First a circular route due to train issues. But then we are together, we begin. Amberley to Brighton. X hands out homemade flapjacks; delicious fuel. We mark our start with a group “Ho! Ho!” and soon are striding steeply upwards to the South Downs Way. We are well prepared, each with many layers and many waterproofs and far far too much food. We stop for scenery and to catch our breaths. The autumn colours are implausibly beautiful.
On the crest we see the sea. Crepuscular rays strike down and patches of water glow with religious intensity. We argue whether our band will be called “The Crepuscular Rays” or “Restricted Byways”. We follow gliders, and one comes excitingly, frighteningly close. Massive birds of prey hang in the sky, suspicious of our colourful party.
We stop to eat and quickly go from comfortable to numb-fingered. All of us try and give our food away, we’ve all bought enough to share, and everybody wants to reduce the weight of their backpacks. Alas, nobody wants M’s brunch biscuits!
We go through a beech-capped hill fort, with views for many miles. Wet blue toadstools and Dead Men’s fingers claw out of the ground. We wee behind trees and P and L debate whether or not the tower in the distance is the Brighton Donut.
For a while we impose a quiet on ourselves and walk in our separate worlds. Flowers are still out; Scabious and Granny-Pop-Out-Of-Beds grow alongside rose hips and spindle berries and melony blackberries. Butterflies unseasonably flitter in the late sunshine.
We meander back to civilisation. The silhouette of Bramber Castle is startlingly phallic. The sun goldens us on top of the motte and we decide who we might sacrifice. M charades a ridiculous sunset. O dreams of bathtubs. Clouds pinken as we walk to the church, which is tiny and charming and dark. It smells of warmth and candles. Outside is fresh white confetti, a pretty place to marry, fittingly fertile in the shadow of the castle.
We find our Inn, then it’s drinks and bunk bed debates and a quest for vegetarian food. We go to the Indian, and learn that Patillas are not kneecaps. We see a few fireworks, but not quite enough. We oo and aar, but realistically I’m not sure we could all stand for the length of a display. We are weary and achy and conserving what we have for tomorrow. So, time for story-telling and hot chocolate in room four. I have unsettling dreams and wonder if the Inn is haunted; nothing to do with curry and wine.
We wake to sparkling frost. Scrambled Egg and Salmon starts me well and I decide I’ll never need to eat again. Because of the cold I put on all my clothes. A takes a photograph of us being velociraptors. We wiggle through the village, twisted cottages and a river running through and then we are climbing again, staggering, steep and sweltering. I decant as many clothes as is decent but as soon as we reach the ridge I am buttoning and zipping back up.
On one edge of the seascape is the Brighton Donut, clear now, and at the other the Isle of Wight. Closer is the tower of the old concrete factory. We wave over at the North Downs, where several of us grew up. Breakfast and sunshine have replenished us and we settle at a happy pace.
Brighton seems near and far simultaneously. Before we realise it we are already at Devil’s Dyke, waiting impatiently for hang gliders to take off. Finally at the viewing point we identify what each hill is. We slip-slide around demonic folds and very gradually countryside is replaced with golf courses and tarmac and Skeleton Hove and then real Hove and then the Dials. We walk once familiar streets that I can now barely navigate. We have a beer and a final “Ho! Ho!” to mark the end of our weekend. What friends! What walking! I travel home happy.