#9: A walk, of sorts, on the South Downs Way

Before we get to the tall tale of my trekking and intrepid exploring, here’s what you need to know about the famous route in question: the South Downs Way is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales and was the first bridleway National Trail in England. Stretching from the ancient cathedral city of Winchester in the west, first capital of England, through to the white chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head at Eastbourne in the east, almost all of its stunning 160 kilometre length is blissfully off-road.

Furthermore, the South Downs is the most populous of the UK’s National Parks - 117,000 people live and work within the park’s boundaries and of the 2 million people who are fortunate enough to live within 5km of the park, I can count myself lucky enough to be a part of that club, as a resident of Brighton and Hove. My happy camper partner for this recap used to fall into the same club. And if you read on you will discover, a club that we're not a part of is that of the fairweather, casual visitors group to the famous chalky paths and woodlands…

Before the pandemic took hold, in the depths of 2019 (the first weekend of December to be precise), myself and Jack, an old chum and fellow displaced Yorkshireman, boarded a midday train from our adoptive South Coast city, and set off for the aforementioned Westerly tip of the famous Way - Winchester. It was one of those gloriously bright, startling winter days - the low, enveloping sun blinded most motorists and caused confusion over wardrobe choices. The upbeat weather prompted sunny dispositions and also train drinking; tins of IPA took us all the way along the line for a late afternoon alight underneath the fading sun, sun which was already fading behind the famous yellow/white cathedral spires as we slung on our backpacks, tied on the other essentials and buckled up for the evening hike into the woods and away from the last of the generous Southern aurora.

Just prior to our departure from the urban sprawl, a serendipitous sign from the walking gods occurred almost as soon as we’d hopped off the train and into the pocket of time which belongs to thirsty office workers: assuming, quite justifiably, that the two of us were vagrants or a pair of the city's unfortunates, a trio of besuited office workers approached and offered us a plastic bag full of lager as they clopped past, crouched as we were outside a corner shop with our ensemble of food and refreshments for the night laid around our ankles. Jack’s faithful German Pointer Tilly looked on, unmoved by the charitable offering. Instead of bothering to correct them or detail our heroic plans, we received the booze gladly, and added it to our collection. A collection which also included two more foursomes of Stella (they clearly had the measure of us), an arbitrary miniature port, and a 750 ml bottle of single malt whisky. All sensible camping trips should come with the old adage of planning for the worst and hoping for the best. I’m not entirely sure what hell we were planning on encountering when collating our mobile liquor cupboard (we’d clearly missed the sensible memo) and if you’re assuming that this rattlebag sounds over the top for two people, your assumptions would be devastatingly accurate…

Weighed down by hops, barley, tents, sleeping bags, protein snacks and any number of other handy bits and pieces, the three of us padded away from civilisation and onto the well-trodden Way in earnest; the first few furlongs are all uphill, so with a total blackout approaching, we searched for a suitable place to pitch up; the city now behind us, as were all other surrounding hamlets, villages, and road traffic - silenced and out of sight, save for distant living room lights and the odd twinkle from faraway cars.

Once set up and well in drink we warmed ourselves with scorching hot soup and conversation about the years of friendship we’d shared and endured. Our well of reminiscence eventually ran dry, as did the scotch, so we stumbled about in our own private patch of privet, thicket and moss-weathered trees. Two head torches would’ve been better than one but the stars - which were as clear as can be without the intrusion of light pollution we’re used to in the city - guided us as we stepped and laughed, and fell amongst the felled trees.

The next day, once caffeinated, we set off as the headache-filled morning became the afternoon: saddle bags of cans and empty food packets rattling at our sides, as mules (or asses) we plodded the 18 miles towards the town of Petersfield and our digs for night number two. Memories are less retrievable when the present moment marries alcohol withdrawal with muscle fatigue, but what is for certain is that the terrain over this stretch of the Way was kind and we found time to stop and admire a far off deer group or two, whilst talking ourselves to a sober state. By the time we had stumbled across a pub which was open and would accommodate two scruffy northerners and the far more charming face of Tilly, our hangovers had flown off with the crows and we were ready for a restorative pint of the black stuff. But once again, our dialogue with the daylight was fast running out and so we hastened the final part of the plod so we could shower before a well-earned meal in our B and B. Yes, a B and B - what do you think we are, harder campers or something?

And what does this all mean? Well, a walk takes us somewhere, by definition. We pick ourselves up and plop ourselves in a different location. Surely that applies to our outlook on the world too - on the mind - our own internal philosophies and perception of things. Walking affords daydreaming, indulges it even. This year, perhaps more than any other, has been a year for trekking and talking with loved ones. There’s still enough of the thin wedge of this autumn left to repeat such walking feats and make a memory or two. Although I can’t see Jack or travel and sip beer on a train with him now, a time will come in the near future, hopefully the spring, when we are permitted to do such things again.

And by the time spring 2021 does come around, the last thing I will want to do is that, and the memory of walking a small section of the South Downs Way deep into 2019 will bring a smile to my face as I sit taking in a cocktail or two on a Mediterranean beach with my wife.

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