My bag is obviously much too heavy. I have a bundle of snacks, three litres of liquid, and a few assorted ‘nice to haves’ – spare phone battery, blister plasters, kindle, wireless keyboard etc. It feels excessive. It is excessive.
"From the train I cannot see the hilltops; they’re shrouded in an ugly grey fog"
The weather’s looking foul and heavy. From the train I cannot see the hilltops between Lewes and Eastbourne; they’re shrouded in an ugly grey fog. ‘I can walk in this...’ I think, ‘but it’s not going to make for good Instagram.’
When I get to Eastbourne I’m instantly lost. My plan had been to head to the pier to look out at the sea – to throw a stone in the water for luck and whatnot – but I accidentally start walking inland, along the bridleway route. This is the wrong path.
"I’m on course for about thirty seconds before I steer wrong again"
Half an hour later I’m at the start of the trail. I'm on course for about thirty seconds before I steer wrong again and have to stamp over heath to get right. It doesn't bode well.
The thing I’m surprised by are the birds. Under the grey clouds they’re screaming hellos at each other. Pairs of magpies – I love magpies – bounce and glide on the downland updraft, chasing bugs. I’m tailed by a jay for half a mile. She’s beautiful.
Grey cloud has given way to white, and as I start walking uphill I see in the distance the lighthouse at Beachy Head. It’s candy striped and strange, especially here.
Beachy Head. I know that name, everyone knows that name: it’s where people go to die.
"Beachy Head: it’s where people go to die"
I skirt the cliff fence for a while, aware of something pressing against my hip-bone. It’s a stone I brought to throw into the sea. It's rose quartz. I’d picked it up a month or so previous, a little token to remind me to take a few minutes each day to slow down and be okay with myself.
But something else happened. Over weeks sat in my pocket and my bag the thing had taken on weight. It had a presence. It would tumble out and cajole, digging into me. It dragged and poked and reminded me not to take a break, but of the things I wanted to take a break from. It did more harm than good.
I am here, in part, to throw it into the sea.
I take the stone out. I'm standing at Beachy Head, and the sun has started slipping from between the clouds. The stone is pink and luminous, and I kiss it. That feels deeply weird, emabarrassing even, but everyone else on the cliffside is thinking their own thing, staring into their own middle distance and - fuckit - it’s not as if I can unkiss it.
"I listen for a moment, but the waves just do their thing"
I draw my arm down to throw it up and out to sea. I hesitate for a second, this half thrown thing nearly pulling me with it, but it tumbles out of my hand anyway.
Its arc carries it higher than my head before it drops suddenly, out of sight. I listen for something for a moment, but the waves just do their thing. I no longer feel its weight. Now I can move on.
I turn from Beachy Head, and the sun starts blazing. The weather turns in an instant. The grey clouds clear in minutes, and I'm in a warm and golden glow from here on in.
"I'm in a warm and golden glow from here on in"
Along the ridges clouds tumble over and into the English Channel. It means that a good half dozen times I see something like a smoke machine churning along the path ahead. It’s coming on towards midday and the sight is just plain eerie.
"Along the ridges clouds tumble over and out to sea"
Through Alfriston. It's cute, but not a place I have time to linger. The road east quickly becomes a gravel track and I spend a mile or so skirting hedgerows, putting some contours between me and the sea.
My head tickles from the cold-brew I've necked, but I begin to notice less and less of what's around me. Birds and bugs are the first to go, and only magpies catch my eye. Next the grazing animals go. Then, eventually, the landscape.
"I spend a mile or so skirting hedgerows, putting some contours between me and the sea"
I start to notice the different parts of me instead. Things start hurting. I’m aware of my feet; they feel full of blood and loaded with the excess of a day’s travel. I notice sunburn too, across the back of my neck and right where the hem of my shirt rubs.
No sweat now. My collar is chafing against maybe burned skin. My hair keeps flicking into my eyes, leaving behind traces of drying sunscreen. The combination burns.
Walking this long, things hurt. My right thigh, then the groin that side, then my left buttock. The muscle there just hurts. It just ow. I’m so out of shape and not at all old enough to be.
"My sense of place on the map is well out of whack"
I don’t know words... for a bit.
My sense of place on the map is well out of whack. I think that from where I am I can make the 17:09, but this is not true; I'll be lucky if I make one an hour later. It's all just hills and chalk and flint. Chalk and flint.
The surface is uneven. My legs twitch like a gyroscope to keep me upright. Every damn step. I slump on a barrow by a beacon.
I have covered an uppy downy fifteen miles by this point. I am tired. That's not far, but it’s quite hot and I am not at all used to this. And then I’m walking, again, because I want to get home.
More animals. Sheep, cattle, dozens of blackbirds, a flock of two hundred seagulls. A beautiful magpie.
"Everything hurts exactly enough that I don’t know what I’m stepping on"
If I continue at this pace I’ll make it to Southease about ten minutes after the hourly train. I am not taking that kind of shit for anything.
So my pace picks up. And then I realise that won’t be fast enough, so I start jogging off the proper path and down a hill. The direct route. This is a fucking stupid decision because everything hurts exactly enough that I don’t know what I’m stepping on; I’m a rabbit hole away from breaking my leg.
I make it to the station glowing with heat.
The train is late.