Sunset last night found me rummaging through cupboards retrieving sleeping bags and heavy jackets. An old wool hat, some gloves. It might be cold up at Devils Dyke and I wanted to be prepared. The Perseid Meteor Shower had come around again.
The forecast was clear skies and, as I watched the sun set, the clouds scarpered and the stars came out. I stuffed my jacket into a bag and a toy noise machine fell to the ground. A joke Christmas present. Press a button to get special effects noises. A thunderstorm, a crow. Absent mindedly I put it in my pocket and picked up the camp bed.
A final glance out the window revealed the moon just setting. Excellent! The seeing would be good. Hot chocolate into a thermos and camera packed I staggered downstairs overloaded with gear while a grating witches cackle emerged from my pocket. Outside there was a bit of wind, good thing I’d prepared. Car loaded, I set off.
This year Talking Bollocks had correspondence at both major seeing points in Brighton; Devils Dyke and Ditchling Beacon. Our Ditchling correspondent texted to say he was making tea and would soon set off. Around 11pm, up at the Dyke, cars were still arriving and I parked up. A party atmosphere. Laughing and drinking. Standing and staring. As I walked I almost stumbled over prone figures lying on the ground. Camp beds, sleeping bags. People were making a night of it. A cool wind was blowing from the south west but the sky was clear and it wasn’t long before I saw a shooting star streak across the sky accompanied by whoops and cheers from the darkness.
The real trick is to know which part of the sky to look at. I had no idea. I wandered around the back of the little wood where the wind drops away and found three guys with cameras and tripods. They pointed out Perseus with a laser pointer. Oddly this actually worked, the laser being visible for a good way as it bounces off water vapour in the air. These guys explained that they travel around the UK taking pictures at night. Sometimes storm chasing, sometimes meteor chasing. As, I stood, face raised to the heavens, their conversation floated over. F stops and ISO ratings. Tea and biscuits. Techy and camaraderie. The sky seemed full of aircraft but, as they predicted, this soon died down.
A text came in from our Ditchling correspondent who reported that it was like a festival up there and the shooting stars were plentiful. After an hour or so I decided to bed down. Returning to the car I collected my gear and walked through to the back of the wood and set up my bed. I stuffed my sleeping bag into the bivvy bad and took a final swig of hot chocolate then lay back and watched the skies. A meteor zipped across the sky every few minutes. Some thin and feint and some bright and wide. I drifted off to sleep.
About 2pm I awoke. I was uncomfortable. Could be worse. The Fastnet yacht race has started and they should be round Land’s End and into the Irish Sea by now. Could be choppy though they should get a good view of the sky. As I tossed and turned blood curdling screams emerged from my pocket. I was cold and something was digging into my back. The zip in the sleeping bag had broken and bits of me kept emerging into the cold air and the slope of the bed didn’t help.
About 3:00 I packed up and returned to the west side of the Dike to find the place almost deserted. All but one party of revelers had gone home. Before leaving I stood about a bit and took some more pictures. Now and then a car would arrive., drive around the car park and depart. Astronomers or doggers? It wasn’t possible to know.
Then foot to the floor and down the winding lanes back into the empty streets of Brighton to arrive at the sea front about 4:00am.
Not a bad place to live. Rural and urban. Thoughtful and rowdy. Nerdy and obscene. Brighton & Hove!
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.
The poppies are out up near Devils Dyke. Millions of them! A few years ago they seemed to spring from nowhere and then last year I noticed that the fields appeared to have been covered in lighter coloured earth and the poppies did not appear. I wondered if the farmer had tried to kill them off. I guess that farmers do not want millions of poppies in their corn field but then what do I know about farming? Anyway. One morning on the way to work I stopped and took this bit of video.
On Tuesday the 11th August the BBC told me that the Persus meteor shower was occurring so about 10pm I nipped up toe Devils Dyke to get a better view. In my ignorance I had expected that I would be alone up there but I joined a train of cars trailing there way up the downs.
At the top there were plenty of people, fires were alight and bar-b-ques on the go. Some had tents and others just had camp beds under the starts. The sky was clear and we had a good view.
I hung around for about 45 minutes expecting to see a vague streak high up in the sky but when it came it was astonishing. A really bright and large fireball that seemed to whiz across the trees. Then later another. I’d taken a camera but had forgotten the adapter for my tripod and so my photography was limited.
I lay the camera on the ground and got this photo which appears to show a shooting star that I hadn’t noticed at the time.
I also got a fairly spooky looking photo of the moon and the grass.
Last week was an interesting week, if my photos are anything to go by. On Monday, while driving back from work, I got an excellent picture of St. Margaret’s Church near Chipstead. Admittedly there was a burnt out car obstructing the view but you can’t have everything and you have to expect things in such an urban setting.
Then on Wednesday morning I stopped off while driving over the South Downs near Devils Dyke to take a picture of my beautiful Alfa Romeo GT.
Some might call it a mess of ugly weeds but I prefer to see a profusion of scarlet.
Friday found me in Islington and a reasonable picture of two women in front of a door.
Then on the way to see the Futurists exhebition at Tate Modern I grabbed an image of The London Underground which I thought had some merit. – More of this later.