Saturday morning, while I was sleuthing around online, I came across a walk: "Lewes - Glynde - Firle - Alfriston - Seaford." Looking at the title, I couldn't tell if the author's dashes were meant to link the towns together in a natural progression, or to indicate a series of individual walks that, once joined, made an epic journey 14.9 miles long.
Either way, I was intrigued. We'd already been to Lewes, so we could pick up where we'd left off. Our butcher had mentioned Firle and Alfriston as especially good places to pop in for a pint of good, English "water."
Our health has taken a dip over the past week, which, as much as we hate to admit, puts a damper on happiness. In the past, both Matt and I have usually approached our goals all-in, setting our sights on something and then doing whatever is within our willpower to make it happen. I mean, how else would you get across western China by car? A prerequisite for that kind of mentality is some semblance of health.
Since our (now) prolonged sickness in January, we've had to approach things differently. We've become accustomed to setting a goal — sometimes modest, sometimes outlandish — and then rechecking many times along the way. While it can be maddening and make us feel like old, crotchety centenarians, it takes us places. This walk to Seaford seemed like as good an outlandish goal as any for a sunny Saturday.
We headed out late(ish) with little planning, yet well provisioned with lunch and smiles. En route to Lewes we rushed around, missing buses and confusing stops and times. It felt strange not to be walking with Chris, who possesses all the know-how for walking etiquette and makes the experience so enjoyable. Yet we were happy to be headed somewhere, just the two of us.
We did arrive in Lewes around noon and meandered through the little food shops on high street, then found our way to the path. In no time, we'd hoofed it past some adorable hillside homes and were out on the downs, following an idyllic windswept golf course.
A few more wrong turns (oh, Chris, you would be proud!) at gates and such, and we could see our desired trail on the valley floor, a good 1/4 mile below us, winding away in a different direction. So we looked around, at each other, and then dared to do what probably everyone who walks the downs secretly desires — we walked off trail!
Following a fence and some animal runs — and making some runs of our own — we tromped through wonderful tufts of of high grass, wildflowers, and bits of spikey bullweed. In the meadow below we rejoined our trail blaze and continued on.
Over hill and dale we walked, and passed plenty of spring lambs, which we attempted to photograph. You have to be sly to capture sheep with a 35mm. It's a closeup lens, so you need to use your feet and your finesse to get within range.
Up to around fifteen feet of distance between you and a spring lamb, you can walk at a leisurely pace. Maybe don't swing your arms out and such nonsense, but stalking is a bit unnecessary. The sheep will continue to do its sheep thing — vibrate like it runs on AA batteries and chew grass as though it actually enjoys eating the stuff.
From fifteen to ten feet away, results differ based on age and temperament. Adults are more skittish, while lambs seem to be ignorant to our human agendas. Under ten feet, you have to move like molasses and appear as docile as the little lamb. With humans in a city, you can whip out the camera and snap a photo before anyone is the wiser. But approaching a lamb in an open pasture, good luck. Not only are you clumsy, they can smell you. Closer than ten feet the lamb will usually freeze, their nostrils expanding and contracting like wild. Of course if you're living in England, it's highly likely you've consumed lamb within the last 24 hours, if not within the last meal. Who knows what cooked lamb smells like to another lamb?
Yet if you step quietly and slowly and conceal your agenda, you can close the gap. I tend to put the camera in front of my eye as I'm approaching ten feet, hoping the lamb doesn't think it’s a gun. Then I snap as I move in, aiming for that five to eight foot sweet spot before my subject runs for the hills. Results vary. Lambs are considerably shyer than your average cow or horse, like this little guy.
Lambs safely on film, we realized we'd grown weary. Once we'd crested a hill that seemed to go on indefinitely, we sat down for some lunch — sausages, kabocha and spinach. Considerably lighter, we trucked on.
Passing through golden fields of wheat we reached Glynde, a town that even has its own forge. When Glynde became Firle I couldn't quite say, but the stone erected in honor of the Great Wars marked its center, adjacent to the tiniest post office and phone booth. Both Glynde and Firle seemed to have tile, glazing, and woodworking experts in abundance, based on how frequently we saw a sign touting their services. The homes and barns were all covered in terra cotta tiling, nicely mottled by moss and molds.
Our walk did not take us past Firle Place, an estate founded in 1473 by Sir John Gage. A descendent, Sir Thomas Gage, was commander in chief of the British forces in North America where, according to the estate's website, his actions played a role in instigating the Revolutionary War. The family's descendants still inhabit the estate to this day. So there you have it, something older than the oldest thing an American can comprehend.
We walked on through a field of drying mustard plants. With the sun beating down, we were barely slogging on. So we rested, drank the last drips of our water, nibbled some chocolate and tried to restore our courage. We'd walked some 8 miles already, but some had been meandering in towns and getting to buses, so we'd really only walked 5 miles of the trail — a meager 34%. It was getting on 4pm. Ha! We resolved to make it up the hill and on to Alfriston where we'd call it a day.
It was a string of hills, to be exact. Approaching Alfriston the sky looked menacing, but we've learned that English skies — this summer, anyways — are all bark and no bite. We passed down a narrow side street and suddenly we were on a main road, staring down the George Inn, which has been greeting customers since 1397. Since we make a point to always survey our options, we walked a bit down the road to the Wingrove House. The menu boasted a local roast lamb and we thought, "Lamb! Now that's something I haven't had all day." It was getting on 6:30pm and here we were, grubby foreigners in shorts and t-shirts. We cleaned up as best we could in the parking lot, put our fancy smiles on, and headed in.
What we learned is that in southeastern England, underdressing means arriving sleeveless in a baseball cap. Or so we were told. After almost six weeks in England, this was our first real meal out. We savored every single bite of cooking we did not do ourselves.
While we were digging in to roast quail and lamb, we asked the waitress how we could make it to Brighton from our current surroundings. She blushed and admitted she didn't know. A bit more investigation turned up our only option — heading to Seaford! We could take a cab or walk a more direct route on the road.
Having had an hour's rest and filled our bellies, we felt up for the walk. I was elated, even, to make it all the way to Seaford at this leisurely pace. So that's how we found our way winding up the road all the way to the water, watching the sun set over the hills, feeling the heaviness of our feet, and enjoying those last few inches of downs.
That's also how we managed to walk 16.97 miles on Saturday, the longest recorded in a single day (well, we've only had our FitBit for a few years, now). While we may not have our health back, we do have our wits about us. If nothing else we've learned that pacing, perseverance, and adaptability might not make for good headlines, but they can still win the race.