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.

Walking Saltdean to Hove

This last week has been a mess of tiredness, hard work and melancholy, so I needed a good walk to blow the cobwebs away. I didn’t want to be out too long but I wasn’t in the mood for walking near home; my regular routes feel a little overworn from grinding out steps for the fitbit.

It was an extravagance, but I took an Uber to Saltdean and walked back from there. It was raining lightly as I set off, but that was all the better to clear my head.

Just outside Rottingdean, someone had erected a crude wooden cross on the shoreline:

The undercliff was quiet. I watched the effortless flight of the gulls and was  transfixed by odd birdcalls from the shore (I need Shazam for birdsong!). The sky like a Constable painting.

In the Marina boatyard, a painted rudder reminded me of a Mark Doty poem from a recent workshop (‘that green is what I’ve wanted all my life‘). The water in the harbour was calm, and I was fascinated by the complication of the sails on one of the boats. It was for sale, and I briefly considered a pirate’s life, remembering William Burroughs’ Cities of the Red Night. I’ve forgotten most of that novel, but I love the idea of the Pirate Articles as a founding document for a better America.

I had breakfast at Mac’s near the Marina, which is probably my favourite cafe. They do chips that are crisp and hot, and I’ve found nowhere else that does them so well. Then back onto the seafront, striding west.

Closer in, the town looked grubby. There is a perfect distance to see the i360 from: on the Downs, it’s like a huge flagpole, declaring ‘Brighton is here’. Closer up, it looks like a big chimney. The terraces on Marina Drive are pretty much derelict, but there are plans afoot to renovate, the sort of development scheme that makes you wonder if the neglect was intentional.

At the end of the walk, the sun was fighting through the clouds. I walked home through empty shopping streets, wondering if it was the early hour or the pandemic keeping people home.

The best thing about the walk was the little bits of graffiti, the messages that people had felt driven to leave along the way, like secret codes.

Walking vs Hiking

I’ve been enjoying Craig Mod’s Ridgeline newsletters, which cover various topics but particularly Japan and walking. There has also been some fascinating discussion of process – Craig is working within a young medium and leaving a clear trail for other people who want to follow. While I can’t justify the expense of the Explorer’s Club Membership, the free and paid access seem incredibly well-balanced.

There’s a real joy to reading these mini-essays, and seeing how they expand into larger pieces, such as a recent article on Pizza Toast in Japan. But, for me, the best bit is the insights into walking, such as Craig’s discussion of the difference between walking and hiking:

I suppose technical definition separates the two. Walks are what you might do in your average suburban neighborhood. Hikes, in the mountains. But “walk” is chosen deliberately, meant to be inclusive. By even just using the word “hike,” folks drop off: Not young enough, not strong enough, not ready for the bugs. You can trick a person into hiking by calling it a walk. I’ve done so many times. And “walk” denotes a thing to be easily grabbed. A walk is there to be taken.

Also, there is the contract. I would describe the contract of a “walk” as relatively clear. One foot after another. You leave your home, you walk along the Brooklyn Bridge, you eat some pizza; a walk thus completed. “Hike” is perhaps more fuzzy, the breadth of potential much wider — embark on a hike without double checking and you may end up on the summit of Kilimanjaro or in Berkeley Hills or eating apple pie on Pike’s Peak. On my long walk a man gave me frozen bacon on a mountain pass. But even there, even then, it never felt like a hike. I was walking, the day was bounded, a few more steps and I’d be heading down the other side, and few more steps after that, would be at my inn for the night. The contracts were clear, the bacon cool against my knee.

Two references on Shackleton

I’m adding these references to the blog because I can never find them when I want them; they relate to the horrific frozen journey’s taken by Ernest Shackleton. When researching my MA dissertation, I did a lot of research into Antarctic exploration. It comprised a single page in the final draft – which should have taught me a valuable lesson about researching without doing any writing during that process.

What stuck with me was a line in a diary written by one of Shackleton’s team. Stranded and bored in a tent, he noted that the men had engaged in “more trips around London this evening” (quoted in Sara Wheeler’s Terra Incognito, p183). I love the idea of such imaginary journeys.

Shackleton’s team “never forgot what they had endured… Joyce said that when they got home they were frequently invited to festivities in London that went on to the early hours, and afterwards they would find destitute people on the embankment ‘and line [them] up at the coffee stalls’. When he was ninety, Dick Richards said that he hadn’t yet recovered.” (Terra Incognito p98).

Shackleton’s expedition is also referred to in TS Eliot’s The Waste Land. To quote wikipedia’s article on the Third Man Factor, “Shackleton wrote, ‘during that long and racking march of thirty-six hours over the unnamed mountains and glaciers of South Georgia, it seemed to me often that we were four, not three.’ His admission resulted in other survivors of extreme hardship coming forward and sharing similar experiences.”

Who is the third who walks always beside you?
When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you
Gliding wrapt in a brown mantle, hooded
I do not know whether a man or a woman
— But who is that on the other side of you?

I’ve just added Shackleton’s South to my Kindle. It’s a book I really should have read by now.

Footpaths and Freedom

A week or so back, the Guardian had another article about the ongoing campaign to save Britain’s historic footpaths. The government has set a 2026 deadline for these paths to be registered; after that, the rights-of-way will be lost. The Ramblers are stepping up their campaign to save these routes, with a new mapping site. Some of these routes, particularly urban alleyways, are taken for granted by locals but not recognised on official maps.

There have been some fantastic articles on the campaign, including ones in the Guardian, Ramble On: The Fight to Save Forgotten Footpaths, and New Yorker, The Search For England’s Forgotten Footpath.

In a 2017 interview with Guernica Magazine, Walking is a Democracy, Iain Sinclair spoke about how important walking is to freedom, and how walking is becoming constrained in cities:

Walking is increasingly a sort of final democracy. The weight of what’s being [politically] imposed is very much anti-walking, and has to do with control of space, creating public areas you can’t walk in—which are completely covered by surveillance, policing, private spaces, gated communities, and unexplained entities at the edge of things. So walking around becomes actually difficult. But the walking process is the oldest natural form of movement. It puts you literally in touch with the earth and the weather around you and allows you to get into conversation with people as you move, which seldom happens in the other ways we move.

I was recently reading up on an access dispute near Uckfield, where the landowner was outraged at the idea that walkers’ access rights were ‘the law of the land’:

Where does this law come from? Because these so-called public footpaths in inverted commas were for the serfs to walk from A to B. They weren’t for the public. The public have never walked anywhere – they’ve had horses and cars and things. You don’t think the lord of the manor walked along a footpath do you? Course not. They were just for the serfs. Remember that prior to 1700 and something, nobody had any rights here anyway, they were all slaves… Why do people have to trespass on not just my land, but any private land? And what kind of people go rambling? Perverts.

Which makes a direct connection between the rights-of-access and more profound freedoms. There may be more urgent battles over rights and freedom than the one over English footpaths, but this small debate quickly reaches towards fundamental questions.

A rainy walk

I arranged to go out for a walk with a friend on Sunday, and said we should go, whatever the weather. I was a little surprised that she didn’t cancel, considering how bleak the conditions were:

As Billy Connolly is often quoted as saying, there is no such thing as bad weather, only a bad choice of outfit. This was a good opportunity to test my waterproofs. And they mostly did OK, but my boots and gloves both took on water – something to fix before this year’s longer hikes.

The route was a familiar one, which I blogged about back in May 2017, visiting the abandoned village of Balsdean. Despite having visited the valley a few times, I managed to get turned around, and the familiar ‘This Way’ signs helped me find my bearings:

(Edit 22/2) – I also had to rely on my friend Sophie to put us onto the right track. If we’d gone the way I suggested, we’d have ended up in Rottingdean.

There were not a lot of people about, unsurprisingly, but it was interesting seeing the Downs in very different weather to what I’m used to.

I didn’t take a lot of photos, for fear of my phone getting waterlogged.

The ruined farm buildings near Balsdean looked particularly menacing, the floor covered in damp sheep’s wool:

When I was running, I used to love running on wet days. It’s easy to go out when it’s sunny, but it takes determination to go out on unpleasant days. I was glad we went out. As we returned to Brighton, the skies were beginning to clear. We found our way to a pub and rested in the warm bar.

Walking the Fitbit

Every day I have to walk my Fitbit 10,000 steps, almost 5 miles. It nags me when I put it on, buzzing and telling me to get moving. A long walk the day before does not matter. Every morning the counter goes back to zero.

It’s cheaper than a dog – a one-off payment, rather than needing to buy food for it every day. And no little plastic bags.

I need to remove the Fitbit for typing, since that gathers steps; as does applauding; and every gear change in my car. The problem with this is that I miss the activity prompt, telling me when I’ve spent too long at my desk.

The modern world is obsessed by counting and interruptions. Sometimes we’re interrupted by notifications about counting.

The research says this won’t help me get fit, that the benefit from 10,000 steps could be gained from shorter but brisker walks. But the main thing is getting me moving, eliminating those sluggish days where I don’t leave the house and barely move. I know it is good for me to keep moving.

It’s another example of consumerism – what’s wrong with the advice to go for a walk for an hour a day? Why does this need a new piece of electronics?

A dog would be better. But for a dog I need a larger place to live, and more green nearby. So for now, it has to be the Fitbit. A dog would be better, but this will have to do.