The South Downs Way is a long-distance walking route that meanders its way over a hilly ridge running across the south of England. It stretches some 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne, or, if you prefer from Eastbourne to Winchester. It seemed to make more sense to me to walk from west to east, following the direction of the prevailing winds or, moving like the eye dancing over a line of text. When I stop to think about it, however, westward journeys are no less evocative: Columbus sailing to America or The Journey to the West. More modestly, I rolled into Winchester, a rather prim historic city where Downton Abbey must be popular, bought supplies then walked around in circles looking for the starting point and route. I should really have bought a map in the Tourist Information but I was hooked on the simplicity of following the marked path and discovering the trail as I went along. This was my first mistake.
Winchester seemed more interested in itself than in the South Downs Way and I had to be put on track by a retired dog walker as I paced back and forth like a yoyo in and out of a light industrial estate. Finally, heading west out of the city, it receded from view only to be replaced by a colossal music festival in the making. I had stumbled into Boomtown Fair a festival larger in scale than Glastonbury. There was no peace and love going round, the site had a downbeat workaday feel to it. I passed men in hard hats who carefully avoided eye contact and moved hastily aside as four-wheel drives tore through this fictional city in the making.
As the day wore on, my backpack began to dig into my shoulders, the dull ache it produced slowly growing into sharp teeth clenching stabs. I was not kitted out for a six-day trek, I was carrying all my things for the entire summer which, at this point, included gifts for friends such as a thick metallic Tibetan singing bowl. This was my next major mistake. I started to curse that bowl but there was nothing to be done but to drag myself from one post to the next. These markers were sporadic, sometimes vague to the point of setting me off-course, but for the most part clear. They described a broad zig-zag along the South Downs, which could be seen as either showing off its diversity of landscapes or of ensuing the route added up to the tidy number of 100 miles in total.
Nights were spent either camping wild on the side of secluded fields, hidden in woodland clearings or else on campsites. Getting down to the campsites was much like getting to the country pubs that made the whole endeavour so much more bearable. Both of these creature comforts were usually found on the lowland that lay on either side of the downs and which necessitated a descent of a mile or two to reach them. I stopped in some excellent historical coaching inns where food and real ale fuelled body and spirit. The only real exception was The Royal Oak where the landlord said he wasn't open, directed me to another pub which turned out to be a wild goose chase on which I nearly got run over and, when trudging back past his pub, saw that it had in fact opened. It was a snooty place that liked to pick and choose its customers, I suppose, and tired, muddy walkers were little better than gypsies.
Over days two and three my back had more or less resigned itself to the pummelling it was receiving and this pain was, in any case, trumped by hostilities taking place around my feet. I was wearing shoes that were too heavy and without support around the ankles: my third and final major mistake. They resulted in agony dancing up the front of my lower legs as the muscles lifting the feet were all but spent, my feet hanging limp below me. In spite of or even because of these hardships, the walk was putting me into a quite distinct state of mind. Before setting off I had imagined I would think about ideas more acutely as a result of the peace and quiet but actually, the daily exertion simply quieted the mind and put the body in executive control. This was turning into a grim form of meditation relieved only by infrequent drinking stops.
Arriving north of Brighton the weather changed and I had to fight my way through driving rain that was washing over the downs in sheets. The path was deserted and, swinging my shot away feet below me like two golf clubs, I said to myself, this is not fun anymore. I spent a sodden night in my now gently leaking tent, a night that seemed far more removed from civilisation than it actually was. The next morning I pressed on, stumbled through a pig farm and was spat out at a petrol station that seemed like a cornucopia so completely depleted was my food supply. Tucking into a ploughman's sandwich and alarmingly sweetened coffee, I assessed the desperateness of my situation and took a bus into the city.
From there I visited old friends in both Brighton and nearby Seaford putting the South Downs Way and, just as importantly, my ankles on ice. In Seaford my friend took me out to a local scenic spot which turned out to be on my aborted walking route. There, at Seven Sisters, I saw crowds of tourists for the first time. I was then taken elsewhere by work and in all it took a good week to regain the ability to walk naturally.
I was not done with the South Downs Way, however, I picked up the trail once more a few weeks later when I had a couple of days free. I went back up onto the ridge looking over Brighton and set off. While this was not the ideal way to complete the walk, it seemed better than aborting it completely.
As the way progressed, the park narrowed but the terrain remained surprisingly similar. There were few people and the hills had a surprising austerity about them. Coming into the closing stretch, the village of Alfriston was rather like Winchester in the sense that it didn't seem so overly concerned about the South Downs Way. I lost the track and found it again some way out of the village only to realise, a good deal later, that there were two South Downs Ways. I was on the route accessible to mountain bikes which meant I was cutting overland towards Eastbourne and missed out on the most spectacular part of the route, the Seven Sisters cliffs. It is a good thing that I managed to see them during my recuperation break in Seaford.
The final morning's march through thick damp clouds was bleak. I pulled my hat down and pressed on military style. I was not going to be beaten!
The end came as a complete anti-climax. I was expecting epic views over the cliffs of Eastbourne but instead simply stumbled across this signpost stuck in the corner of a suburban park, nestled beside a cafe where pensioners were sipping cappuccinos and sheltering from the drizzle. I asked the waitress if this was it and she said "yeah" in a tone of voice that suggested, "what else do you expect?" There was nothing else to do but order a coffee and readjust to the deeply prosaic world I had re-entered. I probably will do another one of these long-distance walks, quite possibly a longer one still, but I will come better prepared next time, which is a way to say, with the right boots and without a Tibetan bowl.