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