The Brighton train emerged from the warm darkness of Victoria out into brilliant sunshine. It was packed with cheerful families heading to the coast for the start of the long weekend. Slowly the hot, deserted streets of London gave way to woods and fields, and the leafy suburbs of Surrey. At Burgess Hill the train divided, a few quiet carriages trundling east along the branch line that runs through the Weald.
As we rattled along I glimpsed a long sweep of hills rising up in the clear air. The South Downs - that great barrier of chalk guarding the approach to the sea. We stopped at Lewes, in the shadow of the escarpment, then on past the genial giant of Wilmington until we came to rest at Eastbourne.
From the station I wandered off in search of the South Downs Way. I had never visited Eastbourne, and for some reason I was expecting a mean, shabby sort of place. In fact it was nothing of the kind. The streets were wide and spacious, the long sea front lined with grand hotels. All in all it was a pleasant start to the trip.
The South Downs Way begins at the western edge of the town. And, you will be glad to know, when you reach the viewpoint at Beachey Head you have negotiated just about the steepest hill you will encounter along the entire length of the walk. It doesn't get any worse than that! Half way up the track divides: you can head inland on bridleways to reach Alfriston, or follow the line of the cliffs over Beachey Head and the Seven Sisters. The coastal switchback is harder going, but worth it for the magnificent views in every direction. That day I could have wished for cooler weather, as I toiled up an endless succession of slopes, but for the rest it was superb walking on smooth turf with the salt smell of the sea and the faint boom of the waves from far below. Light clouds formed inland as the damp air was lifted up over the hills, but there on the dizzy edge of things the sun was fierce and strong. Although I had only covered a few miles I was glad to stop for a while at Birling Gap. There is a water tap marked on the map, but I never found it. I might have asked for some at the bar of the hotel, but as there were other sources further on I didn't bother.
I set out once more, past a row of cottages. Speckled starlings clustered on wires, gathering for the long journey south. At intervals they rose up, whirling like locusts over the parched fields before settling once more. It was hard to believe on that bright afternoon that the long summer was drawing to a close. The heat was stifling, especially in the narrow gullies along the cliff edge where the breeze failed. I was glad to reach Cliff End and drop down to the flat bottom of the Cuxmere river valley. A broad track mirrors the quiet meanderings of the stream, but for some reason the official path detours over Exeat Hill. In an uncharacteristic fit of conscience I attempted it, and lost my way. I returned to the river, resolved to stick to the obvious route in future.
Another tap was marked on the map, close to the Exceat visitor centre, but I failed to spot this one too. The Way now passed through a belt of pleasant woodland, a welcome relief after the exposed cliffs. For the first time that day I was alone, and the sudden silence was a blessing. I was surprized at how few walkers were about, given that it was a bank holiday weekend. The cliffs and car parks were crowded, but elsewhere I was often travelling on my own. In the couple of miles to Alfriston I saw perhaps half a dozen other people.
I approached the little town along the river. These Sussex streams are slow and ponderous, guarded by steep embankments. One after another they cut through the hills: the Ouse, the Adur and the Arun. When planning the walk I thought I might be able to use them for bathing; but the banks were often unsafe, and the murky waters unappealing. Alfriston, when I reached it, struck me as a superior sort of place, more in sympathy with travellers on wheels than on foot. I walked the length of the main street, looking for somewhere to eat. Eventually I bought some food at a small shop, then sat outside for a while listening to the roar of traffic. Cars honked. Coaches rumbled through the streets, disgorging diesel fumes and tourists. A wedding party cool in the dark interior of a Rolls Royce swept by.
Beyond Alfriston the Way begins in earnest. The miles to Southease are wonderful walking, on long straight tracks that cling to the edge of the chalk. The path is well-maintained and easy to follow; you can see ahead for miles. And always, somewhere to your left, lies the sea. It is a constant companion along most of the South Downs Way, appearing unexpectedly through gaps in the hills. Only when you are close to Winchester do you lose sight of it for good. I followed the broad grassy track that afternoon, over the rolling hills with the Weald spread out below. A light breeze blew, and the sun hung over the world.
On Firle Beacon I rested. I felt suddenly very tired, a sign of low blood sugar levels. Half a pint of energy drink seemed to do the trick, and I reached the radio mast on Beddington Hill and dropped down to the Ouse. Crossing the placid stream in the quiet evenfall I passed the Saxon church at Southease and entered Rodmell. There is a pleasant inn there, and I sat for a while in the hushed garden. I wasn't particularly hungry, but I felt that I should try to eat something. When the food came I spent several minutes trying to persuade the pub cat that a ploughman's contained nothing suitable for carnivores. Eventually we agreed on a bit of cheese and I was able to finish my meal in peace.
The light was failing as I left the village. I had hoped to camp up on the hill, but the terrain was totally unsuitable. A cement track led across exposed fields, without so much as a hedge for shelter. I hurried on through the gathering night, looking for somewhere I could lie down without drawing attention to myself. At one point I checked out a stack of manure which might have offered some concealment. The area at the back, however, was drenched with a vile liquid oozing from the pile, and the place was crawling with flies. At last, stumbling in the darkness, too tired to go any further, I climbed a gate on Swanborough Hill and set up camp next to a patch of legumes. The ground was far from flat, but I managed to make some sort of a bed using most of the contents of the rucksack. It was not ideal, but it afforded a few hours rest. After twenty long miles I was shattered.