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? )
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.
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‘).
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.
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.
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.
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’.
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.