How was I going to get up the hill with the breakfast they were giving me? It was enormous! I wasn’t going to waste any of it though.
Despite the lateness in starting I thought I’d trudge back up the lane to check opening times at the entrance to the track leading up to the Roman Villa. Not ’till 10 am. Today was only 10 miles but I just couldn’t really wait that long.
I set off through the rest of the village of Bignor. Just about as good as West Burton and half village half garden again. This time there was a ditch which was only a foot wide slot set into the impeccably neat grass of the village green. It looked more like an irrigation canal actually.
The start of Bignor Hill up to the top of the South Downs was a short field’s length away from the village. A final pause to look at the cultivation patterns in the sunlit wheat. Then up into where trees shaded the lane and the world seemed to tilt upwards.
Steep it certainly was and it was another hot halcyon day like the last 3, so I was wearing shorts today because this was the least populated section of the walk, short of Chichester anyway. Previously I’d been wearing jeans and the sweat had been pouring off me. I not only had shorts on now though but the lane was a tree tunnel too, up through a dense wood so I got plenty of shade. Trees had become much sought after on this walk for that reason. Also specially designed blister patches I’d bought were taking care of most of their soreness. Lanes seemed not quite as hard underfoot as main roads though that could have been psychological. As for vehicles they were rare, looked lost and couldn’t move quickly. One could hear them coming a long way off anyway.
After long enough looking at the lane in front of my feet and not the hill I was climbing up I had a break. About half way up I sat on a log and chatted with another hiker on his way down the hill. The only hiker I’d seen on the whole journey come to think of it. I’d nearly reached the South Downs way so I was coming into that kind of country now. We weren’t far from a gap in the hills and he was on his way to a town there.
I emerged from the woods, the gradient was levelling out and I was on top of the South Downs! Normally one would be looking for spectacular views back across the Weald but the first sight that struck me was the other way. The ridgeline of the downs was in the form of a hill to the east. A huge dome of wheatfield like the top of a head with a crew cut. The South Downs way cut through that like a parting, complete with fleas toiling up it. Oh they’re people! It gave one a new perspective on the scale of man in landscape, even on this crowded island called England.
There were beautiful views northwards too of course and of course I just had to take photos of everything.
I drank a bottle of Lucozade I’d actually carted all the way from Dorking, saving it for this moment. It was my way of celebrating making it this far and now it was going to be downhill all the way. Vintage Lucozade seemed a bit like warm champagne.
The Roman road was supposed to become evident around here stretching in a dead straight path across the South Downs until it joined a main road again and straightened that out all the way into Chichester. Before I could reach it though I had to negotiate a rats nest of paths which were ways mown through grass and trees. A beacon on top of where the escarpment edged north helped me navigate, and help a woman find the way to a farm along the route her son was at.
I was on top of a grassy dike. Wait a minute. It was a straight dike and going in the right direction. This was it! This was the Roman road, Stane Street in its purest form. That road which had been the straight main road leading into London I’d known as a boy, wondering where it went the other way? That road which had become a track through the North Downs woods, disappearing under Dorking to re-appear as a main road again across the Weald. It was finally under my feet as the real article. The original rubble foundation of a main road laid down in a civilization existing 2,000 years ago was separated from my feet by a blanket of grass; nothing else.
Well. I finally knew where it went and what shape it took.
And this dike was an even better walk than the North Downs. The grass was softer on my feet for one thing. The dike that was the road angled across the Downs in a gradient that was generally gently downhill; through grassy glens and trees to a great slope of grassland with views far reaching enough for the land to dissolve into the sky! That might be the Isle of Wight on the horizon about to float off into the blue. As for the sea to the south it was hard to make it out properly. The Sussex summer haze had had several days to build up here.
I could just make out something unusual far away on the coastal plain but dead ahead in line with the dike. Spikey? Pale grey stone. Almost like a rough diamond. That had to be the spire of Chichester Cathedral so journey’s end was actually in sight! Much too far away though for me to phone the journalists to come and meet me though. I told them I’d do that when I first saw the spire.
In between and much closer was an expanse of poppy hued red on a hill beyond a large wood I had to go through. Couldn’t be a field of them could it?
A photo would be good here. If only that sheep on the Roman road dike would move from grazing that spot with its bum in the air. The sheep doing the moony was oblivious to its indecency though and wouldn’t be moving anytime soon, so I gave up and took the photo anyway.
Sheep were everywhere on the Downs. I saw a whole convention of them sitting neatly within the confines of a shady patch provided by the tree they were under.
There were more hikers too. Two of them made for a farm downhill to the left. Some sort of hiking centre which that woman back on the hill was looking for.
Horse riders too. 2 of them passed me on the final approach to the wood.
I got a photo of another in the wood. Along with people out for a stroll along the network of tracks and paths there, pausing to catch their breath by a signpost, disappearing into the distance. The Roman road just kept on going, its dike swamped by vegetation but one was still at a higher level than the ground to the side. After vistas of woodland beyond tree trunks, sunlit and shadowy foliage, the wood felt as though it was more of a forest in size, but after a mile I came to a road. I’ve just measured the distance on Google.
No traffic on the road. Straight across that and over a bank was my old friend the Roman road again, in the form of a track on a dike leading through a thicket of a wood.
Much smaller than the last wood though. Open fields again. I was on the edge of that red field and it was indeed a great big field of poppies! Like something misplaced from The Wizard of Oz. The photo I took was one of my more unusual ones on this walk.
Unfortunately the Roman road had diminished into a path on the edge of this field and ended half way along it. An open gate and more wild flowers beckoned me into a walk that ended with me having to go down and back most of a field for the privilege of being on a main road again.
Some way after that it straightened into the Roman road and I crossed under a pylon line towards the stark edge of a new housing estate on top of the slope beyond. I was just to the north of Boxgrove, where early Stone Age tools had been found. There was a lot on this side of Chichester: what with Boxgrove, the site of Tangmere Airfield of Battle of Britain fame and Goodwood. I was closing in on the final approach to the old city and beyond the estate I came upon a pub. Perfectly placed for a pint and lunch.
I had much to celebrate. I’d come 60 miles accomplishing nearly all I’d set out to do and was now less than 5 miles from the centre of Chichester. Within striking distance of a Roman triumph and one last push would do it!
There was a quiet spacious beer garden to the rear. I was ready to continue and this was ideal for a mobile phone call to the press. I’d taken care to get a direct line to the editors office from the guy I’d liaised with on the day I left for London. That would neatly avoid getting snarled up in an automated phone system which had done its best to lose me, as is their wont.
Unfortunately though I’d overlooked making a note of his name and couldn’t remember it. An embarrassing error and I hoped he had things prepared.
I hoped it would be him picking up the phone but it was another fellow who seemed confused when I told him there wasn’t much time because my mobile was on its last legs but I was the 62 year old who’d contacted the editors office just before walking from London to Chichester and was nearly there. Not a good sign but he said he’d tell the others.
Courage. Also time I was moving out. I was behind schedule really.
Just before I did so my mobile phone rang and it was a well spoken girl from the same office. Something about her cheerfulness smacked of insincerity though and it got much worse:-
Chichester was not in their area so they weren’t really interested.
“But it’s all arranged!” Frantically I explained what the arrangement was and how it had come about while being aware that I was working against the clock. (Why didn’t these people TELL each other anything?)
“Oh. What’s his name?”
She would have to go for that! Frantically I clutched at a straw mentioning a name I thought might be close.
That only made things worse; the only Steven she knew worked for the paper covering Chichester and I hadn’t heard anything from them so I had to waste more time explaining that! The co-operation I’d had in previous years from the press had led me to completely underestimate how bad they’d become this time.
The phone started to break up missing words randomly but still picking up the odd sentence. I’d forgotten if I’d explained this urgency to her in the panic but the guy I’d initially spoken to should have anyway.
“It is a bad line isn’t it?”
“THAT’S BECAUSE” my mobile was on it’s last legs.
“What?” It was seriously breaking up now. I got the message across on the 3rd attempt.
“What proof have you got?”
Oh GOD! Think! I’d planned for that! What was it? Photographs 1 a mile! I started trying to explain that while about one in 4 of my words was getting through. Then I had a brainwave. “I took over 300 of them!”
That sentence got through. So did hers. “Oh that’s interesting.”………………………………………………..
That was the last communication. The mobile was dead.
Well. Thanks for nothing. Hope you find your boyfriend with somebody else.
With those thoughts I left the pub and got going. Maybe I was making the wrong choice but trying to phone the editors office from the pub would have meant their automated phone system which was another nightmare I couldn’t face. And I was late anyway.
My local community had called me a hero. Many must be more deserving of that title, braving things I would bottle out of. Nevertheless I had a statement to make on behalf of them:
I do not believe a female of this sort should be allowed access to any man attempting to achieve anything worthwhile. However marginal. Whatsoever. At all.
Or for that matter, any woman.
I passed a housing estate cul-de-sac and reached a church, probably Saxon. 2 old ladies were approaching the entrance and I gained some succour from a conversation with them which was far nicer than what had just happened.
It had hit me where it hurt. I thought one perk of being a hero might be love, support or interest from the fairer sex. To be perfectly honest it would be fantastic now to have the love of my life waiting at home or the cathedral for me, or going some of the distance with me, or an erotic experience after this trek of the sort Michael Palin encountered as Sir Galahad in Monty Python’s Quest For The Holy Grail. Castle Anthrax. Where the girls were far too young for me and had an unfortunate lack of skill in naming things, but the idea was what I would have appreciated: lovely ladies waiting for a knight (or minor hero to bathe) to liven up their lonely life “bathing…dressing…undressing…making exciting underwear.” That last bit appealed to my sense of humour especially. Poor chaste Michael Palin was just coming round to the idea when the other knights were thoughtless enough to rescue him.
Fat chance of that but I’d still settle for some attention however limited. Or what happens in ‘Hollywood’ when the hero’s in trouble at the last hurdle: a lady behaving like a heroine.
Instead of any of that though this …. wonder? …. had just wasted what was left of my mobile phone power by trashing the media part of this enterprise thereby wiping out £100′s we might have got for the school, while making me feel it was my fault. I was the fool it was fun to get rid of. She’d even managed – by last second interest – to leave me with that sick sense of lingering hope combined with the feeling they weren’t going to show up anyway. Nice one! A true artiste.
I must be near Goodwood airfield. A light plane soared overhead. I should be seeing the Cathedral spire soon and I could really do with that uplifting sight right now.
What had happened must be the one thing I couldn’t cope with for there was no one at home for me either but I accepted that. I was more than able to go it alone, to see what I was capable of on my own, let alone the reasons I’ve given earlier for doing this. One could still get so much out of life in this way doing what one was good at while helping others. Where’s the problem?
The final part of any long hike though can be the toughest psychologically and what you really don’t need is a shambles like this snatched from the jaws of victory on this stretch
I was passing a crematorium. A reminder of a future I couldn’t escape from that I didn’t need at any time, but especially right now.
Okay so I’d finally been unable to avoid the title of idiot being bestowed upon me by forgetting that journalist’s name and not managing to look after my mobile phone. Maybe it had something to do with organising this on my own while dealing with the paralysis of health and safety, a charity website and press that was worse than useless, being mucked around by landowners on the toughest day and still walking 65 miles anyway when I’m 62! (Fer Chrissake gimme a break!)
I was approaching a notice. It was the city boundary. Where the hell was that spire though?
It was the ‘positive’ manner of her voice that I found hard to take. One hears similar voices in marketing and advertising, where positive thinking – if it can be called thinking – is not about achieving or doing things but about what you appear to be. And if one appears to be the bright cheerful positive sort one can do no wrong, so anyone daring not to fit in must be negative and therefore wrong by definition.
There was the spire! But it still looked a long way off and I felt the damage was done. Maybe because of what had happened or because my feet were getting sore again I was moving too slowly and I was late. Chances are if the journalists had shown up and found me not there they would have left again.
Maybe I was being unfair on her. The editor – whom I’d never managed to speak to – was supposed to control things and he had a name which didn’t inspire my confidence. I’d known 3 people with the same name in my life and 2 of them had been screwups. Think I’ve just found a 3rd.
I passed builders renovating a house that seemed to be cracking apart. Struck a chord in these circumstances.
Why not fall back on that male resort of getting drunk when things go wrong like my friend the Tooting Teddy? I felt rebellious against … well everything really. If despite my best efforts I was just irrelevant why bother with anything apart from my creature comforts? Turning up pissed at a Cathedral had a certain style in these circumstances and I started to keep my eye open for a pub. I’d have a pint at each one I found.
I think the pub I found was beyond a monument in a park. That pint I had there went down well. I left looking for more.
There was a clock above a street corner with the time coming up to 10 to 4. Beyond that there seemed to be no more pubs but that might have been because down the street I was heading I could see bunting hanging above, like it was up there to celebrate a hero who hadn’t arrived. As I got there people were going about their business as normal, almost as though they’d given up waiting.
The spire was in full view now and close enough for me not to want to stop anymore. Nearly there.
I wound my way through tourists past the bulk of Chichester Cathedral to the West Entrance at the other end, which is where I’d been asked to appear. The thing that should inspire awe when one is in the presence of Cathedrals – apart from their soaring ornate structures – is a sense of what the surrounding architecture was like when they were built. Nothing was approaching the same scale and much of that was mud and thatch. It’s a window on to the way people felt and thought then, how important Christianity was at that time.
A pair of doorkeepers were there and I tried to explain who I was. They’d been expecting “a pilgrim” but he should have come earlier. Pilgrim was not exactly what I had in mind when I undertook this venture but it was an understandable definition of what I’d done coming from devout Christians. After all I was now at a centre of Christianity.
“Well, I’ve walked 65 miles from London Bridge.” That was good enough for them, but I suddenly became aware I was wearing shorts and asked them if that was not suitable clothing for the Cathedral? It soon became clear that they just didn’t care about that as I was promptly ushered inside, led to a chair near the entrance and sat down.
Had the press shown up? They hadn’t seen anyone. I actually felt relieved. At least the press hadn’t turned up and gone away again on top of what had happened. Had I contacted their local paper? I hadn’t heard anything. Their response to that was a remarkably un-Christian rolling of the eyes, which gave a clue as to the calibre of their local press too.
A gaggle of mini skirted teenage girls showed up at the entrance jabbering away like a flock of starlings on speed. They were probably all high on some teeny bop alcohol pop which is probably why the doorkeepers wouldn’t allow them in. It occurs to me now though that they were the same vintage as those Castle Anthrax maidens and although they were far too young for me it was as though the doorkeepers had been my moral guardians in the same way as those knights were with Sir Galahad.
It could have been that they didn’t want the girls competing – verbally – with the lady I’d been told would see me. From the shadowy expanse of the Cathedral came a melodious woman’s voice reciting The Lords Prayer; which took me back to my junior school where we recited that in assembly.
She wasn’t young but had that ageless quality I’d seen in the couple with the paradise garden on the other side of the hills I’d crossed today. Dressed in purple robes if my memory’s correct though I’ve just checked Google images and they only seem to show blue robes for the Cathedral. Either way she was resplendent in those robes and a lady priest is an unusual sight so I rose from my chair out of respect; but the response to that was a wail from her and murmurs of concern from the doorkeepers. They didn’t want me taxing myself further after walking all the way here from London. To my surprise the respect seemed to be coming the other way from them to me.
For a while we conversed on that spot. The doorkeepers and I had been talking about the afterlife and the consensus amongst them now that she was here was death being ‘the great adventure.’ I can’t say I was wildly excited by that, preferring to concentrate on the adventures of life for which there was rarely enough time. Was there an afterlife? What would I know? I’d like to think so and believed there was some evidence for it from near death experiences; but I didn’t think it was conclusive. I had discussed this with a Jewish friend and we’d come to the conclusion that being adamant about there being nothing afterwards was – in its own way – as dogmatic as being adamant that there was. One thing I could be sure of: it was best to do something worthwhile with this life, or enjoy as much of it as possible – the two could be compatible – or be good more often than not, regardless of the final answer because that would count either way.
She took me to the refectory, off to the side of the main Cathedral down a cloistered walk past semi abstract sculptures of dignitaries on a lawn. She called them statues.
I’d had my differences with organised religion. The easy relationship with Christianity in childhood (where you could always wind them up with sputniks and Dinosaurs anyway) had deteriorated through the next 20 years when the freedom one sought then was apparently opposed by repressive morality. Things reached an all time low by the time I’d returned from South Africa where I’d experienced the excesses of the Dutch Reformed Church. Then there was a long mellowing out process through 13 years with an eccentric Catholic landlady who persisted in writing to the Pope advising him in favour of birth control! Rumour had it they were praying for her. How could one help that affecting one favourably?
Now it seemed I was being honoured in historic surroundings by a lady of religion in robes. A Lay Preacher I later learned. Well, I should accept this for what it was and let its magic work on me. It was certainly undeniable that these people had a real sense of occasion lacking elsewhere; and if it wasn’t right for ‘Gladiator’ it would have been appreciated by the the Knights Of The Round Table. It was time for a reconciliation with Christianity.
They even had beer in the refectory but I chose what had become my main drink for the …pilgrimage? Why not? Orange juice with lots of ice.
She was reproachful though about me turning up an hour late when she was about to go off duty. My reply was one of being demotivated by the press but she was right. I realised I’d forgotten I’d told these people I should be showing up earlier because of my preoccupation with the press. I’d treated Chichester Cathedral as a good landmark to aim for on the map, almost a military objective in fact. All well and good for the mechanics of a successful march. Not so hot if it led to neglect of the culture here.
We chatted about my job and the children short of personal details that is. When I told her I also constructed or created the odd planet she became surprisingly enthusiastic and insisted that I should try to contact Professor Brian Cox.
I became thankful I hadn’t found more than one pub and turned up pissed at a Cathedral after all. It was the right time and place to consider a moral and the right one for me was;- “thou shalt not feel sorry for thyself.” I’d been guilty of that often enough in my life.
It was all over now for better or worse and the anticlimax was setting in as I hobbled my way from Chichester Cathedral to the station in the grimy late afternoon heat.
One thing I should have discussed with the Cathedral staff was how I admired God’s sense of humour. Honestly. I mean, first of all arrange a record wet summer where people are warning me about being drowned if I dare walk anywhere. Then stick a pocket heatwave into precisely the time I do it. Not one drop of rain had fallen on me in 5 days of hiking 65 miles! As a result of going from the ridiculous to the sublime I had the opposite problem from drowning: dehydration. So my progress had become a trail of quaffing not just lagers and orange juice where I swallowed every ice cube because it could still become liquid, but other fruit juices, Lucozade, Cokes, Red Bulls, anything I could lay my hands on that was drinkable in fact; along with a trail of barmaids chatted up at various oases I’d sought refuge in. Now if that was a joke on me I’ve got to say it had real style.
All I wanted to do now though was get home, get a bath, get a big takeaway and enough beer, get drunk and go to bed.
The train suffered from what one of my old school PE masters called ‘Feebleitis:’ pausing at anything like a station between here and Portsmouth harbour as though it had some ailment and methodically checking out every stretch of cutting to see what was the most boring bit it could stop in.
I became aware of a persistent concerned mumbling coming from somewhere within rows of seats facing me, accompanied by the occasional movement of sheets of paper. It was a mobile phone user and he looked the part: lean but bald 30 something with trendy sunglasses. Mobile phone users on trains have a bad name but I’ve known worse things and any trace of irritation on my part was replaced by intrigue when I could make out the odd word or sentence and became actual sympathy when I was able to make sense of what he was concerned about.
It revolved around a mortgage (I’d better refrain from comment) which involved not only the man but his ‘partner.’ Apparently someone had missed the entry he’d made to that end on the form or pack of them which he was referring to now. (riffle riffle flip flip.) There were unfortunate financial consequences involved which explained his concern. Apart from this there was the bloody hassle of having to go through all this (flip flip flip) while maintaining a diplomatic manner. Apparently he had a real problem too with the person on the other end of the phone (flip flip riffle) in the sense of getting their head around the ‘issue.’
Why should anyone be obliged to go through this. Where one seemed to be up against a status quo of professional incompetence dedicated to making life more difficult? Especially when one thinks of how hard it can be to become employed? Was it not enough staff? The obsession with downsizing seemed to have been going on ever since I’d returned from Africa 30 years ago.
Why was there a waste of resources towards this end? Not only the time of those concerned but the volume of paperwork involved. Was this one reason we were presiding over the biggest mass extinction since the Dinosaurs checked out? How many trees and rare species had been destroyed towards this end? Why did some organisations produce so many forms that were largely ignored anyway? Haven’t these people heard of global warming?
I could be wrong of course. Species might not be destroyed by this or climate altered, the paper might be recycled for one thing, but I return to my original question. Why should there be this persistent unnecessary waste of time which could have been used for some useful work, paying attention to one’s children or enjoying oneself? Added up this sort of thing was taking up too much of people’s lifespans which compared to geological time were microscopic. This sort of situation was likely to happen with any mortgage negotiation at any time but was repeated across more than one profession and it wasn’t all involving paperwork. This man’s immediate problem was nothing like mine with the press though I was glad I wasn’t in his shoes, but our basic situations were not a million miles apart. Both of us were being mucked around by professions letting one down. Both of us had to ‘help us to help you’ by devoting unpaid time and energy to ensuring there was no room for misunderstanding, or less room at least. The penalty of depending upon them at all could be no press showing up or loss of money. And of course ‘it’s not our fault,’ a phrase I’ve heard more than once in our legalistic culture. All you need to do too, is be human and make one mistake when you’re trying to do someone else’s job for nothing and that’s all it takes. I’d made 2 with my mobile phone and forgetting a name.
His mobile phone was better than mine. I don’t remember the mumbling ending before we reached Portsmouth harbour.
© D Angus 02 13