On the Downs

While temperatures back home make their frenzied upward surge towards ‘normalcy’- the average of 35 degrees C that I shall miss complaining about this year- it is pleasant, for a change, to live in a country where March can still feel ‘icy cold’, as the woman on the bus from Eastbourne said. A rainy day is a real treat, though I have much trouble persuading my friends who are not from the tropics to see it in the same light. Can regular exposure to grey days, howling winds and cold rain take the sheen away from the intense, absurdly glamorous gloom of an impending storm? I hope not. I don’t want to get so used to the rain that I should stop enjoying it. I like the power of cyclonic storms- they are Nature’s way of asserting her supremacy over all our pretentious advances. Of course, I speak from a position of privilege, and not as one who knows the pain of having her house destroyed by mad winds or family lost at sea in the throes of a depression. However, Nature indisputably has her way of levelling things out.

Sunday morning was wet and gloomy, a perfect foil to sunny Saturday and our plans. We had a movie to watch, following which we intended to get on a bus to explore the Seven Sisters, a series of chalk cliffs by the English Channel. Certain spirits do not quail at the sight of a few drops of rain, however, and we were on the bus to Brighton Marina reasonably bright and early to attend a preview screening of ‘John Carter’; two blissful hours of fantasy which showed human beings on Mars (with ostensibly no supply of oxygen for the sole ‘earthly’ human who made it up there), women who knew how to kiss but were bemused when asked to shake hands, aircraft, rivers, green stick-like giants, what have you. It apparently drew material from the only Edgar Rice Burroughs novel I ever tried to read- A Princess from Mars. Burroughs might have been a splendid writer of pulp fiction, but give me Rider Haggard any day for incredulous situations. Eleven years on, I cannot get the mystique of Ayesha from She out of my head.

The rain continued into the afternoon as we finished lunch, and making our minds up to stick to the original plan, we got on a bus to Eastbourne. Everybody goes to see the Seven Sisters on a sunny day; how many people care to walk on the windswept South Downs on a very wet, grey day? We did. We went up on the top deck of the bus and sat in the very front, watching sheets of water slide down the glass, wiping it repeatedly with our gloved hands to catch sight of the sullen grey sea, the approaching waves meeting a semi-circle of green spreading out from the shore. The world outside was like a smudged oil painting- whirls of blotched colours in traffic lights, vehicles, gardens, and the flowers a man held as he ran across the road to a waiting car. We passed the famous old windmill of Rottingdean, a town Rudyard Kipling had once lived in; we saw signs at Newhaven advertising the ferry service to Dieppe (France is agonisingly close to where I live); we drove through the quaint, lovely tree-lined avenues of Seaford with its pretty houses. The bus wove in and out through commuter towns before finally setting its nose towards Eastbourne.

The sign proclaimed the approach of the Seven Sisters Park, and as we got off, we felt like we’d been set down in the middle of nowhere. Cell phones seemed to be of no use, and the visitors’ centre had just closed. Cars zipped by in indecent haste. That we had only five pounds between us wasn’t particularly reassuring either. This was definitely not an ideal day for an afternoon stroll, but we were immensely glad we’d chosen it. We realised that a few families had braved the vile weather, after all; dogs and children ran in abandon on the thick grass of the South Downs. As we unlatched the wooden gates and stepped into the valley, we were confronted by a stunning landscape. The lush, undulating landscape of the Downs, sepulchral and mysterious, was spread out endlessly ahead of us as far as the eye could see. The rippled waters of the river Cuckmere snaked through the valley, forming little shallow ponds with foamy edges where they lapped the chalky earth. At every step, we stopped to take in the amazing view, entranced by the softly rising hills; lights were already twinkling in some houses and inns in the distance, and the sea was just a thin blur on the horizon. Much as we would have liked to walk on up to the top of the hill and look at the cliffs from the top, we had to turn back as the rain, after a brief respite, took inspiration from its tropical cousin and fell hard, stinging our faces. We revelled in the fresh, healthy air, and would have given much to see a cosy little cottage materialise with the Downs for a backyard materialise in front of our eyes.

Strong winds that an incredibly faulty Internet application pegged at just 4 mph almost jolted us off our feet as we turned back. The ten-minute walk to the ‘bus stop’- which was just a pole with a placard on it- felt like eternity. However, the sudden appearance of a few tentative rays of the setting sun through a thick cloud cover brilliantly capped our day out. We stood by one of the numerous ‘lagoons’ the river curved itself into, listening to the water splash as the wind kissed its surface. Waiting for the bus, we tried to warm our numb fingers and get the blood circulating again- the kindly driver let us in without bothering to see our tickets, seeing that we were struggling with our fingers and bits of paper that refused to come unstuck.

Have I found that particular spot of rural England that I have been dreaming of all my life? I thought Yorkshire was it, but my affections are fickle and constantly find new places to lavish themselves on. The bus ride from Brighton itself had been marvellous- having meandered through town, the road meets the wild countryside, no ugly structures marring its spectacular velvety greenery. Every turn of the road produces a new view of the Downs, now moving into the heart of the hills, then away towards the coast and revealing the chalk faces of the cliffs that make up the Seven Sisters.

As we headed homewards, the sun was beginning to dip into the sea, staining the newly blue sky in its own patented shades of orange and violet. Would John Carter have seen such beautiful sights on Mars? Call me parochial but I, for one, am deliriously happy with Earth, and particularly this tiny corner of the world I’ve wandered into.

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