Good God, what an astounding, generous, gorgeous day’s walking, that found me shouting not just ‘freedom’ and ‘lovely’ but ‘JUST BEAUTIFUL’ from the start! If I thought little could top the Hartings, today on the twenty miles from Cocking to Storrington, this ancient highway really came into its own for me, and for many coinciding reasons too, past and present. One of the nicest and strangest being the lift I got off the way this evening from Neela, a warm eyed gardener, in her green Citroen Escapade, walking with her dog and her daughter Eli, who turned out to be studying Children’s Literature at Winchester University. Then, when I muttered about crowd funding, Solent Radio tomorrow and told them my name, Eli declared that Fire Bringer is one of her favourite books and she has made many round about read it! That serendipity joins the girl in the estate agent when I first arrived and someone in the new YMCA cafe too in Winchester. Don’t tell me there aren’t strange patterns in the world, just like the landscape.
But first feet first. If the sight of Crypt Farm up the way from my hotel this morning, dozing in a damply glittering 7.30 mist, filled these aching bones with foreboding, perhaps I’m walking through the pain barrier now. While although the way up that hill was steep it was smoothly cemented beyond the field, rather than hard tarmaced, and lovely on the pads. As was so much of what is effectively one of the straightest parts of the South Downs Way that, through a succession of rolling farms, plunged me into dreamy forest groves, rich meadows and magical avenues of light and shape and shade. You need Keats to do it justice, with his ‘verdorous glooms and winding, mossy ways’, since the forest tops are just beginning to be touched by the coming richness of Autumn. As the sun rose higher and hotter though I found myself second-breakfasting on wild blackberries, plunging in and out of near sacred avenues of light and nearly burst out laughing with joy when I emerged in a field of glowing sunflowers, sentinel heads turned all together to praise the yellow East.
On and on the glorious tapestry went, Manor farm Down, Charlton Forest, Taggents farm, Graffam Down, Tegleaze Farm, passing through yet another of those sturdy gates, with their easy metal latches, into a harvested hay field, sweeping down the hill, where the giant round hay stacks looked like golden full stops in the sunlight, as the odd car windscreen glinted with too much speed in the distance. I was caught up there, with a huge grin on my face, by one of two wayfarers from the hotel the night before, burning the ground on his mountain bike and travelling probably two and a half times faster than a walker. He had left at 9am and no doubt benefitted from the Full English I had none of, with all abed in the BlueBell Inn. I won’t grouch too much about cyclists, most have been friendly and considerate, but now and then they do tend to come up your backside unannouncing, with the arrogance of anyone in the sway of technology. We wished each other happy travels, as walkers always greet each other with a chat and the knowing smile of a shared endeavour and he hurried on.
So to discover more of a route you can only have the vaguest map in your head of before you set out. The 100 mile Way is of course many things, not just clear chalk paths or droving tracks, all very we’ll signposted except nearing Eastbourne, where the key when you come to any main road is to look left and right for the next sign. But it involves many narrow metalled roads, pavement paths passed suburban houses, winding bridle ways and points where potential tracks split and rejoin, round hills or through fields. An interesting thing today though was becoming more aware of the management of the South Downs too, with its signs about how this is all farmed landscape, often boasting the ‘Red Tractor’ Farm quality labels, or why gates by cattle grids need to be closed to keep in livestock and paths need to be stuck to. But also a scheme called LEAF – Linking Environment and Farming – explaining, whether it’s true or not, how farmers care for the landscape and how little cut-outs of wild ground are left in ploughed or sown fields for flowers and nesting skylarks, as well as hedgerows allowed to grow wild. Sure enough, looking back across the endlessly variegated scenery, there they were, under a brilliant blue sky and burning sun, dotted with cloud, adding to a constantly shifting landscape of light and shade. Just stop and watch those clouds pass shades like waves across the fields or watch huge renaissance skies pouring out sunlight like rain and you’ll know the majesty of the South Downs.
Perhaps everyone comes to a stage when life is about looking back, not too soon you hope, but it’s an obvious psychological effect on a long journey too, looking back on both where you’ve been and who you’ve met too. But today, as well as looking back with pride at the ground I was eating up, came a succession of merry meetings: The bloke scouting the ground for his students, preparing for a Duke of Edinburgh award; the charming young man who shone when we spoke of The Seven Sisters, and was making for Winchester, to stay at the Sustainability Centre. I tried to crowd fund him and he talked about a writer friend in Winchester who meets her group of compatriots weekly in the famous and charming Black Boy Pub, where I’ve put up one of my posters, though never got a reply from the manageress about the RNIB. Those passing moments act like a kind of bush telegraph,too, whether it was the reservations from the couple I met yesterday about my hotel in Cocking being on a main road,or the shared wonders you might meet on the way. So you do start to touch something almost ‘Chaucerian’ when we didn’t have instant miscommunication, emails and mobile phones, that stretched back centuries in the English experience – how travellers must have learnt of attractive places to go and perhaps settle, of conflict, war, plague and opportunity. So came the approach to Bignor Hill, passed a Bothy I regretted I hadn’t tried to stay in and where there was a famous decoy clutch of airplanes during the war to fool those nasty Germans about Operation Overlord. I wish I had time to detour to the Roman Villa here, but the extensive drops off the escarpment make it a real hike, that could take up half the day, while it prepared me for what came next – Stanes Street.
There it was, emerging out of the white chalk way like history rising before your eyes, cambered, straight, reliable, undeniably Roman. I had no idea at all that part of that ancient road between Chichester and London, which I think becomes Borough High Street through Southwark, shares a central back bone of the South Downs Way. I was suddenly dreaming of Rome, or marching with the eagle of The Ninth and thinking of moments in Fire Bringer too. Not a hard march with such height on it all, following the gentle Lizard’s back of the downs, that makes this such pleasant walking. Far more than pleasant though, from the drama both of the land and skies, where giant clouds, white and angry grey, were massing above like the supertankers glistening out to sea. You could sit for hours and watch how those leviathans of weather mass, form and change over these powerful thermal generators of hills, scooping moisture into an endless vortex of movement and visual drama. My heart was soaring now, as I met a friendly couple on that Roman track, one of whom had worked in publishing for years and rather agreed with my premise that though nice people, they don’t exactly fight for much. On I went passed the Toby Stone, a rather brilliant little memorial from 1955 that doubles as a horse Mounting stone and carries an inscription from Robert Louis Stevenson that I recited at My father’s funeral. Of course the South Downs Way, as much as being an ancient route for life and change, is about ever present death. From those barrows on Old Winchester hill and the daily forest burials at the Sustainability Centre,to other burial sites on the route like the Devil’s Jumps, that I passed yesterday. In fact not a bad place to go! It is fascinating names en route too, filled with local lore, that make this road so numinous too.
Now I was caught up by the second bod from the hotel, marching to Washington, a good four miles on from my planned night top. Just as many use this ground just for walks, or do the Way in manageable sections, I think people sense if they have anything in common or want to share a pace and he hurried on. Lunch was becokoning now and so descending back into a valley I crossed the angry and decidedly murderous A29 and plunged down into the lovely valley of Houghton and Amberley, to be given a lift by a pretty local woman up to the George and Dragon Pub, of course, for a bloke with pressing news of a Dragon In the Post! From the thrumming clientele the promise of food proved as good as the chicken liver pate. Yet as I ate it and chatted to a nice bloke who lives in Lewes about Glyndebourne, champagne picnics and his own walks and blogs, a distinct monied gentility had suddenly entered in that stretches from Hampshire to London and back. It wasn’t exactly him, despite his describing Storrington as a ‘shit hole‘, or worrying about solicitors and costly arguments with his mother. It was the snooty attitude of the publican and his wife, although she did let me mix my purchase of a shandy and pate with eating my own pork pie, only in the Garden of course, not the terrace. Why is it that everything is money nowadays and more respect isn’t paid for the tradition of ancient travellers, pilgrims or not? The guys hulking the beer barrels were far more sympathetic than the landlord to my filling my water bottle, from a hose outside, like a tinker.
It was a delightful spot though, in the bowl of the valley, surrounded by dropping apple tress and everything in me wanted to snooze and linger; the delight of travel and way faring with no purpose at all and as important a part of doing the South Downs Way as meandering, rambling and stopping to look, or look back. Indeed I thought sadly with these astonishing every changing views of the 100 people who lose their sight every week in the UK, or my Dad and his eyesight battles, and suddenly rather regretted not planning my way a bit better, by relying on comps and so not stopping in Amberely instead of Storrington. A feeling not exactly cured by the small, humdrum town that night, yet certainly by a hugely comfy bed, nice spacious room and, above all for a walker, the most magnificent steaming hot showers. Bliss.
The White Horse Hotel – forgive my romance of an ‘inn’, since everyone seems to like shiny new these days – boasts being the former residence to the composer Sir Arnold Bax and at night with the not unsexy tequila chavs at the bar, he might have advised on the choice of music. Not worthy of another harsh comment by my lunchtime compatriot about keeping your wallet pocket well zipped though and it is now a clean but modern joint, that is certainly not for the Houghton set. But they kindly comped me in my adventure, have groups of walkers visiting, naturally a very passing traffic, and I liked them more than the dragon landlady. As for that lunchtime garden though, there is a joy in leaving things behind too, so ever onward, out through the fields and over the odd little metal bridge that crosses the river Arun, all bull rushes and drifting eddies of watery light, past the walls of Amberley castle, and the climb began again, very steeply up the aptly named High Down. There more signs spoke of the wild life here but then to the wonderful, real sight of kites riding above the forest line with their distinctive jack knife tails, while another rock-star-looking couple told me of a local women in the 70’s who as a young mother had done the way with her children and a donkey. We both agreed it would make a book people want to read. But now, nearing home, I was starting to ask again what this walk is really all about. A noble or idiotic protest march against disconnection and publishing corporations these days? A desperate attempt to be heard and tell everyone I meet about a project still marching on, that ends in just a week? Or simply a wonderful adventure and the most glorious lifetime walk you could not only possibly imagine, but actually experience. Well, whatever happens, that’s good enough for me!
David stayed in The White Horse Hotel, Storrington – telephone 01903745760. Rooms are £85 a night with breakfast. He drives back to Southampton today for a BBC Interviewthen picks up the Way this evening, walking on to The Rising Sun in Upper Beeding.