the saturday gone, i embarked on my first solo stroll across the english countryside. previous jaunts have always involved a companion, which is of course a wondrous way to enjoy the british landscape. but mental preparation is surely as important as muscle-building when doing something like walking across an entire country, and so solo excursions were happily added to my repertoire.
the south downs. what a wonderful name for this chain of low chalk hills that lumber some 260 miles across southern england. this country has a marvellous system of well-signposted paths that cross it in just about every direction. i was to walk a very small portion of the 100-mile south downs way that day. a short 40-minute train southward from home dropped me off in lewes (which is pronounced like lewis) – better known for its bonfire night extravaganza where effigies of famous and infamous politicians (and other things) are set aflame in a blazing procession.
the trail first weaves through the village, a pretty town full of red brick houses and pubs. but winds quickly out after crossing the A27 on a high bridge that vibrates in the wind. here, i found myself atop a glorious hillock heading in the direction of a giant escarpment, with only lazy cows for company.
as part of my experiment in mental fortitude, i left my headphones in the side pocket of my daypack. it was quiet. a bird swooped overhead and a low breeze whistled through a rotten fencepost. the soles of my boots crunched on hard mud covered over in a layer of ice from last night’s freeze. a sleetish mist hung in the low dips of the hills; i was above it.
the path drops here down into the hamlet of kingston, where all of the homes have names like deeping and roseway. old orchard. highdown. a small pasture contains a miniature horse with a giant, untamed forelock wearing a tiny winter rug. and the escarpment looms.
the path splits and you veer left, scampering up a jagged car-wide track to the top of the escarpment, where you join the south downs way. and then you are above everything, on a bare ridge, with views of white chalk cliffs to the north and undulating green to the south. forecasted clouds began to burn off, a warming winter sun appeared in front of me and soon i had stripped off all but the thinnest of layers.
i met a few other walkers – a couple with a half-wet retriever, a pair of men in big leather boots, middle aged trail runners, a solo woman heading the opposite way with whom i exchanged a knowing glance whilst munching on a segment of orange.
but for the most part, i was mercifully alone for a lot of the day. a stop for lunch at the abergavenny arms in the village of rodmell yielded a seat on a picnic table in the sun and a pint of local ale to accompany my tesco meal deal.
the afternoon was largely more of the same, but an excursion through a mudded out farmyard proffered the most important walkers’ lesson of the day. sidestepping one pool of brown sludge, i stepped onto what i thought was firm ground and landed ankle deep with both feet splashing in a cesspool of shitey bogwater. my scarpa boots were champs and feet stayed dry as dust, but lesson for this desert rat learned: always test the mud’s depth before stepping into it.
fifteen kilometres and change later, the walk climbs down and up again through the village of telscombe (home to the unassumingly beautiful, 13th century saint laurence church), before reaching a final high just north of saltdean. crossing a field disturbingly full of beady-eyed sheep, i was so distracted by not incurring their wrath that i was astounded when i realised that the ethereal shimmer off to my left was, in fact, the english channel.
i walked until i couldn’t walk anymore: all the way down to the shore, marching in giant, awkward strides through deep mounds of loose pebbles on saltdean beach and letting a thin rush of seafoam stream under my boots where the water met the land. it was a curious moment, reaching the ocean and having nowhere further to go. a reminder that every journey must have its end, and that, too, can be beautiful.