Monday, 2 June 2014

I was, as they say, walking it off. London life is a bombardment of stimuli which — after they exhaust you — keep on coming until you are eroded to the bones of anxiety and inferiority. The only cure I've found is walking. Lewes to Brighton looked long enough.
The first thing I do on leaving Lewes station is get lost. The south coast messes with my internal bearings. North becomes south. East is no longer where it should be and I tell Anna her compass is lying and plough off in the wrong direction. Twice. We find the correct lane to Brighton, miss the correct turning off and pass through a mazy series of farm tracks through the levels of the river Ouse instead. The soil is dark and damp, the path strewn with yellow snails with a variety of dark swirls on the shell. We gingerly picked our way through as a mark of respect to the creatures that belong here, who aren't lost and passing through on a moment of map reading incompetence. We emerged through a tunnel of trees into the next village along from where we should be. No problem -- we'll just take the path through the fields of mud and take the next track into the downs. This is a way marked path, well trodden and over a beautifully worn old stile, yet it runs through the middle of a sown field. We both think it feels a little wrong to walk these paths.

Rain on chalk hisses like an insect stridulating on a summer's evening. It catches me out, has me staring at the long grass confused until it makes sense. There are no insects here today: not the spectacular Adonis Blue butterfly nor humdrum flies too small and fleeting to identify. There is just the persistency of rain sweeping in over the downs, as it had the whole morning and would for the rest of the day. Skylarks hover above the crops, defying gravity in a fat brown flutter of wings, whilst singing the most quintessentially English of bird songs; in the most English of summer weather.
What I found on the downs was a Corn Bunting. Beside a ploughed up and planted down — wheat and rapeseed where it should be wildflower rich grassland — one sung from the top of a manure pile. The sound and smell of the old countryside. Through the rain I find it with my binoculars. Unashamedly fat, brown and streaky, the Corn Bunting is the most unspectacular of special birds. A bird that fitted so well into the old systems of agriculture that it took its name from them. A bird of messy inefficiency, it was swatted aside by intensification, the destruction of hedgerows and the ploughing of margins that now... The 90% declines since 1970 tell a grim story; that I can't remember the last one I saw before this tells another. It seems doomed to become a feathered folk memory: the barley bird, so local that populations 30km apart could sing with different dialects. Too local to survive the 21st century.
What I also found on the downs was space. A horizon not hemmed in by buildings and a landscape where the name makes sense. It lacks the magnificent up of mountains: instead on the summit the horizon appears flat, the space inbetween drifting down like the hollow between waves. I find a landscape both of comforting old Englishness but also bleakness in this weather. As well as birds I watch the rain rolling over and falling on crumbling farmsteads and rusting machinery.
The walk took us over the final crest and dropped us back on to roads until we hit the chalk cliffs of the English Channel. A shingle beach and the milky grey of the English seaside. From here it was a long slog to Brighton, past millionaire yachts and Asda; marina apartments and concrete flyovers; promenades and graffiti covered fences. And flowers growing from every crevice. 

The next day I feel fantastic.