a different place. This emerged from the Situationists, and I once attended a tour of London as Tokyo led by the artist Momus. I’ve meant for years to map the 6.5 km of the main Varanasi riverfront onto Brighton seafront, so I guess I could get going with that.
  • The classic example of an imaginary walk is Albert Speer with his walks around Spandau, which he mapped onto a walk around the world. I could redo the Pennine Way over a month – 9 miles a day would take me the whole distance.
  • There are a number of audio walks available online. Some of these are art pieces, others tourist guides. These could be overlaid on familiar walks, looking for synchronicities.
  • Blake Morris has produced some scores for walking. I think Fluxus also produced something similar?
  • Or there is always the option of hiking in videogames, and just sacking off the whole step-count thing. The guardian has published articles on the 10 best walks in video games and has published a pandemic guide to virtual hiking (via Justin Hopper).
  • I have whole books on walking and art, featuring obscure examples as well as people like Richard Long or Mona Hatoum. These might have some good ideas.
  • I miss the foundwhilewalking hashtag, which was used by a number of Brighton people to share odd things they found when out and about. Rather than using photographs for this, it might be interesting to produce haiku (which would fit into some upcoming research for my South Downs Way project).
  • The obvious ways to have a socially distanced walk with someone is by maintaining a separation in space. But what about walking separated in time, making a recording for the other person to listen to, or leaving chalked messages?
  • Pilgrimage is something I find very important, and Brighton has places of power like the Goldstone, and St Anne’s Well.
  • Related to pilgrimage is the idea of walking as meditation or even prayer. Nick Cave recently wrote a beautiful piece about non-religious prayer.
  • The Situationists invented the Derive precisely to break up the familiar paths taken within a city. What if I walked a ten-thousand step circle around my house? Related to this is finding arbitratry routes connecting places, such as my walk between the graves of Edward Bransfield and George Everest.
  • Another possibility is some sort of collaborative or competitive walking. Brighton Explorer’s Club are setting up a socially-distanced relay; maybe a treasure hunt could be fun?

Back to the Downs; and a problem with circular walks

I spent the entirety of April within 5000 steps of my home. Most days, my walk was done by 8am, and I would be indoors until the next day. Every month, Google sends me a summary of my travels, a small gift in return for not caring about my privacy. Last’s month’s summary of my travels was stark:

With the easing of lockdown on May 10th, I had the option of walking futher – unlimited exercise, as long as I stayed two meters from anyone not in my household. I set out on early Sunday morning with an ill-formed plan to walk on the Downs, possibly visiting Balsdean, Ditchling Beacon and the Chattri. It was my first proper walk in weeks. The town felt eerie, even if it was probably not much quieter than it would be before 7am on a normal Sunday.

The advertising boards were mostly empty, apart from an advert offering cherry-picker cranes for hire (£400 per day, £300 per half day). Which seemed a strange thing to be selling – or maybe someone in the ad sales team was making the most of hard times.

And among the street art, a picture I recognised, someone who had been a friend long ago, although his name escapes me now:

The problem with hiking from my house is how far I need to travel before I reach the countryside. It was 50 minutes to reach the Marina and the undercliff. About halfway along, someone coming the other way called my name. It was Romi, an old hiking buddy who I’d not seen since January. It was good to see someone from the Old World.

Finally, I reached Rottingdean and was soon on the Downs. Despite being unprepared for the brutal sun, I was filled with joy. The birds were singing so very loud, and the air was clear, meaning I could see a long way to the East past Firle. Nearer by, the the cliffs beyond Newhaven looked like notches.

Normally, I would head through Balsdean, but the path to the hilltop alongside the valley was too attractive to ignore; and less steep than it looked:

My muscles were weaker than they had been, and my back was grumbling. My feet ached more than they should have done.

From here it was a short distance to the South Downs Way, which I joined at the top of the Yellow Brick Road. I followed the route West, reversing my steps from just before lockdown. With the start of Summer, the hills below the A27 were even more beautiful than they had been in March.

And then I reached the signpost at Housedean farm, on the other side of the main road. It told me that Ditchling Beacon was another 5 miles, with home some distance beyond that. I had walked about 8-9 miles already and was tired. I’d not bought enough food with me to want to do another 8 miles or so.

The other problem with those 8 miles was that the last 2-3 miles of it would be a slog through the streets of Brighton. I love wandering around the town, but not so much when I am already overtired. And this is the problem with circular walks that end at my house: the last part is boring. And it involves streets that are uncomfortably crowded under social distancing, where nobody is sure how to navigate the narrow space of pavements.

One of the best things in the world is ending a day’s walk with a stay in a pub. Even a bad pub is pretty good at those sorts of times – beer and a bed is all you need. I reckon that walking to the Tan Hill Inn, then hanging out in the lounge was one of the best days of my life. That’s the way walks should end.

Or at an Airbnb, like with Romi and Katharine, calling up for a curry from the nearest Indian restaurant, and drinking red wine as we have the same conversations that we’ve been enjoying for years.

Maybe I need to give more thought to the ending of my walks when they end at my house. To have the rest of the day cleared, to enjoy the tiredness. To have rituals and rest to welcome me back.

Or maybe, after weeks in lockdown I’ve had enough of walking solo. I don’t know.

My last two walks have been poorly planned, tiring and frustrating. I am going to plan this weekend’s one better, and make sure the ending is as good as the high points.

A Letter from the Other Side of the World

Last night, I found a letter that I wrote to myself six months ago, intended to be read in May.

It was Rosy Carrick’s show Passionate Machine that got me thinking about the power of writing to my future self. In November, I was on the verge of a big life change, and wanted a reminder to myself about why I was making this change. I didn’t want to forget my plans for the future.

I’m fascinated by how that the postal system feels like time travel. The writer and the recipient are always separated, and every letter is read in the future. And that delay of the postal system represents an opening out of chance, because so much can change between the time the letter is sent and when it arrives. We might write “I hope this letter finds you well…“, but there is no guarantee that the receipient will ever get the message.

My favourite writing by Jacques Derrida looks at how the delays postal system are representative of an inherent delay in all communication. I cannot really write a letter to myself because those two selves are different, having experiences they do not share: a letter from my past selve becomes a letter to my future self. The future might be more different than I expected

Part of me wants to leave this envelope unopened. It’s an artefact from a place that’s gone, the letter a relic from the old world, where making plans still made sense. The letter feels more hopeful if it’s left unread for a while.

The Panchakroshi Temple

In her book on Banaras, Diana Eck talks about the ‘transposition of place’ in Hinduism, and how “to some extent, all of India’s great tirthas are duplicated and multiplied elsewhere in India“. Banaras, as Kashi, contains echoes of all these other tirthas (holy places).

The idea of condensing a whole into a part is seen in the Panchakroshi Road, which encircles Kashi. There are 108 shrines on this road, and pilgrims perform a 5-day tour of them. I’ve read that this pilgrimage is as holy as visiting the four sacred sites at the far-flung corners of India. Eck writes:

And, of course, it is fitting that if one cannot make the long trip around the Panchakroshi Road, there is a single temple in the heart of the city – the Panchakroshi Temple – which one can visit. By circumambulating the sanctum of this temple, with 108 wall reliefs of the stations of the sacred way, one honours the whole of Kashi, and, in turn, the whole world.

I love the way in which these three different routes – around India, around Kashi and around the temple sanctum – are considered as identical. I read somewhere about how a short walk around the Panchakroshi Temple can be as holy as the pilgrimage around all India.

When I was last in Varanasi, I went to find the Panchakroshi Temple. There were no clear directions, so I did my best to find the place using Google Maps and GPS in the narrow alleyways. Finally, we found the doorway to the temple and walked up the steps. I felt a little like an intruder in a domestic space, as lines of drying laundry hung from the inner sanctum. I had little knowledge or understanding of the tiny representations of the temples, but asked if I could take photographs. I was told this was not possible. I walked around the temple, thanked the people, and headed for the river.

I don’t know how long I will be back in Varanasi – they say the greatest misfortune is to leave Kashi once one has been there – but some day I hope to walk the full length of the Panchakroshi Road.

New Zine: The South Downs Way

The copies of my new zine, The South Downs Way arrived today:

This booklet of short stories is part of a larger project about the South Downs Way. The zine contains 17 microfictions, most written in the last few months, but some dating back further (one to when I was 17 years old).

I’m looking forward to seeing what people make of this, and will be starting to send out copies tonight. If you want one email me, or leave me a message in the comments (I won’t publish it!).

The reality of ley lines

The first thing to know about ley lines is that they don’t exist. This is also the least interesting thing about them.

The theory of ley lines came from Alfred Watkins, based on observing alignments between historical sites. Watkins claimed that these lines would have been used to navigate trade routes. Over time, this theory has been tied in with new age ideas of earth magic, coming to represent channels of energy and force.

Ley lines are a statistical curiousity. Given the density of significant sites (wells, churches, barrows, hilltops) in the UK, it would be stranger if it were not possible to draw lines between them. Ben Goldacre posted about an experiment that found alignments between the old Woolworths stores. Using some software written by Stephen Kay, I’ve found lines between pubs in Brighton. Aside from the obvious alignment of pubs along the seafront, there was a pub-line from the Western Front to the Swan in Falmer, joining several pubs in the valleys between. Obviously, no-one had tried to align Brighton’s drinking dens, so what does this mean?

A few years back, I followed the ley line near the long man of Wilmington (a figure that Watkins thought might have been a surveyor of ley lines). I’m not sure how useful this line would be to navigate with, compared to the ridgelines and rivers in the area. I remain skeptical about most of the theories about leys.

I love the Austin Osman Spare quote about magic, that we should treat the entities we encounter “as if real”, not “as real”. These ideas were taken further by the practitioners of chaos magic, who decided that it was irrelevant if the entities and powers they interacted with were real. They found intercessions to superheroes or Mr Men could be as powerful as dealing with gods or demons.

It doesn’t matter if ley lines are real, because people find a power in these ideas. Some of them seriously believe that ley-lines channel energy in the earth. I’m generally suspicious of people using the word energy when they mean atmosphere – as someone who studied for a physics degress, if someone talks about energy then I want to see evidence of heat. I do wish, though, this sort of ‘energy’ was something I could experience and appreciate.

But I love ley-lines for telling stories about landscape. They tether churches to wells and ancient stones, asking us to make connections. I love the claims that these are lines of earth energy, used to guide alien space ships in prehistoric times. More than once at parties, people have told me that Brighton is special because two ley-lines cross here, although no-one has ever told me which ley-lines they are. Even the local council refers to ley lines in the St Anne’s Well Gardens information board – although they don’t know anything more about this line, only that it passes through the well. Ley-lines may not have the structure and authenticity of similar concepts like songlines, but given a few hundred years, they might.

The Walker

It’s just over a year now since I joined a pilgrimage to CERN where we immantenised the eschaton. I’ve not written a lot about this caper, mainly because I’m still thinking it through, even now – but you can get a good flavour of the events by reading the accounts from Ben Graham and the Moneyburner.

Part of what made the pilgrimage such an intense experience were the preparations we made in advance. We set up a radio station, planned magic rituals, and had a complete tarot deck printed. In the deck was a card for each of the pilgrims involved, and everyone came up with a card design and a pilgrim name.

I’ve long been around people with nested secret identities. I have friends with pen-names and stage-names; burlesque stars, rappers and hackers. It seemed like everyone had an alias – I know one person with nested identities four layers deep. I felt like the only person I knew with just one name.

In preparing for the pilgrimage, I had to take on a new identity for the first time. I needed an attribute that represented who I was. I picked The Walker: For the hiking, for how I would break bounds at school for night-hikes, for how I use walking to solve problems. I found an image of the Pennine Way, resting with my feet pointed towards an unfolding path through the Cheviots. And, for a touch of mysticism, I added a Feynman diagram, the one showing how an election and a positron are the same thing, but travelling different directions in time. My physics days are a long time ago, but I still love aspects of that.

The pilgrimage offered an opportunity to set aside my old identity. For a few days, I would be The Walker. I could forsake my old name, and be someone else. Possibly, I took this too far when someone asked me my name and I replied “The Walker”; they asked for my first, real name. I didn’t mean to be sarcastic when I said “The” – that was who I was then.

The pilgrimage was an incredible experience, which set my life onto a new path. When I came home, I put the identity of the Walker away, like Bilbo putting his Mithril coat in the wardrobe. It’s come out on a few occasions, but not often.

But maybe there is an opportunity here – who might The Walker be in my ‘normal’ life?