During another year disjointed by covid and government responses to it, or the lack of them, taking a long walk has been one of few pleasures I’ve been lucky enough to indulge.
Often these excursions have taken place somewhere quick and easy to get to on a train, though always far enough away to slip beyond the gravitational pull of the city. Much as I love an urban walk, there are times when I want to be in a landscape where there’s something other than buildings on the horizon.
For a few of these walks, I’ve followed a written guide, printed out from the internet. In some respects, this can feel limiting and also somehow cheating. Literally walking by numbers: typically, you leave a station, or car park, wiggle out of the edges of a commuter village, until, 2). You take the leafy lane branching off to the left, or 3). Trace this trackside path until the kissing gate, or step over a stile, and carry on, heading ever deeper into the trees, or pursue a foot-scarred chalk path, up and up, towards the hills…
I’ve decided, though, to let myself off the hook. Using such guides is no less valid than map, or app. OK, they make it more obvious you’re not the first to go this way, so it’s harder to play pioneer, or pilgrim, picking a distinct way across the wilds, but, in the British Isles, that’s not possible anyway – at least since people first padded north, after birch and aspen, as the ice retreated. In fact, a numbered route, folded up and stuffed into a pocket, has distinct advantages; not least relieving you from being at the mercy of a phone signal, or the wind, if struggling to unfold a map.
And of course, what a numbered guide can’t do anymore than a map, is to predict exactly what you will see, or feel along the way. They outline the bare bones of a route, major landmarks and turnings, the rest is up to you. I’ve yet to find one that says: 23). Look up here, and with an involuntary intake of breath, realise a buzzard is circling overheard, or 37). At this point on the path, sense you’re being watched – yes, there on the left, at the edge of the woods, a small deer, will tremble on tensed feet, as it anxiously eyes your progress.
Whether making it up as you go, or following a pre-determined course, I often find it’s the unexpected encounters, or ‘walk shocks’, that make a particular trip memorable. That was certainly true of at least three I’ve been on this year – plodding along, looking out for particular views, famous sites, when, wham! something, usually from the more-than-human world, was suddenly present, changing the view, changing the day, changing everything.
Walk Shock One: coming off the downs
Hassocks to Upper Beeding, or Shoreham-by-Sea, is a popular route, that leads up and into a stretch of the South Downs Escarpment, via Devil’s Dyke. There’s a lot of huffing up and down rounded hills to be done, on exposed chalk paths, signalling the choices of thousands of feet, taken long before your yours arrived. I expected picturesque vistas, rolling slopes, windmills, the sea. I hoped to see, and hear, skylarks. I walked this way twice this year, the second time with my friend Gavin (once upon a time, Javelin, to my eldest when a lot smaller). Gav’s a Scot and grew up far from the big cities. Through his eyes – well used to corries, dramatic precipices and rocky drops, around almost every corner – Devil’s Dyke was not quite the stunning panoramic wonder the more breathless guidebooks would have you believe. It was pretty, green. Nice.
As was our diversion to look at Bramber Castle – lingering now as a towering slice of thick stone wall, an arrowed vertical shard of the Norman past. From here, making our way towards Shoreham, we managed to get on the wrong side of a meander on the Adur and trudged for ages along a woody road, before emerging at a junction with a fantastically busy ‘A’ road, offering no hope for pedestrians. We retraced our steps, the sun punishing our mistake.
A couple of miles back, at a carpark, we found the path we needed and got on to the right side of the river. Knackered and hot from a morning of climbs and descents, our late afternoon final few miles into town, didn’t possess the keen energy and excitement of the morning up on the downs. Until, that is, at the Old Shoreham Toll bridge, where a sudden injection of joy burst out of the river. Halfway across, we met an angler, staring over the bridge and into the water. There, just upstream, encircled by curious canoes, was a seal, shaking a fish. This was hastily swallowed, before the seal dived again, returned with another flapping meal, gulped it down and went back for more. The angler turned to us grinning: ‘He’s caught more in five minutes than I have all day’, he shook his head, then went back for another look.
Walk Shock Two: at the crumbling end of England
Later in the year, mid-October, on another walk with Gav, we went to look at Seven Sisters. The car park at Birling Gap was jammed. Some sort of running event was taking place, sinewy, lycra and beanie-clad runners were everywhere, looking strangely content in their self-inflicted pain. Heading inland at first, we aimed to follow a circular route that would take in woods and low hills, then salt marshes, before looping back to the celebrated coast, indulging dreams of France over the water and vague memories of Quadrophenia. Eventually we did make it to the cliff top path, saw the famous views, the Belle Tout Lighthouse and a lot of chalk – lit as though by some white-gold obsessed DOP, waiting for the angle of the sun to slant into the perfect line of desire. However, just before we got there, kestrels decided now was the time to rival the local landscape itself for wonder. Three, four, five in quick succession appeared over the grassy fields and old pill boxes wedged into the ground, slowly sinking back beneath. The kestrels, like a display team of feathered drones, hung above the earth, living echoes of all the countless layers of tiny creatures, the foraminifera and coccoliths, suspended in the chalk cliffs they’d slowly, slowly built over unfathomable ages. Finally, after staring, grin-drunk, for a long while, we tore ourselves away, to crest the cliff.
Walk Shock Three: caught in a postcard between tube stations
Before I looked it up, on a Time Out list of walks near London, I’d never heard of the Chess Valley. To my delight, this route through a beautiful part of the Chilterns, can be walked between two tube stations. This fact alone almost justifies the trip. Alright, the stations are at the very far end of the Metropolitian Line, in zone 9, which, other than the tracks, has little trace of city left. One crisp, early November morning, my brother Nick, his dog Pepe, and I, stepped off a tube carriage at Chorleywood and almost immediately into a picture-postcard vision of rural south eastern England. Like walking inside one of those vintage illustrated Underground Posters, urging visits to Metroland, we found ourselves abruptly in a world of beechwoods, little brooks, copper-coloured carpets of fallen leaves, old drovers’ paths, winding up and down the crooks of gentle slopes, casually observed by horses from breezy paddocks.
A little before the final downhill stretch into Chesham, we saw a couple of Red Kites, forked tails giving themselves away. The birds were drifting over fields, just outside the town. Strange to think that, what seem now rural creatures, to be glimpsed hunting country fields, were once a frequent sight in London itself. In a recent London Wildlife Trust magazine, I read that the birds were once so common in the very centre of the city, that in the 15th century they were known to snatch pieces of bread from the hands of children. Since their gradual recovery in numbers, after reintroduction projects in the 1980s, kites are slowly moving back towards urban areas; opportunist scavengers, drawn there by the chance of easy pickings. These raptors were definitely a highlight of the walk, although I’d hoped and half-expected to see them. What struck me more forcibly and unexpectedly, I think for its clear, beloved human-plant connection, was a great old oak, in the heart of a field above Chesham.
The path led towards this tree, before dropping down, across the edge of farmland and into a small wood on the outskirts of the town. Hung from many of the lower branches of the oak, were bunches of tattered, colourful ribbons. These may have been tied by just one person, or group – turning the oak into a kind of Clootie tree, or wishing tree – but I got the impression that this was a wider local thing, that lots of people, climbed the slope, to stand or sit beneath the tree and look back across to the houses below, or trace the clouds above the gentle curves of the hills beyond. There, under the last green leaves, not yet blown from thick, generous branches, Nick and I ate cold chilli from a tub, while Pepe yapped at unseen enemies in the scrub. Not half a mile away, muffled voices from tannoys on the Underground station platform were calling us back to London.