I often wonder what impact landscape has on us. It’s not just the different impact of built and natural environments on people. It’s more subtle than that. I mean what is it like growing up in The Fens or on the great open plains of the Midwest where the horizons are low and the sky is big? Are mountain people different from river people? If you’ve grown up in a forest does it shape your personality in a different way than growing up in a landscape devoid of trees?
I was in Brussels yesterday and on the way back I looked out of the window of the train as it passed through southern Belgium and northern France. There it was, just like on a wargames table; flat with the occasional hill just sat there isolated on the great northern European plain, stands of trees, pocket woodlands, scraggy hedgerows. I could picture the khaki clad soldiers of a hundred years ago risking everything for some anonymous and insignificant hillock that assumed huge importance because there was nothing else there that could have qualified as important.
It wasn’t a landscape I could imagine anyone loving unless they grew up there. My relationship with the landscape of the Weald is all the more intense because not only did I grow up there but it is intimate and heart rendingly beautiful at the same time.
But there are other landscapes in Sussex and probably the most celebrated are the South Downs. I went walking on the downs when I was young. My primary school organised a walk to Ditchling Beacon. I remember chalk and gorse and the occasional gully. But I don’t feel I really know the downs.
The weekend before last’s hike from Cocking to Buriton (or Burrito-N as I like to think of that small outpost of Mexicana in Eastern Hampshire) went some way to putting that right.
If there is one modern English landscape artist I really love it’s Eric Ravilious and no one I know captures the South Downs better. Ravilious was born in Acton and grew up in Eastbourne. He was very popular in the 30s but, an official war artist, he died in a plane accident in 1942at the age of 39. His work captures an age that in many ways ended with the war but much of it is timeless because its subject matter is timeless.
I thought of Ravilious’s watercolours as we walked along a path that must have been trodden for thousands of years.
Kerry, Ignacio, Harry Higgs of Hastings and me, ambling, hopping, occasionally snuffling along the South Downs way. I had an early mishap. I didn’t have any walking shoes as such but I do have a pair of Caterpillar boots I bought years ago and haven’t much worn. Before we’d so much as crested the downs above Cocking the sole of my left boot was flapping off. We had to tie a piece of elastic that Kerry happened to have with her around it to stop it from making walking almost impossible. When that broke I recycled the elastic and carried on. Thankfully it took me through all the way to Buriton.
It was quiet when we set out around nine on the Sunday morning but as the day wore on the human traffic increased. The dog walkers always stopped to say hello while their hounds and Harry Higgs sniffed one another, as hounds will. The cyclists were either steeled in gritty determination on the way up, or seized by wild abandon as they freewheeled down. It was a day of ups and downs and downs and ups.
One highlight was the puritanically named Devil’s Jumps, a series of five round (or bell-) barrows, the best preserved on the downs. They’re big on devils on the downs – Kill Devil Copse, Devil’s Dyke, Devil’s Jumps. You’d half expect Jon Pertwee too turn up with The Brigadier.
It was a fairly manageable stroll to start with but as we passed the half way mark South Harting appeared to starboard and stubbornly refused to go. Even when I checked the map on my phone we seemed to be making no progress at all.
Rather than go straight across Harting Down and past the iron age fort we looped round in a large detour. However the views we sensational. We eventually made it across the border into Hampshire and before we descended into Buriton found a field of green wheat lined with copper beeches and a border of yellow – almost certainly (and very unromantically) achieved with pesticides. It looked stunning however.
And the other thing about walking 14 miles is that it gives a pint and a ploughmans at a sense of really having been earned. It was just right. Proper Sussex (and a bit of Hampshire). Proper England. Ravilious was right there with us in spirit.