This is a new style of posts for me, where I try to tie the photographs together with writing and observations from the day in the style of a journal. Differently for me, I chose not to get my ‘proper’ camera out of my bag on this walk, preferring to be more present and enjoying the walking. You can take the camera away from the photographer, but he still has a smartphone with a camera…
Roughly every other month for the last year, I’ve found myself on the South Downs with a day free to walk. Last May, I walked the 6 miles from Washington to Amberley (and then back again!) on a grey and somewhat rainy day.
The South Downs Way is a 100 mile long route across Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex, following ancient ridges, droveways and tracks. It weaves across the chalk lands of the South Downs, rewarding you with views of Brighton and the Channel to the south, and the landscapes to the north.
The day started parking outside the now defunct Frankland Arms. Just up the road sat a beautiful dusty blue Daimler 250. (Car experts – if I’ve got this wrong, please tell me – I’ve struggled to find any other images of this car with the same rear wheel arches). When it comes to cars, I wonder if I was born a few decades too late; the vast majority of my favourite vehicles were made before the 80’s.
The day was cool – overcast. There was a threat of rain, but nothing to put me off walking, and a welcome breeze.
Walking towards the South Downs way proper, we pass St Mary’s church, and a very handsome house called the Old Vicarage – he must have done well for himself, as the footprint of the house was similar to that of the church!
The church wall encroaches onto the road, seemingly pushing it aside. Wild bellflowers poured from the cracks and spaces in the old wall. Old stone walls are one of my favourite things, with the way that plants find nooks and spaces within which to root and flourish. The churchyard sat beyond the wild wall, grass neatly trimmed and tidy.
Ahead, the sound of traffic grows louder, as the road crosses the main road south to Worthing. I’ve always enjoyed standing above wide roads, watching the cars whip by. There weren’t many people around on this day, but the road still curved away into the trees in a pleasantly sinuous way.
A brief, cool patch of wooded cover, and I was out among the fields. Horses stood and grazed in electric-fenced areas, and the track led past a number of large properties before plunging uphill into some thick woodland.
You may well have walked past wild garlic before – a gentle, familiar smell on the air. Here, the wild garlic grew so thick on the woodland floor, that it wasn’t so much an aroma as it was an intoxicating stench – although not altogether unpleasant. It hadn’t long rained, and the thick leaves were crowded with water droplets, sprinkled with the white firework-like bursts of flowers.
The path led uphill between cool earth banks, before curving around the side of the hill and emerging onto a familiarly white South Downs path, stretching away up the slope. The chalky path led the way between wire fences and fields pock-marked with thistles and buttercups.
A sharp turn and a final climb, the path seeming to disappear into the sky.
Sheep stood watchfully, and lambs gambolled along beside the fence – caught between the conflict of “this looks interesting” and “should I be afraid?”. They settled on the latter, and stood suspiciously behind their mother, watching me as I passed.
The ground quickly became more familiar South Downs territory – chalky, flinty path underfoot, wide open landscapes, and long hillsides. The path runs through farmland along one such hillside, with the view north towards Storrington on the right. This particular field was full of cows with calves, standing in the distance. The clouds were starting to look a little more threatening at this point, but the temperature was nice for walking – not too cool, not too hot.
I passed a captivating tree that looked as if it’d been trimmed flat (featured during Project 730 – see it on Instagram) and a sign that promised that tea and cake were available in a farm down the hill. It was sorely tempting, but the farm was out of sight in the valley below and I still had quite a few miles I wanted to cover. Next time, perhaps.
Alongside the fence were the occasional gorse bushes, in riotous bloom. My wife and I joke about the old saying “When the gorse is out of bloom, kissing is out of fashion” – anything for an excuse to kiss, really – gorse is rarely not flowering in our milder climes.The phrase originated in the West Country around Dartmoor, Bodmin moor and Exmoor, where gorse is common – Blooming stems were given as a particularly spiky gift in the spring by young lovers.
The springtime felt like it took a long time to get going – as I write this, we’re currently “enjoying” one of the hottest, driest summers since records began in 1961. Spring feels like a lifetime away, least of all the lingering damp weather from the winter. Nonetheless, as I walked, there were blooms and blossoms aplenty, as nature’s green quiverings gave way to vibrant life. The way was bisected by a road, and a carpark. A large green truck was parked up, woodsmoke curling from a slightly ramshackle metal chimney, and a heavy brown oilskin coat hung by the rear doors. A home on wheels.
As the hills rolled onwards, something vibrant rolled toward me – the bright, pungent yellow of rapeseed. It’s a prolific sight in the countryside in spring, vast swathes of bright yellow. The UK is only the world’s 8th largest producer of rapeseed, with 1.8m tons of crop produced every year (as of 2016). It’s used to produce vegetable oil and is a member of the Brassicae family, which also contains cabbages and mustard.
I like to plan my walks by digitally wandering the route on Google Maps, poring over the satellite view. It’s a similar experience to peering deeply into the details of an Ordnance Survey map, but perhaps slightly less joyful. Nonetheless, I find exploring maps and dreaming up the landscape in my imagination to be utterly captivating, and I’m walking over crags and tors long before my feet touch the stone. I’d spotted on the map a marker that read “WWII Churchill MkII tank” and was intrigued. It was only slightly off the main track, so I detoured. The pathway cut straight across an oilseed field, the yellow overwhelming all sight. In the middle, where the ground dipped, the world became weirdly monochromatic – but instead of the white and greys of a snowy day, it was yellow and grey. The tiny flies that are so attracted to the yellow flowers buzzed unceasingly around.
Beneath the plants, the ground was criss-crossed by criss-crossing tire marks, the mechanical tracks of a long-since departed piece of agricultural machinery alongside the tracks of people and animals. The petals of the oilseed flowers huddled together in the indentations, making it look like the tires had been dipped in yellow paint. Further along the path across the field, lay the corpse of a rabbit, dried out by the action of sun and wind.
I followed a meandering path through a tiny patch of squat woodland, a strange triangular island of short trees and shrubs left stranded by the rising tide of rapeseed flowers. Unexpectedly sheltered after the bright exposure of the field. Just ahead of me, the wreckage of the tank, its side pock-marked with what I can only guess are bullet holes. The thick plate armour has weathered to a pitted and textured brown that more resembles rock than metal. The hulk squats into the earth, heavily. Holes and apertures gape where parts are now missing – some rough, others edged with still-precise teeth, describing with shape where once functions occured.
Nature and machine now sit intermingled, and whilst they have not yet become one, the edges have certainly become blurred. Here and there plants grow through punctures in the metalwork, reaching for the light. In researching how this tank came to rest here, I’ve discovered the provenance of the unexpected patch of woodland – it appears to be the site of an old bomb crater. Allegedly, this tank exhibited mechanical issues in 1942 and was therefore never used in the Dieppe Raid, and was shortly after superceded by the Mk iii. As a result, it was given to the Canadian Tank Division for target practice, which also goes some way to explain the peppering of holes in the armour. After the end of the war, it proved too logistically challenging to remove the hulking tank and it was dragged unceremoniously to the nearby crater and buried. There it lay entombed in the chalk until the Royal Electrical and Mechanical Engineers dug it up in 1993, used anything useful to restore a tank at the Dorset tank museum and left the rest beside the field as it stands today. A silent echo of a former time on the Downs.
I trekked back across the fields to the main way, continuing my wanderings westwards. The weather closed in, scudding clouds becoming more threatening. Before long, I’d reached a place with a pleasant overlook, and rain had begun to fall. Time for lunch. There was a patch of woodland, but in an odd twist, it seemed like every decent sheltered spot was occupied by other people. I plodded on, eventually turning off the path and heading for some small, gnarled hawthorns under which small tufts of bright white wool revealed that I was not the only being to shelter under these close boughs. Really, the stubby tree offered me little shelter from the now-persistent elements and rather focussed the scattered rain into incessant drips.
As the rains fell, the views closed in. What had been a decent view to the horizon-ish became close, grey and misty. I ate quickly, in deference to the rain, and toyed with turning back. I was, however, nearly at Amberley, and it seemed a shame to not reach it. I donned my pack and trudged onwards.
Eventually, the rain gave out, and I could walk free of my hood. Fat raindrops sat on bright spring grass, creating tiny microscope-like enlargements of the vibrant cells beneath. Brushing my hand through the grass felt cool and refreshing.
The clouds began to lift again, the river Arun lazily meandering in the distance, glinting like a silver snake in the valley. The village itself must be close, but I couldn’t see it over the rising and falling of the landscape. The fields began to drop away as I neared where the river cuts through the escarpment. A tree stood alone, almost a silhouette against the vista beyond.
The path turned steeply downhill, past a long fence with penned cattle and heaped silage. Their pen was little more than trodden earth, so they gathered keenly at the boundary to feed. They watched me past with little interest, a few curious glances from the calves but disinterested indifference from the adult cows. (This was featured on Project 730 – see it here.) They snuffled and stuck their snouts in their food as I walked past.
I continued down the slope, reaching a road that led down to the village. At this point, I was feeling a little footsore and seriously considering the wisdom of a long descent just to reach the village. But as before – I’d come this far, I might as well, right? Amberley is a sweet little village – a profusion of thatched cottages, tearoom, church. I didn’t explore much, I must confess – I sat on a bench that was sheltered from the rain and snacked on an apple and some nuts. The buildings were picturesque, draped in climbing plants and flowers. I liked the large lantern on this cottage, facing the road – almost comically oversized.
Time to turn around. I had a time I needed to back to the car by, and I had slightly underestimated the distance and would have to hot-foot it to get back on time. I have a confession, too – I love walking. I think if I could find a job that required me to spend my days outside walking the countryside, or travelling and photographing landscapes outside, I would love that. But, I am flat-footed. Without adequate arch support, I start to get cramps in my foot before too long. Unfortunately, on this particular trek to Amberley, I’d realised a few miles in that my walking boots (a pair of beloved Merrells that must now be getting on for 15 years old) had finally started to give up and weren’t giving me enough support. By the time I reached Amberley, I was in a reasonable amount of pain and walking had become uncomfortable. I’d pressed on, but I wasn’t relishing the idea of the walk back – at pace – on a painful foot.
The miles passed by, the rain came and went. I met a variety of damp walkers, cyclists, and went against the flow of some kind of hill running event for a while. I got into a loping step to try and minimise the pain as much as possible, but had to take frequent rests. The above view was a welcome one – the other side of an earlier view (Into the Sky, at the beginning of this post) – welcome because it meant I was back in spitting distance of the car.
These little chaps were kind enough to pose for me. Springtime and lambing is one of my favourite types of year – it’s hard to not be thrilled by such exuberant new life, and drawn into the excitement of the growth and life to come. The lambs were torn between young curiosity and inherited distrust. The ewe moved away, and they ran off to suckle.
Back under the trees, the rain now falling more steadily. Big, fat raindrops splatted amongst the wild garlic, cold and wet. A tiny snail meandered across the glossy leaf. The air was cool, refreshing. I walked on.
It wasn’t long before I was crossing the main road again, and heading back down the hill towards the pub. I find that when my foot starts to hurt, the last few miles pass excruciatingly slowly, and I just can’t wait to be able to rest and sit down. The rain was falling steadily now, my boots wet through. It’s a delight to get to the end of a long to long-ish walk and be able to kick off your boots and change into fresh socks and different shoes. I love the feeling of having walked for the day, the steady ache in the muscles, the wind-messed hair. On this occasion I had the other side – the unpleasant side effect of being Quite Damp. That said, despite the rain and the pain I had thoroughly enjoyed the walk across the downs. It’s a place that doesn’t disappoint – even when the weather is close, the skies are big and the views far-reaching.
In my lifetime, I hope to walk considerable stretches of the big national trails – I’ve walked various bits of many of them, but I’ve enjoyed taking a more focused stab at walking bits of the South Downs Way. My main concern is that I won’t have enough time to cover all the distance I’d like! Only time will tell.
All of the photographs in this post were taken with a Huawei P10 Plus and edited in Lightroom.