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.

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 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?

Back to The Brighton and Hove Way

During Summer, the Brighton Explorer’s Club would normally be off on adventures, but lockdown means looking for excitment closer to home. During June, the group has had teams walking the Brighton and Hove Way.

I walked the entire Brighton and Hove Way in a single day on the May bank holiday. It’s a great trail, although doing in one hot day was hard, brutal work – it turns out the 27km distance listed on the website was a typo, and it’s 27 miles. It’s been more fun split into three sections with a (socially-distanced) group. The team event has been well-organised, with a photography competition as well as a quiz.

So far, our group has done two outings walking the sections between Dyke Road through to Falmer via the seafront, leaving a fun stretch along the Downs at the back of the town as our finial journey.

On my first trip, I complained a little about the GPS trail. The exit from Balsdean was actually more obvious than I realised, as well as more scenic. The section around suburban Portslade was still a little tricky, however. The route’s organisers are working to get funding for signage, but progress is slow.

It’s less than a month since I first walked the route, but the changes are notable, particularly the growing crops and bright poppies month them. It’s also been far more fun walking the trail with company.

On the section near Balsdean, we found this huge lump of quartz. It was about a foot across. I have no idea how it came to be on the path. According to Jim Mellor: “the piece of quartz in the photo from the Brighton and Hove Way could be a ‘salt lick’ – a mineral lump left out for cattle as a diet supplement”

With the grass and crops being taller, the wind causes waves to run across the hills. It’s quite a beautiful effect, which the photograph below only hints at:

Looking back towards Balsdean from the correct path out of the valley, rather than the one I took originally.

It’s always good to see the ‘This Way’ markers about the place.

Running weekly flash-fiction workshops during lockdown

This weekend, on June 13th, I’m running the 8th online (and free) Not for the Faint-Hearted workshop. Signups are available via eventbrite, and if you can’t make this session, you can sign up to our mailing list for future events.

Not for the Faint-Hearted has been running for over ten years at Brighton’s Skiff co-working centre, but the pandemic restrictions have forced us to move online. I’d been planning to experiment with online sessions for ages, but hadn’t got round to it before.

The main difference is that people can attend without needing to be in Brighton (we have had attendees from Italy, Canada and Sweden). It’s also a little more intense running the sessions via zoom, and being attentive to everyone at once. I think they are tiring for the attendees too, so I aim for about an hour of writing and reading, with some time to chat at the end.

The sessions are a lot of fun and worth the effort. Each event has a mix of regulars and new people, and the format seems to translate well to zoom. It’s not perfect – I much prefer the energy from a group writing together in the same room – but it’s a lovely thing to be doing during a bad time. And it’s good to be carrying on the group when so much else has had to be put on hold.

If you’d like to read more about the group’s history and how it works, there’s a piece on this blog. It would be great to have more new people come along. I’m going to keep doing these for the time being, until something life normality is restored.

I’m also thinking about some other means of doing Not for the Faint-Hearted-style workshops, and will testing one of these out on a friend next week.

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?

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.

The Last Hike

My last hike was at back in March, the day before the lockdown was put in place. I’d walked from home to Firle the day before, maintaining social distance, and spent the night in a shepherd’s hut.

I ached from walking too far the day before. I knew that hiking was one of the many freedoms that would be suspended, but my feet wouldn’t let me enjoy the day wholeheartedly. Footsore, I took a more direct route home than out, going via Telscombe Cliffs, a place I’d not visited since 2016.

I called home for Mother’s Day, and my parents told me that Brighton had been singled out as a place flouting regulations. All around me, people were in groups ignoring social distance. It was obvious further restrictions were coming in.

The undercliff felt too crowded, I was tired and I wanted to be home. I had had enough of walking and picked up a social bike from the Palace Pier and cycled the last stage. I knew it would be my last hike for a while.

Brighton to Firle

By Saturday 21st, the pubs had closed. It was obvious that a full lockdown was on the way. I still needed to make preparations for isolation, but I also wanted to get out onto the South Downs Way while I could.

I’d maintained social distance since the start of the week, and had checked that the Airbnb hosts were happy with this. I’d originally planned to take the train to Eastbourne and walk back, but with the recommendations to avoid public transport, I decided to walk to and from the Airbnb.

In fact, social distance would be easier to maintain in the countryside than in the city. As I walked through Hove Park towards Three-Cornered Copse, I was amazed at how close people were standing to one another in the queues.

It took a little walking to get to the countryside. Looking back at Brighton, I felt glad to be out of the town. Even the smell of cowshit seemed fresh and alive.

Given all the things I had to think and worry about, I’d not done a lot of planning on the route. I decided to walk towards Ditchling Beacon and follow the South Downs Way to Firle. I could see the office from the top of the Downs, and it felt sad – I promised myself that I would walk there for the first day it re-opened.

I stopped for lunch at Pyecombe Church. The kitchen was closed due to the pandemic, so I sat in one of the pews to eat my lunch. The vicar came in while I was there and we had a good chat.

Part of mis-planning the walk was realising I’d added a good 8 miles or so by walking North to start. The i360 was a gnomon for the long circle I followed. I’d been walking for six hours before I reached Balsdean, with miles left to go.  I paused again in a little stretch of forest that I’d rested in when I did that stage of the South Downs Way with Katharine. So much of the walk felt like a repeat. I had a suspicion that some of the photographs I was taking were ones I’d taken before.

The Lewes section of the South Downs Way is not the most exciting part. Crossing the Ouse means descending into the valley, with the same landscape in front of you for hours. I’d also made a mess of my planning, and felt overladen, old and tired. With every step, I was aware I had to walk back too. The Ridgeway had some boring bits, but it had nothing on this section of the South Downs Way.

By the time I reached the Yellow Brick Road I was a little fed up, the walk something of a trudge, but I knew that it was better than being cooped up indoors.

It was nice to reach Southease, although I was aware that I was racing the dusk at that point. The light was incredible, but I was tired.

Reaching Firle and turning off the trail to find my accomodation was a release. Walking down the hill I was a little surprised to see a Toynbee Tile. What was this doing in Sussex?

I walked the last stage in growing darkness, and was surprised to encounter a peacock in the dim light.

I arrived at the airbnb at 7, after ten hours, aching and exhausted. My right little toe is still blackened from this encounter. What should have been a relaxed stroll had ended up as a 60,000 step slog. But I don’t regret getting out for one last hike.

A journey to Devil’s Dyke

As we drove towards the edge of town, the Uber driver told me that the Coronavirus was man-made. I wasn’t sure what to say to her: it’s not just that she was wrong, but that there’s nothing to do with that information. It sounds like it means something, but doesn’t. It’s a secret that changes nothing about the world, while letting you pretend you’re not one of the rubes.

I took the ride to Foredown Tower to avoid the trudge from my flat to the countryside. It was obvious by this point that something was coming down the line and could no longer be avoided. I wanted to get out and walk while I still could.

The first part of the walk was dreary. The South Downs may be green, but it is an artificial environment, created by years of farming. I’d rather be striding through a landscape that is wilder or more natural.

Still, it was good to get out. Even as I’m falling out of love with the Downs, I still feel a connection to the chalk and the flint. It was early in the morning and I was the only person about.

I crossed a small section of the South Downs Way. There are a couple of places  where the route is baffling, and Devil’s Dyke is one of these. Rather than walk along the edge of the hill, with its views of the weald, the path runs further back. I followed the hill instead, thinking of other trips out here: wild camping with Vicky Mathews, or a trip with the Indelicates as we planned the October Ritual. I could see the North Downs, gloomy in the distance. It’s a good view.

I followed the bottom of the Dyke then crossed the main road to Saddlescombe Farm. I remember when this road seemed massive, the route from Henfield for shopping trips in Brighton.

The Dyke was said to have been built by the devil in an attempt to flood Sussex. But that makes no sense: why we he destroy the source of so much evil?

On the route back to Brighton, I had to cross a field of cows. I don’t trust herds of cattles – one of two times when I’ve feared for my life was due to cows. As I walked past them I sang a special song to let them know I was there and that they shouldn’t be surprised. There was only one line in the song, which was “Don’t be surprised Mr. Cow”.

On Monday, I asked for permission to work from home until the crisis was over. Tuesday was the first day of my retreat.