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Archive for February, 2011

So is that it? Well, not quite. Read the header – I’m walking to Brighton Pier. The final part will be in the future but I did slip in an extra walk in that direction. I try and do some kind of cardio exercise every day, which often consists of energetic stepping on to a raised platform with weights strapped on to me. Sometimes I walk outdoors instead and, with the sun shining on the street I was brought up in, I decided to do one more walk and at the same time get my daily exercise.

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Years ago I walked to school every day, a two-valley affair which took about 40 minutes. (Thus I saved my bus fare to buy comics, fuelling the mind you are now seeing evidence of.) I replicated this walk, following the Drove Road route that as the name implies was once used for moving sheep and cattle. Having ‘Walked Home’ ™ I now walked past an Emmaus Community, temporary home for some folks who have nowhere else – and a great secondhand shop.

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I walked down through what used to be a golf course and is now a park at the back of a Sainsbury’s, past the newsagents where I got the first Captain Britain comic with the free mask. Over to the windmill that gives Blatchington Mill its name, and which used to feature on my school blazer and the cap that only ever got worn on the first day.

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There will probably be a school reunion in 2015 but this was not that year so I walked down Holmes Avenue, just like I did when I used to go to get the bus. From there I turned into Elm Drive and then Rowan Avenue, the first street I remember living in. The prescribed cardio minutes achieved, I stopped to look in the yellow-cellophane window of a Christian bookshop in a small parade of shops hallway up the street. There was a print of a child in a red jumper, bathed in light. When asked recently if I had ever had any spiritual experiences, my equivocal answer referred to a memory of being taken to a small park in my pram, here on this street, looking up at the clouds and feeling a vast sense of meaning. Looking for this park, I found a small twitten right where I remembered it. I walked down it and found myself in the back of the huge Hove cemetery. This was quite a shock – could the cemetery have grown so much that it had absorbed my remembered park? Well, logically it could have done I supposed – many have died in the last 45 years. Somewhat cast down I carried on up Rowan Avenue. Soon I found another twitten, which did actually lead to the park I remembered. I was not transported by numinous light, but I did see a pretty mosaic with a heart motif, and another heart, broken in some sad but homely graffiti.

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And walked up past our old house, now the headquarters of a landscape gardening operation called The Grass is Greener. And on, turning down Hangleton Road Road, leaving a hundred stories behind and seeing again the view that is for me worth a thousand Golden Valleys, Boundary Road and the sea.

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I walked on down, crossing under the railway and running up the steps which my dad had run up with full pack on return from National Service.

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Boundary Road (which also goes by the name of Station Road) seems to be both thriving and run-down, a mixture of decades-old family businesses, ethnic groceries, amusement arcades, pet shops, hairdressers and cafes frequently punctuated with charity shops. A Tesco squats in the middle, like the castle of a benign-seeming overlord. Murder, art, buying and selling, drunken-ness and poetry have happened here. I remember many things in this road – from the long-gone Bistro Edward restaurant to a Corgi toys sticker that stayed in the window of a shop for years after it closed. I could give a tour of the absent and erased. If I had substantial resources for art-like capers and fewer commitments, I would live here for a year and a day, never leaving the boundaries of Boundary Road, documenting every shop and cafe and becoming its Robinson Crusoe – but that’s all for another time, or for never.

I will return here to start the final leg of this walk. For now I went to Sami Swoi and had an espresso while I waited for the bus. It was dark in the little restaurant and that coffee was bitter, hot and strong.

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The Old Tollgate is a hearty place to eat, a bit like the house in Chaucer that ‘snows pies’ – but the early breakfast is limited to cold choices with no sign of a boiled beverage. Two of us, strangers to each other, ate in silence. Then I was away in the dawn light, walking a few yards down The Street to pick up the Downs Link.

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Seven swans flew across the path. Soon I was crossing the Adur again, with views of Lancing College, the Shoreham flyover and the cement works with its nearby terrace of workers’ houses – all familiar sights.

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I picked up the South Downs Way. I had thought I would be on this for a long time but in the end the way I have come involved less than a mile. I hiked uphill on to the Downs, revelling in the fact that I can do this now without breathlessness or pain. The ground was chalky and there was a thin white mist over everything. The seams of my hands were white in the raw weather – it was as if everything was turning to chalk.

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I followed the gently curving path, across a valley and up to the line of the hill that would take me home.

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Pointed due south I climbed Thundersbarrow Hill. This hill was part of an Iron age settlement, excavated back in the 1930s. ‘Thunder’ could be Thunor, the Saxon Thor. With respect for whatever long-ago person or localised god resided there, I sat on top of the barrow, looking along the coast from Brighton to Worthing – a stretch containing half of my history. I drank some of the Hophead left over from yesterday and poured the rest into the ground as tribute.

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Then I walked on down into Southwick Hill. Nearly a year ago, as the implications of my atherosclerosis diagnosis and impending bypass operation sank in, I had looked at the end of this walk from the other side of a big scary thing which, conceivably, would be the death of me. What would then happen? I conceived the idea that I would project myself at least this far, if only in some kind of conceptual form, and wrote a poem based on this idea: ‘I am a Downsman Lost‘. People liked it, which led to much subsequent writing and Bypass Pilgrim. And now here I was in the location I had mythologised – early on a Saturday morning with the voices of dog-walkers drifting through the sea mist.

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Walking on past the gorse bushes I picked up the line of the pylons and headed from home with many miles and 25 years of living elsewhere behind me. Down past where the Industrial School used to be, down past the rounders field where we all came out to watch the demolition of Shoreham B Power Station. The last yards, totally familiar, totally new. My parents had said they would leave the back gate open, and they had.

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I stayed the night in Horsham, a chilly experience – arriving in the dark, walking around wearing every layer I had with me to find the Malt Shovel, which turned out to be as nice a pub as I have ever been to. I had a pint of Surrey Pilgrim, figuring that I had earned it by walking through that county to arrive here in Sussex.

In the morning I took a 3-minute train ride to get back to Christ’s Hospital, where I had left off. I easily found the Downs Link path and started walking along the broad curves of the disused railway line. Through the trees, watery edges of fields gleamed beneath a bright grey sky. (When did this perpetual wetness become normal? In old films as map sometimes burns: these days would we see water soaking in from the margins? )

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As I approached Southwater, I glimpsed the line of the South Downs for the first time on this walk. Like crossing the border into Sussex, this was a milestone and, briefly, by some gatepost next to an empty field I stood quietly weeping. Then walked on through the village, virtually deserted on a cold Friday morning.

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More miles of Downs Link led to the disused West Grinstead station, complete with railway carriage – like a scene from The Station Agent. I had a second breakfast of tea and toast in a cafe by the A272 (the road that ‘represents England‘).

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It became brighter, the Downs more visible now as I walked on. At Partridge Green I decided to walk to the Dark Star Brewery, tucked away in an industrial estate on the edge of the village. I had a vague idea that it was possible to visit, having read the Ormskirk Baron’s account of his trip there last year. There was indeed a nice little shop, where I was well looked after by James and colleagues. I had a taster of their Partridge beer, named for the place where we stood, to absorb as much localness as possible. (This was lovely and I was suddenly nailed to the spot by a sense of summer.) I bought a 2-pint container of draft Hophead, thinking it would be a nice light thirst-quencher during the remainder of the walk.

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More miles of the Downs Link. I crossed the Adur. In the middle of the afternoon I found a bench with a view across the Adur valley towards Chanctonbury Ring, a hill-fort topped with a ring of trees, landmark and legend-site. There I sat drinking some of the Hophead, simultaneously enjoying the sensation of relaxing in beautiful surroundings and contemplating an odd sense of estrangement, as if this familiar landscape had a terrible side that I was stumbling into through some fluke of routefinding.

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I walked on. It really was sunny now – I could feel myself tanning in the chill. I could now see Truleigh Hill with its radio masts – a clear marker of home, as Truleigh is in a direct line north of my parents’ house.

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However I was not attempting to get all the way back home tonight – Bramber was my destination. I clambered around muddy banks to find the castle, holding on to roots and branches to pull myself up the steepness, thinking of those Buddhas who stay active in the world, ‘splattered in mud and soaked in water’.

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Then I checked in to the Old Tollgate. This was bizarre, as one rarely stays in hotels a few miles from home. There have been many family meals here, so it was odd eating alone in the early hours of the carvery dinner session. I felt like a ghost haunting my own life – reading the spines of books fixed to their shelves, with a mass of appetisers and a pint of Harveys. After dinner I dowsed the rooms for phone signal, and when it appeared sucked in some email, Facebook and Twitter updates – Transreal Mike quoting lyrics from the Grateful Dead song Dark Star – ‘transitive nightfall of diamonds’.

The hotel room was comfortable. Around 3am the alarm on my iPhone went off – some quiet birdsong that is supposed to lead to gentle awakening. But I had not set the alarm, and nothing I could do would turn it off. Then I realised it was in fact a real bird, a blackbird maybe, singing from the high dust-ivy eaves of the flint-wall house dimly visible from the hotel window. Unable to sleep, I lay in the Best Western dark, cradled in countless subtle networks, wondering how I had actually got there and planning and re-planning the next route.

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