Although this is in many ways a journey of discovery, it is not the kind where the destination is an unknown place. Brighton, Hove and Portslade have been familiar to me my entire life, so reaching the end will be unlikely to reveal new and unexpected wonders (though you never know.) I am familiar with the end point, more so than the start – it’s the stuff along the way that intrigues.
As far as walkinghometo50 is concerned, the ‘real’ journey is paused at the end of the last sequential section – part of my soul currently inhabits The Lakes station in Worcestershire, waiting to resume – while the rest of me is at my parents’ home in Portslade for Christmas. We drove down in the small hours of Christmas Eve, starting the journey by speeding on darkened motorways through the territory I have covered so far in this walk, the pre-dawn lit up with hauliers’ tall rigs that seem to vie with each other to carry the most lamps. It took about two and a half hours to reach the point I have taken a year to walk to, driving over the tunnels and under the bridges I used to criss-cross the motorways at various times during 2008.
So far I’ve resisted fast-forwarding in this blog, for instance writing descriptions of downland strolls or encounters with pints of Harveys bitter as they occur during various visits down south – the plan is to save that kind of stuff until the last sections of the walk bring me here. However I’m making an exception, as on Christmas Eve I wandered out to visit a landmark that will soon cease to exist: the Portslade branch of Woolworths.
By the time I get here on the walkinghometo50 journey, it will be gone. Situated in a road with a dual identity (Hove’s Boundary Road and Portslade’s Station Road), Woolworths is one of the first shops I remember visiting. I was probably taken there in a pram. To my child eyes it seemed the most modern building in Boundary Road, square and Sixties-looking amidst the Victorian gables, an outpost of international retail amidst local, family run shops, like a portion of a skyscraper transported miraculously into Portslade. For me it is holy ground, as significant as Stonehenge or St Pauls. In a few days it will close. Presumably the building will house another shop, but it won’t be the same, like nearby Andrews, once the newsagent and gift shop where I discovered American comics, now the dark cavern of an amusement arcade.
So I walked down to pay a last visit. I bought a few things as an offering – batteries, some incomprehensible toys for one of my nephews, insoles and a bottle of pop; a typical eclectic low-value Woolworths purchase. The whole lot came to a sum so small that paper money was not required – it was like time travel, almost as if I could have paid in half-crowns and threepenny bits. Much of the shop was bare now, and even the empty shelves themselves were for sale, at bargain rates.
I ventured out again on Christmas Day. For the first time I noticed that of the four rowan trees in Rowan Close (where the family has been based since about 1967), only one tree and a stump remain. These trees used to be full of bunches of orangy-red berries, which we kids, a loose tribe of about a dozen, would use in epic battles up and down the Close. The pavements and ourselves would be spattered with juice over the long summers, as we ran and played. Those summers are now distant memories. The rings of the surviving rowan stump might encode those lost times if I knew how to read them.
Woolworths used to sell cheap, remaindered paperbacks. One of these I bought was an anthology of new wave sf, which included a story by Pamela Zoline, called The Heat Death of the Universe. In it, descriptions of a woman’s domestic chores are intercut with pithy scientific exposition of entropy, the slow but inexorable decay of systems. This has a certain resonance for me, especially at this poignant time of year: a long arc of loss, ‘time’s long ruin’: much that is valuable falling away, our own boundaries fading (man outside Boundary Road Tesco, talking out loud to no listeners, interior world bleeding into the outer), all that we are eventually dissolving.
On Boxing Day, I walked up on to the Downs. My parents’ house backs on to a bridlepath on the border between East and West Sussex. This gives direct access to the Downs, through some fields where once, unimaginable now, kids would play without professional supervision, risk assessments or structured learning outcomes. Games of rounders would stretch into the evening; camps would be made in the bushes. Now and again parents or older kids would join in for a bit, but no-one was officially in charge. I’m sure just as many children live in the nearby houses today but they are seldom seen outside. This seems unfortunate, and there is a lot of attention being given to the lack of proper play. However, as it happens, a murder was committed here a few years ago and burned out cars are quite a regular feature (a black patch of grass twinkling with glass is today’s evidence), so it is perhaps understandable that parents don’t immediately instruct their kids to put down their Wii and head out of sight and earshot to play by themselves in an empty field. And if there were kids here I wouldn’t have felt able to take photos, as a lone male could be seen as a threat of some kind😦
I walked though Southwick Hill, a tract of National Trust land, past a trig point and, later, a Christmas wreath, making this particular stretch of pathside ditch into a doorway to a vast house of air, its imaginary walls stretching from Slonk Hill to Mossy Bottom.
The wind was chilly beneath a bright blue sky. The Downs can appear soft and rolling but there is an underlying hardness to the long miles of chalky field. The map is filled with evocative names: Mount Zion (a hill), Rest and Be Thankful (a stone), Crooked Moon (a hedge), and my destination, Thunderbarrow Hill, which I’ve read described as ‘a largely obliterated ridge camp’, topped by ‘an eminence called “Thunder’s Barrow”, probably “Thor’s Barrow”’, a ‘Romano-British’ site. Apparently it ‘contains both pre-medieval and early medieval burials’, and ‘straddled a boundary, marking and legitimising it.’ Gorse grows in profusion, a spiky bush that regularly burns and regrows; blazing into a black skeleton in a lightning strike then sprouting green again is part of its natural cycle. These bushes have probably regrown themselves several times since I started walking on these hills a few small decades ago.
From the top of Thunderbarrow, I looked back towards the sea, and the urban stretch from Brighton to Worthing, unusually clear in the winter light. Most of my family’s history is in this view. Later, down on the coastal streets, a million festive LEDs will start to glow, with what to me appears a pale placebo witchfire, uncanny but somehow meaningless. For other eyes the pulsing gleams may be a a sign of welcome and cheer, of a transforming world, of the ingress of the infinite. Up here, gorse flowers blaze like small flames in the low sun.