There's an easiness to Brighton and its surroundings in East Sussex. The land does end somewhat abruptly in these dramatic, chalky white cliffs that plunge down into the choppy English Channel. Standing at the edge can feel like looking at an exposed corner that someone forgot to sand and paint. But if you move away from that rugged edge you're greeted with lush hills that were surely carved out of happy, gentle thoughts about what hills should be.
While the intermittent sunshine might make everyone a bit mopey, all is forgotten on an especially sunny day. Forecasting in spring in Brighton must be an art. In the last week we've been underprepared for days that turned grim and overprepared for days that started off gloomy and wound up sunny. Smack in the middle of all this weather head-scratching there was an especially — no, definitively — sunny day full of big, fluffy cumulus clouds.
Chris, Matt, and I earmarked that day — weather be damned — for a long walk up on the South Downs, from Devil's Dyke to somewhere within spitting distance of Worthing. We planned on leaving early(ish) and arriving in time to share a Sunday roast with Char, her parents, and the kids. While we've been in Brighton just over a week, we've walked ten times what we were walking in the states. It feels wonderful to move, to take distances and time underfoot. When we're traveling, sometimes I feel like I could measure my happiness in miles walked each day. Walking has become not so much about taking us places, but taking us through places.
On this particular route, purists would have set out directly from their front door and walked all the steep, long way out of Brighton, passed suburbs and parks and more suburbs until the city melted away, domesticated animals replaced all the people and the sun was high overhead. Matt, Chris and I were more than happy to climb the ten short steps to the top of a double decker bus and thirty minutes later down again at Devil's Dyke.
From there, the story unfolded on the trail. Leaving Devil's Dkye we passed through fields of buttercups on an exposed ridge, the wind whipping at our faces. The clouds swept over the landscape, casting shadows wherever they went. As we headed further inland, the grass grew long and the trailside was decorated in Queen Anne's lace.
Here and there we were reminded of the Englishness in this countryside. Even in this wild park, the hedges were trimmed just so. Along the trail you'd find a single bench in a wooded grove or overlooking a picturesque, sloping hill. "Have a rest for a bit," it would humbly say. In the US, trailside benches are usually up high, looking down on tiny houses and trees. "You've conquered the world," they say, "Now it's time to sit and think some great big thoughts." On a particularly humble, shady bench we ate our lunch. Chris took part in the second half of a meat pie. Matt and I converted what were probably knife-and-fork foods to an Englishman — sausages, whole tomatoes, and boiled eggs — into American finger foods with the help of some tinfoil.
After lunch the trail took us through a wooded area. The air became heavy and the ground was wet. Ivy grew on every surface, catching bits of sunlight through the gaps in the trees. When we emerged, the path had turned dry and the flora was a mix of nettles and lace. Sheep, pigs, and cows grazed in the open pastures. Sometimes they were just dots on the landscape and at others close enough to touch. We spotted some beautiful, caramel-colored Jersey cows in an adjacent pasture. Chris, after mention of St Francis of Assisi's tendency to preach to animals, launched into an impromptu sermon. The cows immediately took note. Drawn by his words, they came to meet us at the fence line and stood with rapt attention.
In a final spurt of energy, we ascended Cissbury Ring and collapsed at its crest. Then we descended slowly into town along the main road, feeling like we'd reconnected with those purists of earlier who would make sure to walk every last inch to their B&B. We checked the local bus schedule, and, impressed by how much time we had to spare, found a cozy pub and shared a few pints of cider in the garden out back. We assessed the state of our muscles and feet and compared sunburns. One sunny English day and we were all red in the face, mine only on the left side.
At the bus stop, an older Englishman struck up a conversation with us over the precise time our bus would arrive. We mentioned we'd walked from Devil's Dyke and the distance (Matt has a pedometer), to which he scoffed and told us it was definitely many miles longer. He mentioned he'd walked to Cissbury Ring twice, and many other trails at that. At which point I realized its not only the weather that's up for grabs.
The day finished as well as it started — with roast beef and good company — all experienced through the glow of a walk well done.