south downs way

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.

a year of walking

i am not quite sure when the urge to walk at great length became a strong force in my life. i have not always been a walker. i am horse rider. a hiker. i like the mountains. i like to float around in the water without doing much swimming. i love being transported places by bus or especially train. i find flying tolerable and running a slog. i have spent some time cycling (mostly in china, where it isn’t so much cycling as sitting aboard a bicycle and peddling for dear life). and, somewhere in the last decade, i became a walker.

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it is perhaps down to a housemate of mine some years ago in dublin, ireland, who recounted her adventures walking a portion of the camino de santiago in spain for implanting this notion into my head. just going for a walk and not stopping. everyday, waking early, putting on dusty boots, and planting one foot in front of the other, resolutely, until arriving at another bed at another sunset.

or maybe it is down to my dad. i blame him, and thank him, for passing his nomad soul onto me. he has always been a traveller and a wanderer. sometimes through his telescope into the outer reaches of the galaxy, but also in a bread van full of surfboards, or thumb out waiting for a ride down the pacific coast highway, clandestine rides aboard midnight freight trains through the american west, and best of all, a coast-to-coast horse ride from california to virginia in 1974.

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when i was a kid, my grandfather (my mother’s father) often told stories of how he walked from his hometown of groveton, texas, to the next biggest town, lufkin as a young man in the early 1930s – a 30-mile(ish) walk. i have no idea what the details or truths about that story are, but i suppose the notion sank in. pilgrimages seem to run in my family, on both sides.

whatever the reason, the urge has strengthened as years passed. afternoons spent flaneuring around prague, or short saturdays walking the southeast london green chain seem only to have intensified this primal need to get the world underfoot. many evenings these days, after the very short stroll from work to london bridge, where i get the train home, the urge to just keep going overtakes me. i could go to the white cliffs of dover if i skipped the 17.37 service to west croydon.

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in the next few months, i will (fingers crossed, if all goes to plan, etc etc) receive permanent UK residence. i have decided to mark this milestone by walking across england by myself. it feels romantic and fitting and, frankly, completely terrifying. the somewhat bleak scenery around northumberland has always appealed to me, and the 84-mile trek along hadrian’s wall through that part of the world seemed the obvious choice from the start. mileage to be upped from wallsend to a finish at south shields, so that i might complete the coast-to-coast journey in homage to john egenes, my dad and hero.

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so i’ve started walking more in preparation. what were occasional 5k morning walks in to work are becoming regular. the odd weekend stroll around southeast london is in the process of becoming a weekly ten or 15k across the english countryside.

getting around on your feet feels natural. by yourself, your mind goes through stages of clear-out. first, fretting about the previous and next week’s worldly woes. then, contemplating the things that are really irking you, and next ruminating on things from bygone parts of your life, and finally thinking of nothing at all beyond the way the hills curve this way and that, or the slant of the sunlight off a large oak tree to the east, or how to manoeuvre through downward-sloping mud without completely biting it.

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it is when the mind reaches these last reaches that you are truly walking. everything prior is a build-up, just as your body warms and muscles loosen, so the mind clears itself of worries, stresses, interests and obsessions. this act then becomes a kind of zen meditation as the world expands and contracts at the same time and you, quite literally, stop thinking.

walking with a close friend or loved one is both a similar and different proposition. conversation undulates with the rolling of mounds. now you are laughing at something that happened in work. next silently scraping mud off boots with sticks collected under a giant tree. then a sudden deep-dive into why this relationship or that ended, or what might happen next with a long-lost love. a poignant memory arrives of some moment you had forgotten, and you relay it in the quiet confidence of the countryside while boots stamp gentle outlines into damp soil. more silence, a hawk overhead, echoing of footsteps off the side of a deserted barn. a moment to stop and figure out how and where we just got lost. and more silence.

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walking is not my favourite activity. i would rather be on a horse, the gentle forward-and-back of withers carrying me onwards. a pat on dusty neck signalling the pricking of ears and an enlivened stride. a chat, and a connection, with a fellow earthbound being, which simultaneously understands and does not give a shit about you. a cheeky canter across an unspoilt pasture that leaves you both a little breathless.

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but there are things to think about when you’re riding. is that flapping hay bale cover going to spook him? does his left hind feel off? shit, he just lost a shoe! here’s a patch of groundhog holes we need to avoid. argh, don’t let him put his head down for that loco weed. lean forward for an ascent up the mesa.

when you are walking, you cannot escape yourself: the long march of history, the cluttered back rooms of your own mind, or the moment when everything stops and you are totally and completely free, responsible only for one foot in front of the other.