Before I went to Scotland I went walking with some friends in Sussex. This is day one.
When I left the law the one thing I missed and the one thing I didn’t really want to leave behind were the people I worked with. Not entirely perfect, of course, but in amongst a field of wheat there are always a few really ripe ears and me and three of them – The Celebrant, Mr Angsty and the Tall Boy – have formed a little walking group.
This time we were staying at Mr Angsty in Eastbourne, near the start of the South Downs Way. He is the perfect host, concerned to make everything as good as it can be for his guests. He can never do enough.
We set off in the rain and we set off uphill. At least there was no wind or it might have been three strikes and we’re off to the pub.
For those who don’t know it, the downs are chalk hills and since top soil is in short supply the White Rock peeks through. That makes it as slippery as a mackerel pavement. Several times, until we had each adjusted our gait to the conditions, the plish plash of the rain would temporarily be drowned out by an ‘Eeewwwergh-shit’ as one or other or us mimicked a dog trying to chase a squirrel across an ice rink.
It wasn’t a great start. Someone – Wainwright, Fiennes – said ‘There’s no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’ which frankly falls into the top ten tosspot quotes of all time. If you only find out your expensive waterproof jacket isn’t when you are already into your walk, statements like that are clearly grounds for self defence when you garrotte the speaker with the drenched sleeve of your anorak.
We made it, reasonably cheerfully to the escarpment, following the National Trail. A redundant concrete trig point sat forlorn on the summit, a victim of GPS and manpower cuts. Needing to free up some space from the excess of breakfast coffee I triangulated myself and sought relief only to hear light female voices approaching. The boys had gone ahead.
There is one skill I have never mastered. Stopping a pee mid flow. Poor pelvic floor muscles or something. So as they closed along a parallel path I began to circle the trig point always keeping it between me and them. Did they notice? One waved. One smiled. Maybe the steam hinted at my indiscretion. I was pleased the ordeal was over. Mental note number one: next time use a bush in the time honoured fashion.
Back on the path we descended on Jevington. I was told it was too early for coffee. Are you ever too early for coffee? Whatever, I lost and we passed Jevington in the drear and drizzle. A blue plaque told me Banoffee Pie was invented here. And we didn’t stop. A travesty.
Gradually we climbed again and the clouds lifted. Still spitting we skirted the hill into which one of the two iconic chalk men of Southern England are carved. The Cerne Abbes Giant and the Long Man of Wilmington. This is the home to the latter. His is a sanitised figure whose original priapism has been turfed over. Or so I believe. He’s still an impressive sight from the train but not for us today.
Alfriston, on the Cuckmere, is quintessentially English. Beautiful church, tip top village green, essential National Trust property and pubs. We sought out the Star for drinks – Harvey’s bitter for the others, a more humdrum ginger beer for me. The food was fine and pub-plain, even if triple cooked chips are a bit of a pander to the aspiring middle classes. But it is undeniably picturesque.
Our weather apps said sunshine. The weather gods said otherwise. On hats, up collars and off we strode to Litlington for its flower show, as much an excuse for shelter as anything.
And yet, and yet, glory be the App gods were vindicated. Out came the sun, the church and flowers rather splendid and spring in the stride, off again.
Once more it was uphill, this time to Lullington Heath. The dew pond, the orchids and other wild flowers and best of all the butterflies, all made it worthwhile.
As a small boy the Archaeologist and I chased dark green fritillaries across Beachy head in the summer holidays, down from the north Kent coast for the day. Would there still be any? Was it even the right time of year for them? We saw hedge browns, chalk hill blues and common skippers and then.. Yes, a DGF. How can something so dainty, so ephemeral, trigger such memories of days of white knees, helter shelter running and the undiluted joy of catching one?
As the Celebrant said, at least we hadn’t killed them all off back in the day.
Now the sky was perfect, jackets were around waists and the walking seemed easy. We crested back past the exposed trig point, me silently regretting my misplaced micturition and on beyond the golf course and home. We had time for tea in Jevington even if no Banoffee pie and finished about six in the blazing sunshine. 16.5 miles, damp footwear, a rather good Turkish meal ahead and the day was declared fine. Mr Angsty relaxed, the Celebrant applauded and the Tall Boy briefly stooped to recognise a job well done.