Monday, 26 October 2009

Home to the sea

Out of Hassocks Station, past the alternative-therapy 'Heeler Centre' (not a bad pun, apparently, but run by someone called Heeler), we followed the railway embankment south as far as Butchers Wood, then over to Clayton.

The Downs rose steeply ahead of us, the sails of the Jack and Jill windmills peeking bashfully over the sheep-filled horizon. Turning back, we could see the coloured counties, or at least Sussex, turning shades of ochre in the hazy autumn sun. Beyond the windmills, we crossed the South Downs Way, busy with walkers, dogs and horses, and skirted the edge of Pyecombe Golf Club.

We joined the Sussex Border Path as it led through a freshly ploughed field, the bare flinty earth gleaming black under wheeling seagulls.

Past the Chattri War Memorial, an incongruous Mughal-styled memorial to 53 Indian soldiers whose corpses were cremated there during the First World War, Sussex Heights and Brighton's seafront could be seen in the distance.

After a quick pint in Patcham's Black Lion, a plastic Harvester restaurant busy with squabbling families, we walked back in to Brighton on the London Road. At the south end of Preston Park, the remnants of Steve Ovett's despoiled statue provided a surreal footnote to the journey.
Stats: 11.25km, 7 miles, 2.5 hours

Thursday, 22 October 2009

Fowl play

Leaving Haywards Heath, my befuddled state (head-cold fog battling it out with pseudoephedrine fizz) got me serially lost down sylvian suburban streets, with his'n'hers Porsche Cayennes in front drives. Eventually, as the autumn sun broke through grey clouds, I escaped into a field of cows by Fox Hill.

From here, a curiously complicated series of footpaths led me slowly south to Wivelsfield, over handsome stiles erected by the local Monday Group. The last footpath ended in a garden populated by geese and a goat. I followed the signs to cross a small bridge over a stream, but the geese had other ideas, rushing over the bridge at me with wings aloft, hissing furiously and trying to bite me between the legs. Like heavy artillery, the goat lurked malevolently behind the front lines.

Like a cross between Horatius Cocles and their Capitoline ancestors, the birds were clearly determined to defend their territory. While pondering these irrelevant classical allusions, I cast around for a weapon: would self-defence be a mitigating factor against accusations of poaching? Did I want to carry a dead goose for the rest of the walk?

Instead, I decided to beat a hasty retreat, and walked cautiously round the edge of the garden. After a mercifully brief stretch of road (the byways of Sussex are packed with speeding SUVs and white vans, not making for easy walking), I returned to open country, passing to the east of St George's Retreat (a rapidly-expanding care home) and between the heathland and industrial buildings of Ditchling Common.

Joining the Sussex Border Path and crossing the Lewes branch of the railway, I saw a first glimpse of the South Downs in the distance. The path led into 'the Low Weald' - small fields of horses and grapes, and through a free range chicken farm. My second poultry encounter of the day was much more relaxed than the first: the chickens had obviously come to associate humans with food, so came rushing at me.

As I walked down the track, I looked back to see that I had attracted a retinue of the daft clucking creatures, reminding me of Bertrand Russell's admonition: "Domestic animals expect food when they see the person who feeds them. We know that all these rather crude expectations of uniformity are liable to be misleading. The man who has fed the chicken every day throughout its life at last wrings its neck instead, showing that more refined views as to the uniformity of nature would have been useful to the chicken."

Ditchling's narrow high street was clogged with cars, and The Bull was packed with prosperous munchers, giving the lie to the recession with their locally-sourced and exorbitantly-priced lunches. Following an old Roman Road busy with well-dressed dog walkers, I skirted Keymer, and arrived at Hassocks Station in time to catch a train under the looming Downs back to Brighton.

Stats: 8.7 miles, 14 km, 3.25 hours

Saturday, 17 October 2009

My old haunts

More than any other part of London, Southwark remains medieval. Its narrow streets, hard against railway embankments, retain an eldritch flavour of their history, of their ghosts, that centuries of development cannot fully erase.

Turning down Redcross Way from Union Street a few days ago, I was immediately confronted by a faded Jubilee Line extension worksite hoarding, a ghost of my own past. Beyond this, a gate was strung with faded flowers and tributes, like the scene of a truly cataclysmic road traffic accident, or the streets of New York after 9/11.

The gate (photo, left, ProfDEH) leads into Cross Bones, an uncon- secrated burial ground first identified as a 'single women's church yard' in the 16th Century. That is to say, it was a burial site for prostitutes, known as 'Winchester Geese' after the Bishop of Winchester who licensed their trade, together with other unsavoury activities (bull and bear baiting, acting etc) that were only permitted south of the River.

Cross Bones subsequently became a general paupers' burial ground, and was closed owing to overcrowding in 1853. The Jubilee Line extension works required partial excavation of the site, though only 19th Century corpses (45 per cent of them less than a year old at time of death) were recovered.

Successive attempts by Transport for London and its predecessors to develop the site have faltered in the face of local opposition. Led by a playwright called John Constable, a local community group runs monthly remembrance rituals, and an annual event at Halloween. Despite the neo-pagan/psychogeographical hokum that these seem to involve, it is touching that some people still honour the memory of what they term "the outcast dead", as the trains and lorries of the 21st Century rumble by oblivious.