A number 79 bus from Brighton Station dropped me at Ditchling Beacon and, though the sky was overcast, there was no rain. I started immediately. I passed by huddles of walkers and through gates. Ahead a bird in a pasture loudly tweeted while seeming to maintain a constant distance just off to my left. I passed trees with limbs swept back, their shapes redolent of English weather. A cow guzzled rain water at a perfectly circular dew pond.
I had intended to start at Devil’s Dyke but with a strong easterly blowing I decided to keep the wind at my back. There are many places in the world where it is possible to stop and listen with wonder to the sound of nature. Telescope Peak in California or the rice paddies around Ninh Binh in Vietnam. To prevent Englishmen indulging in such nonsense the good Lord has given us a scarce summer and strong cold winds thus ensuring that only hardy type with limited imagination can bare to be outside for any length of time.
I trudged on. A woman on a horse. Walkers with sticks. Everyone well prepared with fluorescent clothing and hoods. I had flung on an old waxed cotton jacket and now regretted not bringing a sweater, gloves and a hat.
A golf course and then, bizarrely, a saloon car driving in a field alongside me. A main road blocked my way. As the South Downs Way is well trodden, I expected there to be a foot bridge or tunnel akin to those used for wild life in wilderness areas; a method to keep road kill figures to a tolerable level but the path petered out as I entered Pycombe. A pub named The Plough was suggested and my spirits lifted as I thought of a jolly walkers boozer with pints of foaming ale and steam rising from wet jackets before a roaring fire.
The Italian bar staff had never heard of The South Downs Way and as I drank a cappuccino I surveyed the bank holiday crowd lured to the nice restaurant just off the A23 by the continental cuisine. They had clearly not walked further than the car park. I took out my smart phone and consulted Google maps.
Venturing out again I found the small bridge not fifty yards from the pub and I ruminated on our sense of place. To a walker The Plough represented a much needed hostelry, breaking the journey and marking the crossing of a major highway. The land was something to be surveyed and understood. To the barman the pub was his place of work just off the A23 by the BP garage.
It is the ease with which we travel and communicate which results in such divergence in our comprehension of place. The same area represents different things to different people though they may be neighbours. In areas of London well appointed houses sell for millions but what to do about a cleaner? The rain was now constant though the wind had eased. There has always been a divergence in our sense of a place, social standing being, perhaps, the main cause but, these days, with technology allowing individuals to customise their lives to such an extent, it’s a wonder we recognise anything at all.
I recall returning from four years in Africa. An August evening in Solihull and I drove around searching for a small hotel. I could find nobody to ask for assistance. In Africa there would have been people everywhere. In Solihull the streets were deserted, it’s inhabitants safe behind locked doors. Today, when I ask in local shops for directions, I am met with blank stares. The staff live miles away and are delivered to work by wheeled machines. They know nothing of the shop next door let alone half way up the road.
Perhaps social trends are trends because they are self reinforcing. I had refrained from asking in the pub for directions because the clientèle did not look sufficiently like myself. I had resorted to Google. If another walker had been present my actions would have discouraged him from asking for assistance. And so a technology which is supposed to connect us, isolates us.
The climb was tiring and I started to breath heavily. I wondered why it was that the government are keen to spend billions on projects for industry yet they have not sort to make life easier for the humble walker. I had walked for perhaps an hour and a half and the terrain became steeper. The government is about to spend billions on High Speed Rail 2 yet no plans are afoot to build a suspension bridge between Ditchling Beacon and Devils Dyke. Is it too much to ask that a little consideration is shown for the common man? If businessmen save an hour on journeys from London to Birmingham they will merely stay in bed an extra hour. Why should the walker be forced to trudge up hill and down dale while fat cats enjoy luxurious service replete with milk jugs and brown sugar? Such were my thoughts as I trudged higher and higher.
The rain eased off and though the sun did not break through it made an effort. I felt a little warmer and opened my jacket. Crossing Sadlecomb Road I began the last leg up Devils Dyke on the southern side and realised that there was a distinct possibility I might just make the 3:15 bus back into Brighton. Drawing near I had to decide whether to continue my path up to the road or dip down into the shallow entrance to Devils Dyke and up the other side. Having realised some time back that there may be a blog article in this and with my brain full of metaphors I peeled away from the path like a Hurricane in pursuit of an ME 109. Diving down into the Dyke and them climbing steeply up the other side I machine gunned a gaggle of walkers crowding my path. I strode quickly past and before me lay just one child and his dog. I glimpsed the roof of the bus waiting behind the trees but the little bastard and his dog then stopped dead blocking the entrance to the car park. The bus began to move as I struggled past and puffed up behind it too late.
Exhausted and wet, the rain began to fall again. At least there was a pub here and, with visions of Frodo Baggins approaching the Prancing Pony, I walked up to the door of The Devils Dyke “Vintage Inn”.
A man stopped me and asked if he could help.
“Help?”, I thought, “This is a pub?” I asked.
“It’s a pub AND a restaurant” he declared.
“And what, I’m not allowed in?”.
“You can go in but please sit in the drinks only area”.
On entering the establishment my hopes of a friendly hostelry were once again dashed by Little England Petty Pomposities (LEPPs). I realised that most of the pub was a “restaurant” while drinkers were forced to sit in the entrance hall like lepers. I ordered coffee and peevishly received a large tray with a cup of coffee, a saucer, a milk jug and a bowl of brown sugar. Finding a small table in the restaurant I removed my sodden jacket while my face glowed from exertion.
I was tired. Disconnected from modernity. As England has become richer it has turned it’s back on it’s tradition in favour of sugar bowls, milk jugs and “greeters” by the door. I have nothing in common with these people because they have nothing to have in common besides their status as customers. They have not walked here, I thought piously, they have driven. They have no stories to share I bemoaned, no doubt inspired by my halting attempts to read Canterbury Tales on my iPhone Kindle. They are not slaking their thirst or eating a well earned meal they are buying a service.
I stood outside in the rain for a bit before boarding a number 77 back into Brighton. I brightened a little, this walking lark wasn’t half as difficult as it’s made out to be and, at least, I had another cynical meandering rant for my blog.
Ditchling Beacon to Devils Dyke is 6 miles and it took me 2 and a half hours with 15 minute stop at The Plough in Pycombe.