England’s ghostly South Downs Way
At Kingston, Rod left for London and I turned up Jugg’s Road, the broad old footpath from Brighton to Lewes that leads onto the summit plateau of Kingston Down. I dawdled over the plateau, looking for a place to sleep. I passed dewponds and tumuli, and a big field mushroom lying upside-down on its cap, its black gills like the charred pages of a book. Eventually, I decided on an area of lush turf, between two gorse bushes that would serve as windbreaks. The turf was rich with lady’s bedstraw, which seemed like a good plant to have as my mattress, though sweaty walker’s bedstraw would have been a truer name that night. Hundreds of feet above me, skylarks trilled on, the notes of their songs falling like ticker tape.
The skylarks sang me to sleep, and they woke me before dawn. I walked down into Lewes as the day was forming, and then onto the southern slopes of Mount Caburn, the only major summit of the downs that outlies the main chain. Purple heads of marjoram thrummed in the warming breeze. I picked up a scabious head and pinches of wild thyme. Near Glynde, I crossed the Ouse: the river mucky-banked, beginning to loop as it neared its floodplain and the sea. The path climbed again, up onto Firle Down, past teasels flowering purpley blue.
Late in the day, achy in the legs, I reached Cradle Hill, into whose eastern slope a great white chalk horse has been cut. Below me the River Cuckmere made its greasy meanders towards the sea. I dropped off the scarp down to the river, and then along the edge of the Cuckmere for two or three miles. The river water was the colour of milk chocolate. The brown mud of its banks was a rich text of bird prints, and my boot marks joined the tracks of heron, cormorant, gull and egret. An hour before dark I stood on the summit of a small chalk bluff, from which I looked down onto Cuckmere Haven, the point at which the river reaches the English Channel. It is a wide bay of flint shingle with a shallowly sloping foreshore, and was formerly guarded by slumping pillboxes. Coastguard cottages perch on the high ground to its west and, to its east, the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters are strung out like a line of washed and pegged sheets.
Little fledgling owls made test flights between the branches of sycamores. A pale horse stood motionless in a cropped field, gazing northwards. The tide was high, and for a hundred feet away from the shore, the water appeared to be the colour of green milk, the waves having sluiced chalk from the foreshore and cliffs, which stained the sea white.
I walked down to the shore and along the tide line, which was cobbled with flint boulders. Beneath the first of the Sisters, my eye was caught by a clutch of grey flints that lay together like eggs right at the foot of the cliff. I picked them up, one by one, amazed. Each one had a drawing of a creature on it, made in chalk. The style was that of the Lascaux cave paintings: naïve but fluent in line. A deer, a gull, a hawk, a seal, a human figure. Somebody must have been sitting here that afternoon, using a piece of chalk from the cliffs to draw those figures onto the flints.
I placed the largest of the stones on a flat outcrop of chalk, and then arranged the others above them in decreasing size order. Hawk, on top of seal, on top of deer, on top of human: a simple cairn at the rivermouth, marking my sea fall and the end of my walk.
Robert Macfarlane is the award-winning author of Mountains of the Mind and The Wild Places. This story is based on his new book, The Old Ways: A Journey on Foot.