A27, Alluvial Plain, Beachy head, Birling Gap, Blue Tits, Chalk & Flint Terrain, Chimpanzees, Cliffe High Street, Cretacious, Culfail Tunnel, Downland, East Sussex, Gatwick Airport, Grasslands, Grazing, Gym, Iron Age Hill Forts, LeneLovich Birdsong, Lewes, Mount Caeburn, Newhaven, Ouse River, Pheasant, Pigeons, Saucony Trainers, Shakespeare, Skylarks, Southerham Farm Reserve, Sparrows, starlings, The Sea, Typewriters, Urban.
The sponging of dense grass and moss muffles up through each footstep. Each earthly percussion creates a physical feedback loop that drives the next step and the next. There is something of the mechanical meditation in this walk. Each step reaches further than just the simple exchange of calorific energy through muscle and sinew for propulsion. Each footfall connects me with the deeper history of the chalk and flint ground beneath my feet. My pace is steady. [My speed hovers somewhere around the 7 in gym treadmill terms.]
That I connect to this ancient soil through the soles of my very urban white, red and green Suacony Jazz 91 trainers doesn’t quite fit the idyllic bill. But in their defence, they have carried me through hundreds of hours of walking around this Downland over the last 3 or so years. So they have earned their place, however incongruous they might seem amidst the herds of professional walking boots and shoes we pass.
The wind-blown tree sits on the prow of the hill. The tree is my first marker. Beyond the tree, decompression and a quieting of the mind awaits.
As I pick up my pace, I imagine each heel-crump and sole-scuff echoing down through the Cretaceous layers beneath me. The chalk here is a vestigial blanket beneath the patchwork quilt of the East Sussex Downs – a residue of microscopic plankton skeletons from the bed of the shallow sea that once covered this area. As I veer left towards the tree I see the roof-tops of Cliffe High Street and the scimitar curve of the tidal River Ouse behind and below me as it exits Lewes. I also sense the Culfail Tunnel that cuts beneath me behind the chalk cliff-face that rises up over the south-easterly point of Lewes.
The walk takes me up and into the Southerham Farm Reserve, just south-east of Lewes. The grassland here has developed into the close-cropped downland pasture through over a 1000 years of grazing. South Downs sheep speckle the hillsides, bobbing like fluffy white and grey corks on the waves of chalk and flint hills rolling back towards the sea some five miles off to the south of me. The Reserve footpath scarps up a green incline to my left punctuated with sheep and meat-herd cattle. In front of me to the right and below where I am standing is a curved hollow that wends around to the right and down into a dip through which a farm track runs – a natural amphitheatre with topographic welts running along its steep sides – the long grassed-over furrows of some older crop raising.
Vestigial echoes are a theme up here. Another quirk of my Saucony Jazz trainers is that the left one wheezes slightly each time my heel hits the ground. [Well, more of a squelchy-sigh than a wheeze.] The right remains inscrutably silent. I speculate that this lop-sided sound effect might be due to the fact that I carry more weight on my left foot. A physical echo perhaps, of an L1/L2 prolapse disc that demonstrated itself [sciatica] in my right leg and foot. The echo here resides in the heel of my left trainer as evidence of my ‘carrying’ it still, [my leg that is, not the trainer] some 18 years after the fact.
Beyond the wizened tree, the ground raises upwards in a gentle slope and then steepens. The meat-cattle are closer now, bunched in this narrower spit that runs around the top edge of the amphitheatre to my right. As I move to the prow where a stile opens onto the next leg of the walk, the wind blows up a little. I am suddenly aware that there is not one obstacle between me and Eastbourne to the immediate east and Beachy Head and the Birling Gap to the south-east of me.
Sound overwhelms me here, the wind buffeting my ears. Until this point the walk has been wrapped in the birdsong of skylarks hovering and flitting 20-30 yards above my head. The warbling sing-song of them wafting over the downs just above ground level is particular to this landscape.
The purity of their song marks a clear phase in the walk. Earlier on, as I climb the tarmac hill from Cliffe High Street up past the golf course to reach the downland, the birdsong is an exquisite collision of sparrows, starlings and blue tits, tinged with the corvid caws of crow, magpie mutter, wood pigeon coos, and the wood chatter of a distant woodpecker.
This blanket of birdsong is soulful evidence of a universal grammar at work in the natural world. Current research shows increasing evidence of the links between birdsong and the universal grammar evident within it and the syntactical rhythms of creature speech. It would come as no surprise to me that humans have mined and mimicked bird song to elevate and sophisticate the basic range of primate vocal communication. Chimpanzees may well write Shakespeare given a typewriter and long enough. But it takes birds to elevate the human language to a sonnet or an aria.
Once past the golf course and out on to the downland, everything falls away. I am left with only the skylark song all about me. It is punctuated every now and then by soaring seagull calls high above me and the distinctive cocking of the male pheasant below me, scuttling along the fringes of the low copse woods. Ive decided that, at their harshest, pheasant calls sound like a hybrid between a crow caw and a fan-belt slipping.
As I look up into the blue, scanning to find the various protagonists of said songs, something reveals itself to me. Before the lock down came, even up in this beautiful and reasonably unspoilt part of the world, there would still be a steady, low level of noise pollution coming both up from the traffic rush of the A27, and down from the planes heading for Gatwick Airport.
Now. Just blue. And silence. As testament to the emptiness of the sky bar the birds nature put in it, I spy just one high distant vapour trail. This blue canopy is usually criss-crossed with the vapour scratches of windswept and interesting air travel. No now at least.
The lockdown has given those of us lucky enough to live at the fringes of nature an opportunity to reconnect with her beyond a simple Sunday walk. The silences left by the absence of air and road travel amplify and elevate the natural orchestra of the wild. Greater tracts of time and a far deeper need to reflect and interrogate some of the turbulence and anxiety the COVID 19 pandemic has bought compels us to spend longer out in nature than we might otherwise do. Thats not a bad thing. And it is a living privilege that I am deeply grateful for.
As I loop my way up and across the downland, Mount Caeburn sits to my left-hand side at the highest point, with Lewes to its north and the silvery Ouse snaking beneath its gaze southwards to Newhaven and the sea. This hunched, moated echo of an iron-age hill fort is from a time where defence against the dangers that might lurk all around the settlement, against what might harry and kill the occupants, was the key to survival. It was a defended place everyone could withdraw to and take refuge in. It strikes me that every home in the UK right now is less a castle and more a Mount Caebourn.
The sun is up properly now and the mists are starting to lift off the alluvial plain below and to the south. The striding dark sigh of me falls away to my right across the grazing field.
It makes me think.
The shadow that falls from me is not the stretching shadow of an evening sun whose lengthening signals the coming darkness of a long night. This is a morning walk. On this day, for the moment at least, much like our impacts on the environment, my shadow will only shorten as the sun rises and the day fills to blooming. And with the coming of the mid-day sun that shadow will briefly disappear. To nothing. The long shadow of my presence on the downland will have passed into memory, for a short while at least.
It would be rather nice if our impacts on the only planet we have did much the same.