Up the Downs again (and a peek at my current WIP)

It’s been a busy week, with the release of the Random Acts of Kindness anthology on Monday, and the usual mountain of accumulated chores which fill up any week off. I did manage to head down to East Sussex on Tuesday, though, to continue my walk along the South Downs Way. I’ve been picking odd bright days to continue the walk for a few years now, and am finally nearing the eastern end of the path. This walk was the last inland walking of the trail. All that’s left is the coastal stretch over the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, which I’ve walked before, albeit ten years ago, so I had decidedly mixed feelings by the end of this walk. It’s been a long, dreamy wander through the sky, and it’s sad to think that it will soon be done.

(Scroll past the pictures to meet Arden, Tarn and Hal’s brother dragon)

This time the walk began at Southease station, close to the River Ouse which runs down to meet the sea at Newhaven. There’s a little branchline that runs from Lewes station, which is itself like a place out of time, and there’s little at Southease beyond a farmhouse and a unmade road which leads off the main road and over the level crossing towards the village a mile away.

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Within another fifteen metres, you would barely notice there was a station there at all.

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Like many of my walks on the South Downs, this one began with a steady uphill climb before evening off to lead along the top of the ridge for miles. These trees were perched at that point. It’s rare to see more vegetation than this on the South Downs. Unlike my local hills, they are very bare, which makes it feel like you can see forever. The town behind these is Lewes, which I have been circling for the last three walks.

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The winter sun was low, and it caught in the fleeces of these sheep. Behind them, you can glimpse the sea and the headlands. What you cannot see from here is that those headlands slice away to reveal bright chalk cliffs.

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Looking back towards the port of Newhaven, no longer quite the major channel crossing point it once was, but still busy and grubby (or it was, when we walked that stretch of the coast ten years ago. There’s a ruined village down there somewhere, and a WW2 fort hidden in the cliff. It seemed very far away from up here).

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The Downs were surprisingly busy for a Tuesday morning. I guess the sun brings everyone out, including these chaps with their remote control aircraft.

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And this man, who was taking to the skies himself. There wasn’t much wind, and I’d been watching him try to get aloft for about a mile. Just after I passed him, I looked back and saw that he was finally away.

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Barrows, tumuli, and earthworks mark the entire length of the path. I find they make really good spots to sit and have a biscuit (though, yes, I do always nod hello in case the inhabitants feel slighted) and wonder who built them. It’s obvious why someone would want to spend eternity up here, but I still wonder what their lives must have been like. You can’t live up here, so they must have come up from the Weald or the coast.

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The view along the ridge from the same barrow wasn’t bad, either. I’ll miss this kind of walking when I’m done (this end of the path is 3 hours away by train. I may do some of the closer bits again, but not this stretch).

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Just one of the Downs dreaming away in the sunshine.

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All good things must come to an end, and I eventually followed the path down to river level and the village of Alfriston, which is very pretty but knows it (and survives off tourist money). I’d originally planned to stop here, but it was only one-thirty and a mere three miles to the next good stopping place, so I pushed on.

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Here’s Alfriston church, across the River Cuckmere. Aylminster Cathedral in Gaudete isn’t real, but if it was, it would only be a few miles further inland. I liked the shadow cast by the tree here.

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Looking back towards Alfriston across the flood meadows. The path was on the bank, but very muddy. The underlying rock here is still chalky and chalk-mud is vile to walk through: it’s simultaneously slimy and sticky. I met a couple walking the other way and we stopped to commiserate and they compared it to toffee, which wasn’t far off (on reflection, it was more like treacle).

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This is the next village along the river, Litlington. My easy final three miles were turning out to be tougher than I expected, and now the path went up again. There were three narrow ridges between here and the end of the walk, two of which needed flights of steps to climb, and the mud only let up in a few stretches.

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Over the first ridge and I was startled to approach thick woodland. This is the end of Friston Forest and it was a very dark and eerie forest, full of long shadows, twisting muddy paths, and snowdrops gleaming in the shadows.

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Afternoon sunlight striking the trees. I hadn’t seen woodland this thick on the South Downs way for several walks, and it was another reminder of how close I was to the end.

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Between the final two ridges lies the village of West Dean, which my guidebook had promised me was very pretty. I thought it looked like the set of a horror movie. Even the phone box was green rather than red, and the whole village was hidden in the shadow of the ridge, even on a bright day. This was the only picture I got of it before I got chased off by an angry dog and had to make my escape up a steep flight of steps between low crumbling, moss-coated walls, while the rooks went cawing and wheeling overhead. Even when I finally got to the top, all I could see it front of me was a wall.

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But when I looked over the wall, I saw this. This is Cuckmere Haven, where the River Cuckmere meanders down to meet the sea. It’s the only undeveloped river mouth in the south east of England. My path for the day finished at the road which crosses behind this, and it was an easy swing over a stile and walk downhill to the bus stop. The path continues up the side of the Haven, climbing steadily until it turns along the cliff edge. The coastal path itself comes inland around the back of the bay to the first bridge. Finally, I had reached the sea.

The next walk will be wonderful (it’s often cited as one of the best walks in the UK and I wouldn’t argue), but it was strange to be so close to the water. I love coastal walking, and do a tremendous amount of it, but this has been my inland walking project for so long.

I’m pouring my love of walking into my writing at the moment, too. Raif has travelled the entire length of the River Anniel to find and wake Arden, and he’s done most of it on foot. Poor Raif is very eager to meet this new dragon, who he imagines will be gracious and lordly and wise, and eager to fly them back across the north to confer with the Prince of Shara. Well, those of you who have read the glossary may realise that he’s in for a bit of a shock. For a start, Arden doesn’t speak the language. Also, he doesn’t feel like flying….

“Walk?” Raif said. “That will take months!” There was no direct road from here. They would have go south of the moors and then swing through the mountain passes of the Low Amels, which would likely to snowed in by then, or keep south almost as far as the Dragon Gate before taking the main road northwest again. “Why walk?”

“Fun,” Arden said and pouted at him a little. “You not fun, Raif?”

“No,” Raif said. “I’m not fun.” He went to grab the pack, swinging it onto his back hard.

He had forgotten about his bruises until then, and winced when the pack slammed against them.

“Raif,” Arden said chidingly, and his hands landed on Raif’s shoulders, pulling the pack off him. He had swung it onto his own back before Raif recovered enough to protest.

He was a dragon. He wasn’t supposed to do such lowly things. Raif knew perfectly well the relative importance of gods and men, even the most friendly of gods, and it was not appropriate for him to stroll along unburdened whilst Arden carried their packs. It just wasn’t right.

“My lord,” he protested, reaching out.

Arden seized his hand, squeezed it gently, and then pointed at the deer track around the lake. “Go?” He started that way, tugging Raif after him.

Raif pulled his hand away and opened his mouth to argue.

“No, Raif,” Arden said, without looking back. “Walk. Not ow.”

“Hurt,” Raif corrected automatically. “I can cope.”

“No,” Arden repeated and kept walking.

“But—”

“Sssssh, Raif. Hurt am not fun.”

Is not fun.”

“Is. Yes. Raif is mine.”

Raif sighed and muttered, “Raif is your walking lexicon, clearly.”

“What?”

Raif changed the subject hurriedly. “Oh, look. Birds.”

Arden shot him a smirk. “Birds fly.”

“Unlike a certain dragon I know.”

“Dragon fly. Raif and Arden walk.”

Raif was beginning to get the feeling this would feel like a very, very long trip.

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