Walking with Natalie Wilson on 19 May 2012

 

Friston Forest & The Seven Sisters

I am walking with Natalie, a firm friend first made at university. Spring has been very slow in coming – wet and or/windy and/or unseasonably cold. Natalie has premonitions of walking in giant hailstones and so it is that I am instructed to carry with me from Glasgow to London her waterproof trousers (left up in Glasgow), and a rain jacket (borrowed from her partner Caroline, who also lives in Glasgow). Alighting in the car park of the Seven Sisters Country Park, we are certainly well prepared but – as it turns out – for the wrong type of weather. It’s not wooly hats and wooly socks we need, but Factor 50 suntan cream and sunglasses!

Natalie and I last visited Sussex together in 1992, when we stayed in a flat in Brighton that used to belong to her grandmother. Nat claims we walked a bit of the Seven Sisters all those years ago, though I’ve no recollection of that. The coastal landscape of Sussex is one that’s familiar to Natalie, a site of frequent family trips from London.

We set off down the well made path that runs alongside the Cuckmere meanders (and what a wonderful word that is to describe the looping journey of the water). The sun glares off the concrete walkway that leads towards the sea, dots of people speckling the horizon. The South Downs Way path veers east though, parting from the paving and immediately beginning our first (gentle) ascent. At the rise of this first hill, we already get a good view down over the estuary, to the white chalk cliffs behind us. The grass we walk on is pressed and short (sheep or hundreds of pairs of human feet?). From the top of the first sister we get our first great view of the journey ahead, the sheer, bright white cliffs marking the very edge of this island. (It’s only in places like this that I am conscious of inhabiting an island.) The names on the map we carry prompt juvenile titters: Short Bottom, Limekiln Bottom, Rough Brow, Rough Bottom, Gap Bottom….

One hill climbed, we go down, and up the next sister, this one much shorter and sharper. Steps up – rather like potholes – seem to almost have been carved into the hillside, but presumably from the ‘natural’ wear and tear of repeated human footfall cutting through the thin grassy cover. The chalky minerals just centimetres underneath our feet are laid bare, as if the skin has been peeled back. (Chalk is the result of tiny marine organisms that lived and died here, when this land was sea, more than 70 million years ago.) It’s hot work, the calves taking and feeling the strain. And it’s no surprise to find at the top a flock of walkers bathing in the sun. We stop only to look back at the vertebrae of chalk cliffs jutting out into the English Channel. Down and up the next sister, we break for a cuppa, an oatcake and a deep, long view, then on again. The hills are steep but short, the down bits providing easy respite between the up bits. I can feel my face burning and look out for someone with suntan cream, which I slap on thankfully – though suspect the damage is already done.

Passing through ‘Malcolm’s Gate’, we descend to our half way point, Birling Gap, where we partake in a couple of sandwiches, coffees and a shared Rockcake (admittedly not something I’d have chosen as they always look boring and dry, but Nat is nostalgic for Rockcake – the first thing she learnt to bake in her school cookery class – and to my surprise, I find it to be utterly delicious.) Steps at Birling Gap provide the only access to the beach on this stretch of the coastline. We’re not tempted to join those relaxing on the pebbles though as we’ve still got another 4 miles to walk.

Climbing back up the hill, we turn towards north, and cross the iconically bucolic ‘Went Hill’ – gently undulating, deep green, sheep grazing, yellow rape seed blazing in the distance, a red roofed barn floating on the brow. Nat is much better at sensing the direction we should be travelling and rightly makes the call to veer to the east (rather than continuing towards a gate, which would have been my natural inclination). A steep path leads us into the ever-so-English village of East Dean, with its village green and village green pub. A memorial plaque on the old school wall – located appropriately on Went Way – tells us that evacuee children from Rotherhithe arrived here on the1st Sept 1939. A blue plaque on another house claims the residence of Sherlock Holmes.

A friendly local points our route – up a long, steep, buttercupped hill, crowned by Friston Church. We appreciate its beautifully crafted wooden Tapsel Gate – a design that allows coffin bearers to rest the casket (and get themselves a rest) before proceeding into the church. Across the road we welcome the shade of Friston Forest – planted after the First World War to provide trench planking. A muddy path leads us to another classically beautiful meadow, which in turn leads back into the light dappled forest. Numerous signs – e.g. ‘Private Gallops’ – alongside the hoof prints impressed in the ground reveal this as serious horse country. The walking trail signage is a bit more random, but we aim to follow the blue trail to West Dean, which proves to be another postcard village: sleepy, quaint and affluent. From here, we are on our last leg of the walk, through the edge of the forest and back to the car park in Exceat.

Sitting under the shade of the trees, we enjoy the remains of our flasks of tea, our legs welcoming the rest. Tomorrow, they will carry us without too much complaint into the wonderfully named and spectacular topography of Devil’s Dyke, ascending to what was considered by John Constable as the grandest view in the world. But for now, we are well and happily sated with the marvellous and contrasting views of today: a million shades of whites, blues, greens, and yellows fill me up to brimming.

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One Response to “Walking with Natalie Wilson on 19 May 2012”

  1. Natalie Wilson Says:

    What a wonderful recollection of a wonderful walk. So inspired was I, that i have now purchased the required walking trousers we discussed on the walk and new trekking boots (from Tiso for bargain £19.50!). Take it easy good friend. Nat x

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