Some years ago I was given the opportunity to open a new bookshop in the Science Museum. I knew very little about science, but managed to bluff my way through it and the shop seemed to do very well. There were a few little niggles, like the time I wasn't allowed in the stock room because the area was being decontaminated for radiation; but on the whole I enjoyed myself.
I even liked my commute to South Kensington on the District Line, which was a refreshing change from crawling along the M25 at rush hour. I could tell that my fellow passengers were irritated by the wailing Gypsy beggars who occasionally appeared, or the young South African men who used to leap into the carriage with a guitar and shout "Hi guys...Today, is gonna be the day when they're gonna give it back to you...", but I wasn't bothered. It still beat looking at a sign saying QUEUE AT JCT 8.
However, there was one aspect of the Science Museum that started to really get to me: the lack of daylight.
After spending hours in an air conditioned, windowless hall, I became increasingly disorientated. Was it light or dark outside? What was the weather like? Which season were we in? At first I just found it strange, then I began to sense a creeping depression. What could I do to shake myself out of it?
I don't know how the idea came to me, but one day I decided to walk the South Downs Way on my days off. Not all at once - it's 100 miles long - but in 10 to 25-mile sections, depending on where the nearest railway station was. I began in Winchester and, over the course of five months, walked to Eastbourne.
It was a wonderful experience in so many ways and, as I walked along the Downs above a town called Lewes, I remember thinking how lucky the locals were to have this countryside on their doorstep. If I lived here, I'd be up on the Downs every weekend.
Two years later I was living in Lewes, but was I up on the Downs every weekend? Of course not. Instead I was going up to London, making the most of my Tate Gallery membership, or seeing friends for drinks.
However, one of my resolutions for 2013 is to take more long walks, so this afternoon I took a train to Glynde and walked back to Lewes along the Downs. This may not be the most spectacular countryside in the world, but it works in mysterious ways. I didn't meet a single soul for the entire walk and the isolation was liberating:
But then I reminded myself that the first part of any walk on the South Downs began like this, as the muscles demanded extra oxygen and body took a while to adjust. I wasn't dying.
At the top of the Downs, the wind was unforgiving and my cheeks felt scoured by the cold. No wonder it had taken the snow so long to melt on the hills. But it's a continental climate here. In the summer, it can be oppressively hot, with no trees to provide any shade.
The physical exertion gradually induced a sense of deep relaxation that was compounded by the silence and isolation. It would probably be trite to say that the journey was mental as well as physical, but the bleakness and emptiness of my surroundings had a profound effect.
Eventually, Lewes appeared in the distance, like Bunyan's Celestial City:
However, I suppose there's safety in numbers when you're over a certain age.
Entering a world of noise, people and things felt strange. Here were thousands of people, all neatly contained in this space of narrow streets and cramped little houses, while less than a mile away, there was a vast, empty wilderness.
I shall be returning to Glynde at the earliest opportunity.