It isn’t so much the aching bones, it’s the cramping feet and an emerging blister too, that put me in a bad mood on arriving early at the Bluebell Inn to find no one there and made me help myself to a drink from the empty bar, after the day’s hike from the Sustainability Centre beyond Old Winchester Hill, to the village of Cocking. It makes me wonder if I’ll ever make it to Eastbourne alive. I have crossed a county line though, from Hampshire into West Sussex and it has been the most glorious walking day imagineable. First because after July’s broiling heat this August brings cooling breezes and fluffy bandages of white cloud that never produced the threatened rain. Secondly this is one of the most beautiful stretches of the South Downs Way, coming around and off Butser hill , into the area known as the Hartings, the villages of South and West Harting and of course Harting Down. It made me think of the rabbit man, Richard Adams, who gave my novel Fire Bringer it’s first fine review, seeing the droppings and warrens in the soft, chalky hills and wondering where Watership Down really is, only to discover from Kelly it’s in Hampshire. It is both the sweeping views and the stretches of ancient woodland all around though that gives this strip of the way it’s special richness and splendid beauty.
Now the line of the way begins to open out along the rolling run of the Downs themselves, those gently undulating escarpments running parallel with the Solent, and you at last get the sense of joining the Way proper, and an ancient journey to the sea. It is marvellous too to stop and look back, to the tall antennae on the top of Butser hill, for instance, where this morning at 8am in the sun-washed mist a man was trying to paraglide badly, near the officially closed lavatories, but which I surveyed from another “Beacon hill” to the east, two hours later, where I had lunch. It seemed miles and miles away. Not only was it a real sense of achievement, but the contemporary rattle of cars and roads do drop away and you remember how folk used to do things, when they couldn’t do anything else. Sometimes of course you have a Shrodinger’s cat moment, wondering if those well posted but sometimes tilting route markers would disappear if I wasn’t about to see them, or see yourself tiny in the landscape marching on and on. So I remembered a documentary film about Samuel Becket, that used the metaphor of wandering Irish peasants to describe the bitter march onward, in a world beset with meaninglessness. Beacons, tors, follies too, they must have been all important in giving travellers location points though and when they were white fort houses in the chalk, especially spectacular.
Chalk of course defines the landscape here and whether it’s in the strip lines of the way itself, passing through woods or wheat fields, the ground-padding of upturned tree roots or the chalk pits at Buriton, a source of early industry for lime, but also a place the Admiralty examined and then denoted unexplored bombs during the war, chalk in-beds everything underfoot and helps the copses and meadows produce such a wide variety of pollinators, like moths and butterflies. Apparently in late spring Hartingdown is an unmissable riot of flowers. Down a steep gangway of green grass, plunging off Butser Hill though, and under the A3, chalk helped the flourishing forest, that seems ancient but was only apparently planted, according to the ex forestry woman with the whippet, in the 1920’s. They complained at the time but now it’s mightily growing and lovely. I had encountered her after meeting another walker with her rescue dog. Not so modish, the really ancient woodland you plunge in and out of later, dappled in mystery, with warnings not to go in on windy days, but a feast of tangled vines and huge ancient branches.
In fact, this was much a day of encounters and friendly people too, to remind me of general pilgrimages, not being quite so alone and the fact that none of us are really anything without each other. It is glorious to touch the solitary openness of an 8000 year old pathway, but people give it an even more moving significance and life; from the nice Kenyan lady with her metal walking poles who escorted me off Butser Hill, planning a 19 day pilgrimage to the Himalayas with her friend from Stocton- on-Tees, and now a growing contingent too, to climb a Hindu sacred Mountain called Mount Kaleisha, to the dog ladies and several yomping or strolling the Way. Though they were sometimes too busy or determined to stop, yet always there with an acknowledging smile. I tried to speak of dragons or charity or something, of course, indeed sometimes with a parting cry of “Thursday, after 2pm, The Katie Martin Show, Radio Solent! Be there” but nothing could disturb the pure beauty and peace of such scenery. Only a little peace though for my aching, blistering toes plunged in warm, salty water this evening, as I write it up. Then of course there was standing outside my pub and flagging down the sweet bloke in a wheel chair, whose dad I met later at the bar, and who looked decidedly sceptical when I asked him the best route back up onto the South Downs Way tomorrow. As a mountain of cloud billowed over a golden wheat field in the evening sun he told me to forget it and go to Teneriffe! For beauty Tenerrife could not touch the Hartings, yet when your bones ache this much maybe he has a point. It turned out he had written a book too, so a crowd funding conversation developed. “What do you need money to write a book for?” he cried and I was a bit too tired to explain it all and everything that’s happened too. I hope I don’t muck that up with Ms Martin on Thursday, when my flatmate, who at 25 walked the South Downs in three days, picks me up from Storrington and whisks me back to Southampton, then back to the South Downs Way.
As for where I am, unlike the localised nightmares of TripAdvisor, that I am not sure anyone can survive, and discussed with the man who runs the grocery and Post Office over the road, a self confessed Eastourne Gigolo for a couple of years, and since the new owner of The Bluebell Inn Simon Tideswell half comped me, in the great crowd funding war effort, I’m not here to comment on the angle of the kettles on the tea trays. I will say The Bluebell is not The Three Horse Shoes in East Harting, haunt of, among many, Churchill and Madonna. It also faces a challenge sitting opposite a car show room, on a sometimes busy main road, but my room’s comfy, one of only 4, the bar gets some evening traffic, the staff are sweet and the food’s good and generously portioned. I am only slightly dreading a steep climb back up to the way tomorrow and a stretch to Storrington even longer than today’s! And so to bed.
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David stayed half price at The Bluebell Inn in Cocking, 01730810200 email: firstname.lastname@example.org