For the last two years I have taken a small tent and walked an large part of the South Downs Way staring at Winchester heading towards Eastbourne. This year I wanted to walk the Way again for a few days, starting at Eastbourne and walking towards Winchester. Then I would have walked the whole South Downs Way. Rebekah suggested I try something different, and juts sleep in a bivvy bag rather than a hike tent. Do some really wild camping along the way. I was not sure if she was encouraging me to have new rich and wonderful experiences or whether she was trying to kill me off early! I am sure its the former though 🙂 . Either way I decided to do just that. I purchased a Gortex bivvy bag to cover my sleeping bag and a small lightweight 1.5m x 1.5m tarpaulin to cover my head and my rucksack in case of bad weather and I was ready to go! I have to say I was looking forward to the journey but certainly had my reservations. It has been many many years since I had camped quite so lightweight. Whats the worse that could happen? I could get wet and have to come home.
Rebekah offered me a lift to the start of the Downs, but I decided to take the bus and then walk to the start. The act of moving away from the day to day hustle and bustle of the world towards the solitude of the Downs just seemed the right way to begin this adventure. As I turned off of the main road, into a quieter lane, the noise of trucks and vans thundering past me became quieter and the way rose up to meet me. Just before I stepped on the footpath leading to the top of the Downs, I stopped and admired an old stone church. One of many such churches nestled at the foot of the South Downs. Is there, I wonder, a more English vista? I like to think that the vicars of such churches are the “right” sort. Having a role in their little community and serving that community in a way that perhaps the big town or city churches don’t have to?
After an hour or so of walking I approached the Longman of Wilmington. In my previous walks it had been my intention to end at this place as it was here that my spiritual journey began 16 years ago. However, It actually felt right to begin a physical journey here rather than end it. When I reached the chalk figure, I took off my rucksack and knelt on the grass and gave a small prayer of thanks to the figure for the start of that journey 16 years ago and asked him for a blessing on the start of this journey. I also thanked the Goddess for the support she has given over these past years.
The thing I noticed about the South Downs Way going from East to West is that you are high up on the downs from much earlier that you are when going the other way. This is wonderful as it is always what I imagined the SDW to be. The other thing I noticed is that the sea is visible for many miles. As I walked from Eastbourne to Beeding Hill, the weather was very clear. To my right the land of Sussex fell away and stretched for miles and to my left it fell away to the sea as I passed above Seaford, Newhaven, Peacehaven, Brighton and Shoreham. There is a thing in Celtic / Druidic cosmology about the three realms of Land Sea and Sky. Nowhere I have been recently has shown the connection to these three realms in such stark reality. Miles of downland paths and the Sussex Weald leading to the sea and all connected by a beautiful clear blue sky arcing from sea to land.
Something else that really struck me on this first day was the birdsong. It was everywhere, as if someone had placed speakers at regular intervals on the ground. I have no idea where the birds were. There were very few trees on top of the downs, just the odd bush or lonesome hawthorn and yet the birdsong was so loud. Ground dwelling birds possibly, I am not a very good ornithologist so cant identify the birds from the songs. But it was just beautiful. If stone churches nestled in the downs are quintessential English architecture, then this birdsong is surely a quintessentially English soundtrack?
The community of walkers , cyclist and horse riders along the way is also rather nice. Not one person failed to wave or call out a greeting as they passed. These people would probably not even see you if they passed you on the street, and yet on the Downs there is unspoken code of comradeship between all those enjoying the space.
I was fortunate that the first couple of days were very dry and sunny. But the wind, oh the wind was a constant companion. At times it caressed me from all angles as if playing with me and at other times it came from the seaward side and seem determined to push me off of the ridge! The bonus of the wind was that I did not get too hot when walking along, it was nature’s air conditioning turned up to the maximum setting. I came to call this constant companion “Mr Wind” and had several chats with him over the next couple of days.
At the end of my first day walking I found what I thought a great spot to camp where I could watch the sunset and see the sunrise. However Mr Wind had other ideas, I just could not get my lighter to work and so could not make a brew or cook some much needed food. So I packed everything up and scrambled down an embankment to a more sheltered spot, albeit it one with not quite such a clear view. I nearly fell several times scrambling down that ridge only to see that there was in fact a gentle path that led to the same spot. I blame the lack of coffee.
Once I was settled in the new spot Mr Wind made an alliance with me, dropping to a gentle breeze for the evening with the promise of returning in full force tomorrow. I could live with that, maybe I cook cook now. Or maybe not! My lighter just would not work and I had no spare. So it was a cup of water and a cold pasty, then into the bivvy bag to settle down.
Getting into a bivvy bag is no easy or graceful matter. there is no zip along the top or sides and so it is a case of shuffling in from the top. Once in I realised I was in the wrong place to make use of the tarpaulin shelter. So I had to shuffle and wriggle like a green slug until i was in the right place! Once in position though , I was very warm and very comfortable. There was about an hour until sunset so I lay there watching the sky waiting for the dark. The breeze was playing with a large Ash tree. As the clumps of leaves moved they looked like heads, more specifically like Muppet heads, coming together to chat and then move away to laugh with other heads. I don’t know if i was tired and delirious at this point, but I watched this conversation for nearly an hour until the sun set. Eventually with the breeze on my face and the sky darkening I fell into a contented sleep.
Around 2am in the morning I was woken by the noise of a particularly loud plane going over. I am so glad that it did, because when I looked up, the night stars were so bright. There were still clouds in the sky but the stars just shone like halogen lights in a ceiling. It was an amazing sight. I lay there watching the sky and dozing gently until the dawn light crept over the Eastern horizon. The first thing I wanted to experience on this walk was sleeping in the open as the sun went down and waking with the dawn. I had achieved that wonderfully on my first night, so the rest of my time was just going to be a bonus. But first I needed coffee…