“All of us need to flee from time to time, so as not to become captive of the world’s expectations, and maybe too, to give us the courage to remember some of those great, bold thoughts that made a child get up in the night, heart pounding, and write down a secret promise for his life“- Fredrik Sjoberg (The Flytrap)
2017 has been a very strange year for walking, we haven’t done some of the things I’d hoped we would, trails have been started and not completed, notably the GR5, and my mind has been too dispersed to write much on the blog either. Despite this, there has been something happening in the background which, until now, I had not given much thought to, or felt inclined to write about. The fact is, that apart from the years in which we did our big ‘GR’ trails in Spain, I’ve probably done more walking this year than in any other. The South Downs have been a slow burn, but now, as the woods turn yellow, I look back on nearly a whole season of walking and realise, with surprise, how important they have become. It is a surprise, because long ago I rejected the idea that I could find the personal freedom and inspiration I wanted anywhere in ‘the south’. In a way this was more psychological than anything else, the ‘south’ had too many associations that hemmed me in. I spent 16 years growing up in a crumbling, south-coast town, dreaming about escape to proper mountains and empty places. I believed that the ‘real thing’ lay elsewhere, and usually in the wild north. This is still largely true, and yet, in the miles of walking this year, I have found something of what I need on the footpaths of the South Downs. I try to set aside at least a day each week for a long walk in the hills, it is a day for disappearing and dreaming, of being lost from sight and renewed. Long afterward, these days still glow in my mind.
I did my first walk on the South Downs in early March, setting off with a fresh OS map and the expectation of endless miles of footpath to explore. We had recently moved down to Sussex to begin new jobs, and I needed a walking project as a outlet for my energy within a more fixed and routine existence. I had to carve a new freedom out of our circumstances, and setting a target to walk as many of the footpaths on the South Downs as I could, was a challenge I was happy to throw myself into. One of the great things about walking on the Downs is the long stretches of footpath that curve up through the forests and across the downland ridge. Some of these paths are long distance trails in their own right, and it makes it possible to trace large arcs across the landscape, and link them together into varied and rewarding circular walks. The other advantage of these long, uninterrupted footpaths, is that it avoids fiddly map reading and awkward path junctions, I can set a course and just cruise along, enjoying the rhythm of the walking. The walks I do vary a lot in distance, but with long summer days and good trails underfoot, I was able to nudge my mileages up to 25 or more sometimes, and it has made me a better walker, not by pushing to go faster, but by learning to pace myself and when to rest. Whether I do 10 miles or 25 though, Oscar never seems to mind, and always has more energy to spare than I do at the end of the day. I like to vary the load I carry too, sometimes carrying a fully loaded rucksack to stay in shape for future long hikes, and sometimes, when the focus is on distance, going lightly with a small trail-running pack. They are quite different ways of walking, and I appreciate both.
On that first walk in the South Downs nearly 9 months ago, the mist hung low in the beech-woods and the land was listless, the sunken lanes and forest tracks were ankle-deep in the mulch of last year’s leaves. I walked for hours and saw nobody, the hills were wrapped in a deep silence, and had a particular atmosphere of remoteness (from place and time) that, even then, struck me as surprising for southern England. Since those early spring days of mist and brittle sunlight, I have walked through the broadening blue light of summer as it stretched higher and tauter over the chalk ridge, and on into the rich, slanting, light of autumn. Out on the South Downs ridge, especially in high summer, the light was often opaque and glary with the reflection of pale chalk soils and the distant, glittering sea. Looking south across the coastal plain, I could just see the spire of Chichester cathedral above the sizzling haze, and was always glad to be up there on the heights, with the breeze and call of buzzards. In the woodlands the light is more nuanced, no matter what the season or time of day, and I have spent most time walking in the beech hangars, forests and green lanes on the flanks of the Downs ridge. Although they are generally quiet for wildlife, the beech-woods in particular have incredible solemnity and presence, like being in the hushed vault of a great building. In the long quiet of a late afternoon, I have walked through beech-woods where sunbeams slant and pool in patches across the darkness of the forest floor. There might be a buzzard that slips from a high branch into the gloom, the bark of a deer or sudden clatter of a wood-pigeon, but there is something about the stillness of those woods that stops and holds me, absorbed and barely daring to breathe.
Charlton forest is perhaps the greatest ‘discovery’ of my time in the South Downs so far, and I found it quite late, after I had walked and re-walked many of the footpaths elsewhere around Kingley Vale and Harting Down. I brought the adjacent OS map to the east, and it opened up a new world of hiking possibilities, including the enticing, uninterrupted expanse of Charlton. Charlton forest cloaks the gentle, southern dip-slope of the Downs in a pattern of woodland and meadow, most of it owned by private estates, and most of it far from the nearest road. Once into its depths, Charlton’s footpaths are so remote and untrodden that it still feels like an exploration to be upon them. In the middle of the forest there are large clearings of fallow land owned by the National Trust that are being restored to native woodland. On a humid day in late summer, just before a storm, I was crossing this open land when a sudden breeze lifted thousands of seed-heads from the acres of thistles around me. It was an utterly majestic sight, made strangely more so by the total silence, and the fact that I alone was there to witness it. It felt like I had stumbled into a secret performance, not intended for human eyes, one of countless things that pass quietly in the world while we are not looking. Charlton showed me a wildness that day that I’d not expected to find, and leaving its bounds after a walk, always feels like emerging from somewhere not entirely connected to the everyday world.
Charlton forest might be especially remote, but even on the most beautiful days the Downs are deeply quiet, and I rarely see more than two or three people in as many hours. The exception to this is on the South Downs Way (SDW), which I use to connect hiking circuits, but try to avoid if possible. In fact, if there has been a disappointment on the South Downs for me, it has been the SDW itself. I have walked 70 of its 100 miles from Winchester towards Eastbourne and, after trying to complete it twice, have finally given up on the idea. The challenge is not so much physical, as it is coping with the monotony and occasional unpleasantness of the route. Large sections of the SDW traverse intensive farmland, are exposed to the sun and glaring sea-light, and are uncomfortable with rough cobbles/gravel underfoot. The route largely misses the atmospheric footpaths that lie just off the Downs ridge, and I think there is a good case for developing an alternative SDW that better highlights what the area has to offer. The SDW is mostly used by day-walkers and mountain-bikers, but occasionally I’ll see long distance walkers too. More rarely still, I see walkers carrying a large rucksack for camping, which always makes me smile; I have developed a belief in the inherent good of walking a long way with such a pack. Sometimes I think about stopping and speaking to these hikers, to share some sort of common understanding and experience that I imagine exists, but something prevents me. Every hiker has their own reasons, whether simple or complicated, and it never seems satisfying trying to talk about it with someone. So mostly I just watch them, working their way through the landscape, solitary, unhurried and, in that way particular to long distance hikers, strangely un-tethered to the world.
If the South Downs are not my landscape of choice, they have still been an unexpected pleasure, and come to mean more to me than I thought they would. Walking on the Downs has absorbed the frustrations and limitations of this year, and provided an outlet for what I most love and need to do. The affection I feel for them has partly grown out of gratitude for the refuge they represent. I find that at odd moments, if I need breathing space, my mind wanders back to them, as if there is a part of me that remains up there, still walking through the woods. It is almost impossible to truly describe the substance of all those miles I have walked, they seem to have the quality of a dream, and upon returning from a walk, I often feel as if I’ve been away much longer than I have. Disappearing into the South Downs is a time to be unguarded in a way that I can’t be elsewhere, I let the world of the woods and deep green lanes stream in and absorb me totally. This deep absorption fills my time there to the brim. So in trying to pinpoint the allure of my walks in the Downs, there are few obvious things that stand out; it’s more the accumulated impression of countless, quiet places which have passed through me, where I felt time expand, and watched the sunlight fall.