The Familiar One
~ A tale from my favourite path
Reserved for those days when we don’t want to be fussing around with GPS programming, locating the right map and subsequently stopping every half a mile to marry it up with a compass, nor scratching our head and wondering if that path intersection was the one we were waiting for or the one that was too early.
Alfriston High Street
The familiar one is that route we know well. We’ve walked it so many times that we can, just walk it. Instead of directions we can let our mind wander onto more interesting and rewarding pastimes such as searching for a little Wild Garlic, checking to see if the wild cherries are mature yet, if our favourite stream is still flowing. Essentially, dispense with the formalities, the distractions, the annoyances and just enjoy a leisurely ramble along a glorious journey.
With walking, familiarity breeds happiness. It’s a route we know well because we have enjoyed it many times, and we have enjoyed it many times because it’s a great route. Chances are it’s local, where you grew up perhaps, you may have walked it as a kid, played in that steam with your school friends. You still know where the hidden camp you built out of dead branches is or may have memories of your dog, long since left but you still see him bounding through the Oaks sending up arcs of dead leaves. And you smile.
Mine isn’t as local as I’d like, perhaps a 40 minute drive but it is the area I always come back to in my native West Sussex, the South Downs. I love it for the village where I park up at, the teahouse that knows how I like my eggs on toast and will make the effort to locate that forgotten bottle of Tabasco. The deli and sandwich shop, deftly assembling all my ingredients together in a granary bap for lunch. I love it for a first hour of easy walking along the River Cuckmere which warms my legs gently and then eases me up higher to views of the White Horse. I wonder why the horse was carved and why I can relate to my ancestors, who lived, gathered and hunted in this very valley thousands of years ago. I love the hill that climbs from Westdean, my lungs working hard to be rewarded at the crest with one of my favourite views in the world, Cuckmere Haven and the river meandering, folded back and forth to the sea, shining silver in a mid-day sun amidst green flanks peppered with grazing sheep.
I let my momentum take me down, pausing at Exceat Tea Shop for a leisurely Earl Grey whilst Red takes gulps from the dog water. This area is teeming with tourists at the weekend, today is Monday and I revel in the lack of prams, stilettos and busy car parks. I continue down the Haven with the river to my right, Red chases a few dogs and brings me sticks, waiting expectantly for praise. Before long the sea air drifts over my nose and seagulls cry over, the onshore breeze increases and I refuse to put on a warmer top because, being the familiar one, I know what is coming.
The Seven Sisters, quintessential white chalk cliffs that rise majestically from the English Channel. A symbol of steadfast solidarity, the English spirit, meeting and repelling many an Armada. The Sisters would be enough for many in their own right, just over 2 miles to Birling Gap, climbing each and every one like a boat being tossed around in the channel itself. Reel in 3 or 4 and it’s time for that sandwich, Red slumps beside me, tongue dangling, eyes squinting and lets me trickle water into his mouth. Sussex stretches away behind me and France lays over the water, glistening on a fine spring day. Distant white sails bob and I wonder why I can tell summer is here because the planes sound different. I slip off my shoes, devour my lunch, prop my head on my pack and drift off with the sun on my face.
Looking back from the first of The Seven Sisters
Finishing off the last of the Sisters I am funnelled into Birling Gap for more tea and perhaps a slice of carrot cake should I feel inclined. Every year here the sea pounds the cliffs, erosion is inevitable and at some point the café, and the end house of the terrace opposite will topple. I leave wondering when as I always do.
This is the second part now, inland, away from the sea. The breeze drops as I climb away from the gap to my native Downs, rolling and bumping along all around me. Bushes bent over from years of wind abuse, the abandoned farm hut shaded by a few trees. I cross the road west of Friston, my head flicking left and right for traffic as Red strains on the lead. Into the small copse where I always have to pause to remember the direction and then a slippery trail down, emerging into a field surrounded by flint stone walls and the solitary oak tucked into one corner. Sometimes I break under its boughs but not today. Still no leaves bring me any green and even the daffodils have only just blossomed, I feel resentful at winter stealing my cherished summer time.
Red takes 5
Wide tracks on the familiar one now. A mountain bike approaches and we share a nod, no words but a smile recognises the perfect day, his gears click up as tyres crunch and he speeds away. Red plays with another collie and then 30 minutes of silence as my path cuts through the woods, occasionally the warmth on my face. I reach Westdean again, running my hand along the flint walls, watching the chickens scatter and I turn right to climb up and by Charleston Manor, the return leg back to my start at Alfriston. My route from a few hours earlier is the same but the temperature has dropped a little, the sun is lower, the White Horse in shadow and the Cuckmere full to the brim from tidal flow. I see the church and the bridge on the edge of the village and check my watch to see if I have time for one last cuppa at the Singing Kettle.
The legs tire, endorphins come alive. Through the field where the same horse still grazes, softly lifting his head to check Red as his tail flicks at flies. A few cars squeeze and tumble through Litlington, signs on gates offer jams or early produce, glasses clink outside the Plough and Harrow as laughter wafts from the entrance. Turn down the alley a few yards further and I am spilt back out by the river, flat now all the way back to Alfriston. Ducks splash and cows nonchalantly glance my way before returning to the grass, I look forward to the late summer when I will be able to pick samphire from the banks.
The white, wooden bridge brings me back into the village. The Smugglers Inn pub, originally built in 1345 faces me as I emerge back in the centre by the old market cross. Buildings graced with red brick, flint, dark beams or colourful paints stretch down the High Street. The village store still manages to look the same as it must have done for the last 50 years, the occasional car waits for traffic to come up the hill as there only room for one. A dog, tied to a post whilst his owner peruses in the ice cream shop barks at Red and he retorts.
A last pot of Earl Grey outside the Singing Kettle as I slouch on a metal chair and catch the last of the sun before it slopes down behind the roof tops. Spoons clink on china, jam drops to scones and teacakes are buttered. She brings me a bowl for Red as he pleads with those capable of parting with a morsel, looking innocent as I catch him.
No worries, effortless meandering and re-acquainted again with my favourite. The familiar one.