Out of London: A Day on the South Downs Way
“I need to get out of London” is a common refrain amongst Londoners. But out into what? What’s different about another environment that can’t be satisfied in London?
The urban sprawl is surely a factor. It’s a human need to experience nature, to see it take its course. In London, you note trees gradually getting bearer and feel the weather getting colder. But you can’t fully appreciate the browns, greens and yellows of autumn. It’s as if you are on the equator, with little sense of the climate going through its seasons.
I felt almost guilty catching a train out of London, at a leisurely morning time. Most commuters had come the opposite direction to me at Waterloo’s barriers. But there were still workers on my train heading south-west. An American drooled down his phone about Deloitte this and Deloitte that. Mysterious financial jargon, far beyond the grasp of this teacher on half term.
He toiled away, I read the guide about the South Downs Way trail I was following for a day. It lasts 100 miles from Eastbourne in East Sussex to Winchester in Hampshire. I was joining its last leg, a one-hour train ride then 20-minute taxi.
The taxi driver, tall, in his 60s, offered either the passenger or back seat. It felt rude to decline the conversation. Driving out of pretty enough Petersfield and into ever lusher countryside, we had an intimate conversation that strangers can fall into. This time the cheery topic of cancer and how it affects everyone. I wasn’t sure whether to look at him or the fields as we confided personal experiences.
Dropped outside the medieval church in Exton village, I shook the cabbie’s hand and went on my way. “Don’t use Google Maps” he’d warned. “You might end up calling me again”.
Out of the village, on a sloping path up one of the Down’s hills, that rarely venture beyond 200 meters. I was quickly plunged into rural idyll. The senses were sharpened, delighting in the natural pleasures on show. A yelping pheasant emerging from a hedgerow, stirring me as a car horn might have earlier that morning. A towering bush that resembled a bride’s veil. Near Beacon Hill, I was in the bowels of autumn. Gentle winds from the west scattered the sunlit leaves on the treelined pathway. Shades of brown, yellow, green, red; I had been placed in a David Hockney painting.
While this walk was new to me, the South Downs are not. In this environment, the memories of childhood come flooding back. Most of the blackberries were dead on the bush I stopped at. Yet a few lived on. As I began eating the select few, sweetness could still be savoured; winter hadn’t yet withered these outliers. The feel of the tiny dome seeds that composed the whole — so soft, so distinct — was a throwback to the other end of the South Downs Way, where I once picked blackberries. Seventy miles away, seventy years away soon enough. Still there were the same bird sounds, the same distant hum of tractors.
A few miles on, my walking guide informed me of Lomer village. It was mentioned in the Domesday Book. William the Conqueror’s invention that attempted to document everything in the country, from the names of towns to the amount of livestock owned by an individual. It was perhaps the first attempt at a security state far before the onset of digitalism. Lomer though is no more, dying out in the Middle Ages. One of 90 or so ‘lost villages’ of Hampshire.
A walker could easily pass it without stopping. Yet something seems a bit unnatural in this enclosed field; the sheer amount of mounds then sudden dips, some leading into sink holes. Farmland surrounds it, arable and pastoral. Black cows graze in an adjacent field and birdsong encircles it. But here, no life is cultivated. Just hordes of long grass and a singular pylon.
To truly be out of London means to sever contact with it. Phone on airplane mode and no GPS. Resist that temptation to turn on data and receive 100 whatsapp group messages. They can wait till you’re back. Rustic map on paper was all I had to navigate off. Coming across a field and a Dutch barn with three paths shooting off it, I tried two before choosing. Such a risk would have no place in the efficiencies of London. Head down, get somewhere, get to Wi-Fi.
Trees whooshed in the wind that threw around leaves and the smell of damp wood, as I approached one of the final hilltops, Cheesefoot Head. I marvelled at a sign which informed that the natural bowl stretched out in front of me had hosted over 100,000 allied troops in 1944, who General Eisenhower addressed on the eve of D-Day.
Then finally Winchester. From the current capital of England to the former. There were more sights to treasure: a huge statue of Alfred the Great, the founder of England, then the Cathedral with the longest nave in Europe. Virginia Woolf, a fan of the Downs, urged people to go, claiming that on them there is “enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look”.
Upon my return to the Waterloo concourse — people were now on the return commute — I felt in one gaze that I saw more people than I had since leaving London nine hours previously. I hoped some of them like me would also have the chance to go out. To look.