Monday, April 7, 2014
Coming down a steep track off the South Downs Way near Lewes early yesterday evening, I thought my kneecaps might shear off or my calves burst open. My usual idea of walking is a maximum of 8 miles with at least two pub stopovers on the way; but yesterday, as one of seven walkers helping two friends train for Herculean walking feats later in the year, we covered the 20 miles from Birling Gap to Kingston village. It was not a Sunday stroll; today, I have been mostly nursing sore feet. Hopefully my younger, fitter friends will not be feeling quite so much pain. One will be walking non-stop from London to Brighton in May for Great Ormond Street Hospital; another will be scaling the peaks of Ben Nevis, Scafell and Snowden in 24 hours in June to raise money for the Breast Cancer Campaign.
The day had forecast rain, but it was dry as we assembled at Birling Gap at 10 o’clock in the morning. The car park was busy with walkers being dropped off and, as we set off along the Seven Sisters, it was like the first day of the sales. But the walkers had thinned out as we neared Cuckmere Haven and, by the time we crossed the East Dean Road with the first 5 miles behind us, we only came across the occasional dog walker as we skirted Friston Forest on the 3 mile trip up to Alfriston for a lunch stop. Across the valley we could see the Litlington White Horse, one of only a dozen in Britain outside of Wiltshire. The current horse dates from the 1920s and superseded the first chalk horse, carved a hundred yards higher up Hindover Hill to celebrate the coronation of Queen Victoria. In the village of Litlington itself, we passed Clapham House, once the home of George IV’s mistress, Maria Fitzherbert. He secretly married her, in a ceremony which was later declared invalid, and she bore him children - nobody is sure exactly how many. He eventually dumped her, of course.
At the Star Inn in Alfriston, we were greeted at the door by a large carved wooden statue of a lion’s head. The dependable Kev Reynolds informed us, in his guide The South Downs Way, that it was a figurehead plundered from a Dutch ship wrecked in Cuckmere Haven in the mid-19th century. Inside, we were greeted by a live musical duo that serenaded us with a selection of hits from the 1980s as we had lunch and a restorative pint. It was all a little Phoenix Nights. Coming out of the pub and sitting in the emerging sunshine by the war memorial, as others stocked up on chocolate and energy drinks in the village shop, I could understand how Eleanor Farjeon was inspired by the beauty of the village to write the hymn, Morning Has Broken.
Having thought I might take an early footbath and stop after 8 miles, the brightening skies convinced me that carrying on for another 12 would be a good idea. However, once we were high up on the hills above Firle and Newhaven, the threatened rain looked as though it would finally close in on us. The honeycomb dome and pencil chimneys of the Newhaven incinerator seemed to be permanently on our left and, however much progress we made, we could not seem to put them behind us. The rain held off but a battering cross-wind made the going tough. Once we had crossed the River Ouse near Rodmell - where Virginia Woolf filled the pockets of her overcoat with stones and fatally waded into the depths (an action some of us could sympathise with at that point) - we knew that we had less than five miles to go; but aching limbs and flagging spirits made it a long final leg. Despite this, we all of us made it, limping into The Juggs pub at 6.30pm to be revived with a feast of beer and chocolate.