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.

A visit to the Long Man of Wilmington

On Saturday afternoon I went out to the Long Man of Wilmington with Justin Hopper and Ben Graham. We were there for an event celebrating the upcoming premiere of the Nathan James’s On Windover Hill, a music piece about the Long Man. A large group took a walk around the hill figure, stopping occasionally for readings. There were also a couple of songs, including one about the Long Man by Maria Cunningham.

It was a fantastic afternoon. There’s something about walking that makes strangers more willing to talk than in lots of other social gatherings. Maybe it’s that you’re not forced to face each other; or it’s something about the rhythm of walking. Many of the people in the group were writers and artists, and I had some fascinating conversations.

Nathan also shared some facts about the Long Man. It’s apparently taller than the Statue of Liberty, and during the second world war it was painted green so that enemy pilots could not use it as a landmark.

The day itself was bright but windy. From the hilltop we could see pools of floodwater in the Cuckmere valley, shining gold in the sunlight.

We arrived early, which gave us time to explore the church of St Mary and St Peter, with its incredible yew tree, which some people say dates back to Roman times. A new set of supports have been added, but the yew is still standing.


Cocking, and balls

There are a set of large balls below Cocking village. They are made of chalk, and were placed there by the land artist Andy Goldsworthy. I’ve been meaning to visit them for some years and had two failed attempts. My first try, with my friend Sophie, was foiled by mud and unreliable directions. Sophie was underwhelmed and announced “I’m not sure who this Andy Goldsworthy fellow is, but I don’t want anything more to do with the man.

Another attempt in 2017 was stopped by a combination of rain and poor clothing. But at the end of the year I set out with my hiking buddies Katharine and Romi for another try. Better clothed and better prepared, we managed to follow the whole route.

The trail features over a dozen chalk boulders from Duncton Quarry, each about 2 meters in diameter, and placed along a five-mile route. It was expected that the stones would last about two years, but 18 years later they are still there and, indeed, their weathering has been the subject of scientific research. I read online that they might last as long as two centuries. The sculpture was a lovely way to link a trail together, with the added fun of trying to spot the stones. I didn’t keep track of how many we found, knowing that it is unlucky to try counting stones.

The chalk was was not the only artwork we saw on the trail. Unexpected and unsignposted, there were two heads resting on a fallen tree-trunk.


The route took us to Cocking and back. Sadly we arrived a couple of weeks early for the local pub, which was being renovated. It had just been bought by the community, and I am looking forward to visiting it in the future. We settled for buying sweets at the post office, then headed back.

One of the fun thing was trying to find a path through a forest and realising our map no longer matched the reality. We were in a managed forest, and a section of the trees had been cut back.

The trip to look for the stones was a good one, with some lovely scenery, and even a deer at one point. The chalk boulders have settled in to being part of the landscape. We met some locals at one point, who took a photo of the three of us at the last stone. They told us that they’d heard the chalk was left by some artist, but had no idea why.

You can download a PDF of the route.


My first walk of the year

Last weekend was my first proper walk of 2020. It was also my first trip with Brighton Explorer’s Club – I joined a while back, but hadn’t managed any of the events before now.

The group was friendly, and it’s good to have more people to go hiking with. Mount Caburn is quite a familiar walk – I went in 2012 with Lou Ice, and more recently with the British Pilgrimage Trust – but weather and light can transform a landscape. We could see weather coming in across the Ouse Valley, and avoided the worst of it. And a little rain is a fair price to pay for rainbows and some incredible light:

Back pains prevented this weekend’s planned walk to Ashdown Forest, but I’m doing my 10,000 steps a day to build up strength a little. I have two big hikes planned this year, in March and May/June, so I need to recover quickly.

Stone ghost in Sussex

(The outing from this post took place in early November. It’s taken me a while to finish this, but I wanted to share it)

Sussex has never felt all that rural to me. Even though I grew up running through fields and woodlands, I lived in a suburban housing estate. I was as captivated by TV and early computer games as I was by the countryside. And the land around the estate didn’t feel particularly wild. There were few large animals, and the only danger came from ‘strangers’.

Buncton Church, near Steyning, is only a few miles from where I grew up. From the road, there is only a small sign in a lay-by, and some steps going into the trees. I had been driven there with my friend Sooxanne by Matt Pope, who was going to show us the church. The path from the road to the church enters a small wooded valley, crossing a spring-fed stream before rising towards the church. If you were designing a rural church setting for a video game, this is the sort of thing you’d come up with.

One of the things I love about the world is how incredibly textured it is. Everything is rich and detailed, if you know enough about the subject. The church is 900 years old, and Matt showed us how the stones had been brought together from other buildings. Some Roman bricks had been used in the church wall, and Matt showed us how their centre isn’t properly fired, retaining a grey clay colour.

We were at the church to visit a sheela-na-gig. Or, rather, we were there to visit the absence of one.

A Sheela-na-gig is a church sculpture of a naked, sexual, female figure. I’d first heard the word as a teenager in the PJ Harvey song, which I first heard on a mix tape a friend made me. That song has the sort of energy you’d expect from these figures (which are often – with  some sexism – referred to as ‘grotesques’). The figures tend to occur in the West of Britain and in Ireland, and it is rare to have one so far into the South East.

This particular Sheela-Na-Gig we’d come to visit might have originally been a sculpture of Adam. The area between the statue’s legs was hacked out long ago, possibly removing a penis. There is also a space opposite the statue which has been renovated at some point, that might once have housed a corresponding Eve. The figure had likely been in the Buncton church for centuries, since it was built.

There is a lovely description of Buncton church in Justin Hopper’s book The Old Weird Albion. The passage captures the strange, mystical peace of the place, and its feeling of dense age. Justin refers back to Arthur Beaton Cooks’s 1923 book, Off The Beaten Track in Sussex, with its description of Buncton as seeing “the survival of old rites, which began in pagan times, and did not entire change with the advent of Christianity… One may regard the hill-top as being as near to Christ as to Wodin”. The church does feel lost in time, with the weathered gravestones, leaning as if tired.

The church interior is a simple space, with wooden altar and a few small pews. The walls are simple and painted white apart from one place, where a fleur-de-lys pattern is visible “as if a hole had been opened in the history of the space”. And then there is the Sheela-na-gig. All that remains is a gap, “another spirit added to Buncton’s swirling maze”.

The Buncton Sheela-na-gig had been famous. It was conveniently located for local pagans who wanted to visit one of these statues without a long journey. Votive offerings of flowers were sometimes left at the statue, which most people saw as a good thing, although they were less enthusiastic about the fertility rituals that sometimes took place.

After centuries of controversy, on 10th or 11th November 2004, someone took a chisel and gouged the figure away, leaving splinters of stone at the pillar’s base. The police apparently had a suspect, but no action was every taken. There is not even a photograph of the sheela-na-gig in the church, as some people still see the “unchristian” carving as malign.

We walked out onto a field, looking in the plough-tracks for more traces of roman brickwork, maybe some vague clue to what was here before the church I found something too light and flat to be a natural stone, which was probably a mediaeval roof tile. I slipped it into my pocket.

The day was fading. A bright red moon hung just above the trees, and mist gathered on the field. This was a wilder Sussex than I had become used to after years of living in Brighton. That little church in Buncton, not even a road to reach it, felt like a time machine. And, even though its physical form is gone, the Sheela-na-gig is still there in the empty space.