Its the season for fire and remembering so on Thursday I went down to Brighton with the idea of taking a bus to Woodingdean, where I lived when I was a child, and then walking over the Downs to Lewes to see the Bonfire celebrations.
The plan was all but scuppered by public transport. These things are so much harder when you get out of London (so at my age maybe can never leave London – how could I live anywhere else where there is no proper transport? I’d be trapped in a house unless I lived near a mainline railway station) It took about an hour and twenty minutes to get from my front door to Brighton Station. A bus and two trains. Then it took over two hours to get from the centre of Brighton to the top end of Woodingdean. There is only one bus from the station to Woodingdean, its called the 52, and it comes along hourly. I had to wait 35 minutes for it – or would have if it hadn’t been over a quarter of an hour late. (Maybe I could have gone down to St Peter’s and got another bus there but there was no sign or information at the station telling me that.) And the bus was full of schoolkids going home – who gets let out od school before half past three?
And the bus went all round the houses – up to Dyke Road through sidestreets, down the the Steine, along St James’s Street, and through Kemp Town streets that I have leafleted every house in, past the Royal Sussex Hospital (the last time I went in there it was to see my Dad die, about 19 years ago) uselessly in and out of the Marina (ten minutes without once stopping to let anyone of or off), up past St Dunstan’s and through Ovingdean, all round the back of Woodingdean almost to the top so I was about to get off – then it turned left, went down to Warren Road and then turned right back up Falmer Road – by the time I got up there it was after five and getting dark. So it took longer to go by bus from the centre of Brighton to Woodingdean than it did to get to Brighton from Lewisham, or to walk from Woodingdean to Lewes.
So no time to have a look at any of the places remembered from childhood, and I make my way straight onto the hill, fail to find the path I am sure was there once that leads up to the radio mast at the top, and I don’t want to go down into what I still think of as just “The Valley”, where we used to play when I was a kid. The map calls it “Newmarket Bottom” and “Balsdean Bottom” and part of it is now a nature reserve called “Castle Hill” – none of those words we ever used when we lived there (thugh we did know of Balsdean Farm – I went badger watching there once) So I walk back down to Falmer Road and start again there.
The old road from Brighton to Lewes – called Juggs Lane locally for reasons supposedly to do with fish, a name we did use – starts at Warren Road on the Race Hill above Bevendean, opposite the second bend in the race course, and continues as a muddy track behind the older part of Woodingdean, the plotland bungalows from between the wars in streets like Seaview Road and Downsview Road (I thought those names stupid – they are streets, not roads, and where can’t you see the sea and the Downs from?) Then across Falmer Road and up across barley fields behind Woodingdean, incongruously though patchily tarmaced for the first few hundred metres (I guess it was from the War when presumably the radio masts at the top of the hill and further down on the path to the Valley were radar stations or forward observation post or maybe even anti-aircraft batteries) then just a chalk path along Kingston Ridge.
Navigating on the Downs after dark isn’t as hard as it sounds. There is enough light to see the shape of the hills against the sky, and chalk paths almost shine, so its not that hard to find your way. And, at least on the Brighton side, I’ve known these hills since I was a kid. I used to play up here when I was six years old.
Finding the way is not as hard as not falling over. When you get to the top of the hill you can see the lights of Brighton behind you and Lewes before you and a little later you see Kingston much nearer nestling in the side of its Down. A little Tolkieny moment, seeing Kingston from above, by the pale lights from house windows – no streetlights or moving cars or shop windows. Its not much more than a mile from tarmac to tarmac in a straight line and even in the dark you can walk it in an hour.
It would be less than an hour if it wasn’t for the last couple of hundred metres. The path comes down steeply from Kingston Ridge to the village through a deep cut lane. In places the sides of the cutting are taller than I can reach – how many centuries of walkers does it take to wear the ground down ten feet?
There is a knack to walking on bare chalk that I picked up as a child but would probably be more difficult to people not used to it. There are also knacks to walking on grassy steep downland (stepping from hummock to hummock) and other ones for shingle and the wave-cut platform
Chalk paths form ruts and ridges easily. The tops and sides of the ridges are often at quite odd angles making it easy to turn your foot over walking on them. The bottom of the ruts can be full of exposed flint – which grips your boots well – but can also be very wet. Bare wet chalk is slipperly, slidy and claggy. The path is steep, maybe one in six or steeper. I walk slowly and carefully, almost falling over three or four times. At one point trying to hold on to some vegetation to steady myself I put my hand in what felt like a gorse bush. Maybe it was only a large burdock, it was too dark to see.
Its easy to see the path, its chalk. It all but glows in the dark. You can even see it by starlight. What you can’t see is what the dark patches are. In the dark a patch of grass, a heap of horseshit, and an eight-inch deep hole you could break your ankle in all look just the same against the chalk. And there are plenty of all of them on this part of Juggs Lane.
And then into Kingston (or rather the Kingston Ridge estate uphill from it) feet and ankles complaining (though it was my back that felt it the next morning) and suddenly the navigation problems start. Kingston is not the sort of place that has streetlights. Or even roadsigns. Its not designed to be easy for strangers to find their way about in. It is also just off the edge of my map of Lewes, but not shown in detail in my OS map of the Downs. It ought to be possible to find the other end of Juggs Lane (“Juggs Street” on the map) and so to Southover that way – but in the dark, I miss it. And find myself in a deep cut road with flint walls and many cars and still no street light. Which is one of two or three such roads in the area and I’m not sure which.
So, on principle, I carry on downhill, hoping to find the pub. And I do. I have half a memory, probably false, of the Juggs Arms (its all “Jugg” round here) being called something else and small and rural and frequented by farmers and retired colonels. Well, now its been extended and its got a restaurant and a car park and a large covered area and the customers seem like the sort of people who live in Lewes (if that makes sense) But the beer is good (Shepherd Neame – some sort of very hoppy ordinary bitter rebranded as Kingston Ale, and also Spitfire kept well) and the bar is warm and I have a couple of pints before setting off for Bonfire.