Saturday, February 21, 2015

The Long Man

This morning began normally enough. My wife refused to get up until she'd read another chapter of the new Anne Tyler novel. I fiddled around on my phone, looking at a selection of pointless updates on Facebook. My older son remained asleep, while his brother crept downstairs to play on the computer.

I knew that with a little application, we could continue doing this until lunchtime, blaming the weather for our inertia. But a brief glint of sunlight from a passing car hinted at a morning that was too good to be squandered. A walk on the South Downs was the answer. I told my younger son to get his coat. 
We started here, in the shadow of the Long Man of Wilmington. The beauty of this hill figure, "as high as forty men", is that nobody knows anything about it. It may be thousands of years old or just a few hundred. We don't have a clue who built it, or why. 

Whether it's a fertility symbol, a warning to enemies or a simple work of art is anyone's guess. That's the beauty of the Long Man.

Erich von Daniken would probably assert that it's a signal to visiting aliens. As if.

I once had the misfortune to work in a bookshop with a large clientele of New Age fans, during which I met a number of charlatans and some people who probably needed more help than a quartz crystal could provide. As a result, I avoid visiting the Long Man when there's any likelihood of spotting a druid.

Ironically, they spoil the mystical atmosphere of the place.

My son, who is nine, looked very thoughtful and said "This is marvellous. You know, when I was younger, I preferred the city to the countryside, but I find that as I get older, I prefer the countryside."

A wise head on young shoulders.

I didn't have any particular plan, other than to walk to the Long Man, but my son seemed to be enjoying himself so much, it seemed a pity to stop. So we didn't.

The largest hill is Firle Beacon. Virginia Woolf regularly walked across it when she went to visit her sister Vanessa, at Charleston, which is probably a small dot in this photo. Beyond Firle Beacon is Lewes, where Woolf bought her baked beans and bottles of stout.

After walking for a mile or so, we saw a village in the distance. I realised that it was Alfriston and suggested that we'd better turn back and walk to the car, but my son was determined to press on and marched ahead, singing 'It's a Long Way To Tipperary'. 

My son loves singing. He has no idea that he is completely tone deaf.

The path that was supposed to cut through fields to Alfriston was flooded, so we took the long way round and walked past some idyllic, asymetrical cottages and solid, Georgian homes. It was almost the perfect, picture postcard village, but was spoiled by a constant stream of traffic.

I noticed that my son was extremely pale - he'd never walked this far in his life - so I suggested getting a taxi back to the car park. Unfortunately, I couldn't get a phone signal. The only answer was to either accost a kindly Morris Minor-owning vicar, or consume some calories.

We found the village store, where a nice woman made me a delicious sandwich that contained at least twice as much beef as I was expecting. Within minutes, I was beefed-up.

My son chose a Curly-Wurly bar and I watched the colour slowly return to his cheeks. I was unaware of the restorative properties of the Curly-Wurly.

As we left Alfriston, a pterodactyl-like silhouette circled above the flooded fields. My son had never seen a heron before and was impressed by the huge wingspan. "This is an adventure," he said. "We never know what we're going to see next. Those Disney places pretend to give you adventures, but you know what to expect."

Good, I thought, that's saved me several hundred quid and a weekend of hell at Disneyland Paris.

After a fairly steep climb, my son asked to stop and we sat down for a few minutes. I looked at the piece of grass next to me and saw that it was actually made up of many different plants, some of them barely visible, clinging on to a bedrock that was comprised of the bones of billions of prehistoric creatures. It seemed miraculous.

Then I noticed an odd, whorl-shaped object:

It was a snail, unlike any that I have found in my garden. I looked closer and realised that the whole area was littered with these tiny shells. I will be contacting the relevant authorities about the discovery of the Cochlea Steerforthum.

As we walked back, I thought of a conversation I had with a friend in the pub, yesterday evening. We both agreed that we had reached an age where we could no longer afford to squander time. We might live for another 40 years and remain in reasonable health for much of it. But we might not.

Going for a long walk on the Downs may not qualify as a 'bucket list' activity, but it had the sense of being what Frank O'Hara called the "real right thing" and that, I think, is all anyone can ask for.


tristan said...

hurrah ! no, thrice hurrah !

Huw said...

Thank you for sharing this adventure, Steerforth. It's curious how unexpected outings can be so memorable. And I like the mixture of colour and b+w photos.

Lucy Melford said...

You clearly live not too far from me. I like to go beyond the Long Man, right to the top of Windover Hill, then southwest past the Tenantry Ground, and back to Alfriston via Lillington. I agree, it's inspiring walking country.


Steerforth said...

Tristan - Thank you for your hurrahs.

Huw - I've always disliked black and white, but some of these photos work much better without colour. I think I'll try it again.

Lucy - I'm in Lewes, so it's a 20-minute drive to Wilmington. I'm going to try Ditchling Beacon to Lewes next.

Brian Busby said...

Your son is wise beyond his years. Growing up in Montreal, I longed to live in New York. Moving to Vancouver, at age 32, I thought it too small a city. Now I live in a small Ontario town in which I see herons each and every summer day (some spring and autumn, too). The countryside is preferable.

I once spent a day with my daughter in Disneyland, though I don't think it was a mistake. At the end of it all she allowed that it had been fun, but not nearly so much as the commercials make it out to be.

Valuable lesson.

This was thirteen years ago. She turned seventeen last Tuesday. It remains our only theme park experience.

Chris said...

Wonderful piece. It reminds me of a hike I took with my daughter to the White Horse at Uffington (and beyond) during a visit to England a few years back. We didn't find a snail shell, but we did find some animal bones.

Tororo said...

Thanks so much for the walk! I spent years on the countryside and I feel so disconnected from everything now that I don't live there anymore (like, as I look down I can't see any small snails).

Lucy Melford said...

Then you ought to make Black Cap, with its Chanctonbury-Ring-like little wood and wide views, your rest stop! It's my usual target when parking at Ditchling Beacon with a There-and-Back-Again walk in mind.


Steerforth said...

Brian - I think cities are perfect environments for young adults - stimulating, full of opportunities for work and socialising etc. But our priorities change and what was once energising can now feel enervating. I like being in a space that is unmediated by politicians or corporations and, without wishing to sound too misanthropic, far from the madding crowd.

Chris - I must add the White Horse to my list. I like the fact that it is so different from the more figurative white horse hill carvings. Once again, nobody knows that much about it. At least the latest DNA research is now shedding some light on the prehistoric inhabitants of England, but the language they spoke is only hinted at in some place names.

Tororo - I hope that you're able to find an environment that offers the best of both worlds. I'd like to move to the countryside, but I know quite a few people who regret moving there, finding the isolation and lack of facilities rather depressing, so I don't know.

Lucy - I know where you mean. I stopped there once and it is exactly like a mini-Chactonbury Ring. A lovely spot.

I think I'll take the lazy option and get a taxi to Ditchling Beacon. The walk home will be downhill all the way!

simplesuffolksmallholder said...

Walking in Suffolk is flat ( mostly) which is OK but it does mean that you can't see very far. I sometimes wish for a hill to climb for the view

Steerforth said...

SSS - I know what you mean. I love the villages of Suffolk, but am not so keen on the flatness. However, I know a Suffolk man who loves the 'bootiful vooz' of his home county, with their big skies. His idea of hell is the Scottish highlands, but he's not that keen on Cornwall either.

Helena said...

This is full of gems! "My son loves singing. He has no idea that he is completely tone deaf." "I was unaware of the restorative properties of the Curly-Wurly."

It has cheered me up on a grey, cold, sleety day.

Steerforth said...

Helena - I'm glad it cheered you up. I wish I was exaggerating about the singing, but it's so awful I have to leave the room sometimes.

joan.kyler said...

This is a fault of our cities. There should be more and larger green spaces, truly peaceful places, free from honking horns. City planners always talk about that, but it's seldom done. Money (the value of real estate) always wins over the value of the quality of life of city dwellers.

My husband and I typically move from country to city or from city to country every ten years. We've lived in a very unsatisfying city for almost ten, so I think it's time for a move.

Steerforth said...

Joan - I couldn't agree more. Now that I'm an occasional visitor to London, I'm aware of how the city is being ruined in the name of money, with high-rise buildings under construction everywhere you look.

London was never a beautiful city, let's face it, but it had character. Today, Londoners can't afford to live there and luxury appartment blocks are springing up left, right and centre, to cater for a new population of the global super-elite and the migrants who serve them. The city should be a place to live, not an investment opportunity.

I hope your next move will take you somewhere that offers the best of both worlds.

Little Nell said...

I feel as though I was with you on that walk and what a delight it was. It appears you had a much better companion though and that you both learned something new (and I’m not just talking about Curly Wurlies).

Having lived in Salisbury for 20 years or so, I know just what you mean about avoiding Druids. We used to dread the Summer Solstice.

Steerforth said...

Little Nell - Perhaps I met the wrong shamans, but for people who were supposed to be spiritual and wise, many of them came across as shallow, egocentric and, I'm afraid, a bit thick (that said, I knew a woman with a First in economics who believed in the Lizard People).

I think it was Chesterton who wrote "The problem with people who stop believing in Good is not that they believe in nothing, but that they believe in anything", or words to that effect.

I must write a blog post about my 'angel evenings' at some point.

Canadian Chickadee said...

Your hike sounds perfect. We just got back from a long (for us) ramble with our dog in a local woods. I suppose we walked about five miles all told -- a mere drop in the bucket compared to your jaunt. But more than the distance, is the fresh air, the greening leaves, the blue skies and the small mushrooms (or toadstools? I can't tell the difference) and ferns and mosses. Best of all, doing it makes me feel virtuous, and as if it's okay for me to spend the rest of Sunday messing about on the computer and doing the Sunday crossword until it's time for tea. xoxox

Steerforth said...

Carol - I agree. One of the great pleasures of exercise is being able to enjoy doing nothing afterwards, instead of feeling guilty about it.

MikeP said...

Last Tuesday my sisters and I went to the Ladybird exhibition at the de la Warr, in glorious weather. Naturally, now I'm back in Oz, I forwarded your last post to my sisters, who enjoyed it very much. Now I shall forward this post to my younger sister, who lives in Arlington. (No doubt you've been involved in the new entry arrangements at St Thomas's Court? We really must meet some day!

Steerforth said...

Mike - Yes, we should meet up.

Re: the new arrangements, the phones seem to be a huge improvement, but I suspect that the introduction of fobs is a recipe for disaster. Time will tell.

Jane and Lance Hattatt said...


The English countryside and Evensong in a parish church are two things we miss most living abroad.

You capture beautifully here the restorative sense of a walk on the wild side when one has little idea what will be around the next bend and the magic that lies in tiny details that one encounters along the way. This was definitely a day when you seized the opportunities on offer and that will stay in your memory for some time to come. These magical moments are precious indeed.

You are so right that, as one ages, priorities may take different turns. After spending most of our married life deep in the Herefordshire countryside we now revel in the delights of city life.....Opera, classical music concerts, art cinemas, galleries and museums just a short walk away. And, the sense of being a foreigner in a foreign land is a good way to put distance between oneself and the petty parochial politics of the day in one's own country whilst not really understanding those in one's adopted home.

Steerforth said...

Jane and Lance - It sounds as if you're having a fascinating time in Budapest and what a good way to clear away the cobwebs, getting to grips with an exotic new city (and there is something curiously exotic about Budapest). So many people do ther opposite, moving somehwere quieter as they get older, only to find boredom and isolation setting in.

I suppose many of us rightly want the best of both worlds, but often end up having to choose one or the other. If I had the money, I'd definitely buy a flat in London and spend the weekends there.

Katharine A said...

You need to capture and bottle that nine year old spirit. Really want my kids to love the countryside (we live in London). But for the eldest at 18, he couldn't think of anything more boring. But this half-term on Dartmoor, I heart lept when I heard him saying to his younger siblings, whilst scrambling over rocks, "Right no-one can touch the grass". There is hope!

Val , Kate, The Cute Kitten ,Razzy, Kepsey,Darwin ,Charon and Echo. said...

It sounds a most satisfactory outing. I come from a line of Enthusiastic 'singers' my daughter is following the tradition. My husband has perfect pitch and the expression on his face as he listens to her signifies true love to me.
Thank you for sharing your walk I truly enjoyed it too.

Steerforth said...

Katharine A - I don't know what the secret is. I always think that you if you have just one child, you'll think you're either the best or worst parent, depending on how well they respond to things. My younger son's love of the countryside is counterbalanced by his brother's complete indifference to it. They both had the same upbringing.

My one tip, for young boys at least, is to make it an adventure by pretending you're lost and making the journey a triumph over adversity. Not easy in England, but their imaginations take over.

Val and Co. - I met a music teacher at a party once who assured me that every child can be taught perfect pitch. Sadly, she didn't tell me how.

zmkc said...

So brilliant.

Chris Matarazzo said...

What a brilliant young man your son is. He perception is heartwarming.