England’s ghostly South Downs Way
Chalk to the south, clay to the north. Sun to the south, rain to the north. Woods to the south, fields to the north. The ridge of the South Downs I was walking had become a frontier in the landscape, dividing the world into realms of weather, light and colour. Underfoot, the track – of fine chalk, pure enough to write with – was glossy with recent rain. Ahead of me, it ran brightly off over the hills, dipping from sight before looping back up again.
The downs are the only high ground in an otherwise flat and low landscape, and this means that – as in the desert or on an ocean – you can sometimes see what weather will reach you hours before it arrives. For much of that morning I led a charmed life: monsoon-squalls sliding by to east and west. Then, just after noon, a big storm caught me: yellow sun-flare, dulling to sepia. Rain drilling the earth, and the path a river, gathering the water into a torrent that rinsed the chalk white again. I sheltered in a copse of oak and high-trunked beeches, and ruefully considered the claim of the French historian Hippolyte Taine that ‘the first music of England’ is to be heard in ‘the fine patter of rain on the oak trees’. That morning, there was nothing musical to the rain. It was military: weather war.
It was the first of many soakings for the day. During each shower, the world bleared and wove. I tried to time my miles between squalls, moving from cover to cover. Despite the rain, I felt delighted to be out and walking. Ahead of me lay several days on foot, and the path insinuating eastwards – in the old and innocent sense of the verb, from the Latin ‘insinuare’, meaning ‘to bend in subtle windings, to curve’. I had left that morning from Winchester, with the aim of following the ridgeline of the South Downs east for a hundred miles until it made sea-fall near Eastbourne on the English Channel.
That first night on the downs I slept in the dubious shelter of a forestry plantation called War Down, tucked into my little bivouac tent while the rain slipped down the conifer needles. I have spent more comfortable nights under canvas. Yet by dawn the rain had stopped, the air was warm and so I started early. Wild clematis smoked up the hedgerows. Creepers – bryony, ivy, honeysuckle, bindweed – slinked out along tree branches and hung down over the path like the slipped coils of snakes.
Somewhere near Amberley, a barn owl lifted from a stand of phragmites. I stopped to watch it hunt over the water margin, slowly moving north up the line of the river, pulling a skein of shrills from the warblers in the reeds. It was a daytime ghost, its wings beating with a huge soundlessness. East of Beacon Hill, I reached a sustained ridge of chalk. Whitebeam trees marked the path to right and left, with their grey-green upper leaves and their sharp silver unders. Emerging from a dark and yew-rich wood, I reached an open down that stretched ahead for two miles. White flints were scattered across the fields, with tumbleweeds of sheep’s wool bowling between them.
At dusk that second day I followed a hollowed path that wound up the wooded scarp slope of the downs east of Storrington. The path’s depth spoke of continual foot-passage over centuries, and I liked its design: it moved in roundcornered zigzags, an uphill meander. There in the forest, night was further advanced. I turned a corner and a badger bustled out of a bank of dog’s mercury, stopped, stared at me, its eyes giving a quick green jewel-flash in the dark before it barrelled on downhill along its path, and I followed mine uphill, out of the woods and onto the summit plateau of the downs, to a place called Chanctonbury Ring – where I now wish I hadn’t spent the night.