In the late nineties I became frustated with the lack of mountains in the South-East of England. Mountaineering always meant travel, which cost too much, and was dependent on favourable weather conditions at the time chosen for the trip. Mulling over this problem, it occurred to me that I also enjoyed long walks without anybody around and that I had never walked the South Downs Way. In the summer it is festooned with people walking, cycling, picnicking, flying kites et cetera. Far too busy for my liking. Suddenly I realised that in winter it would be suitably desolate for my purpose. That’s why I decided to walk it alone over mid-winter.
I never completed the walk, even though it is only 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne. The furthest I ever got was in 2007, when I made it to Lewes. By that time I’d learnt a few lessons on how to walk the South Downs Way (the link is to my photographic journal of that ‘expedition’). Notably, I’d realised that camping out meant carrying loads of kit which slowed me down too much for the eight hours of daylight. In those early years I made plenty of other mistakes. Chief among them was setting off without any form of torch. Each time I left Winchester on 19th December and planned to walk through midwinter, through Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and arrive in Eastbourne the day after. Being dependent on daylight at that time of year does not combine well with travelling because you lose 30 minutes at either end of each day whilst breakfasting and breaking or making camp.
My third attempt saw me calling at the houses whose occupants had previously given me water, rather than turn me away and avoiding camp sites which local boy riders used as skid pans for hand brake turns after dark. (Another problem with camping out when night falls quickly is that you can’t see the tyre marks gouged into the muddy earth.) Somewhere west of Old Winchester Hill, a farmer said, “Why do you turn up here on 20th December every year?” It was a good question. My answer was not very appealing; I mumbled something about being unsuccessful. “Good luck this year!” he called out each time I left him. Calling at homes happily decorated in the Christmas tradition in bad weather with darkening skies, alone, wet, cold, hungry and being denied permission to sleep rough in one of their fields proves the lie of the Christmas spirit. Very few people were helpful. All of them looked embarassed, as they turned me away but the doors still slammed hard. With one exception, most of the people that turned me down simply directed me to ask one of their neighbours a convenient distance away! The exceptional person said yes and, after I had pitched my tent, came out with some hot mince pies (which normally I hate but that year were very heaven) and tried to insist that I come indoors to sleep. She pleaded with me and later on, when it was really cold, her husband pleaded too. On that occasion, I felt embarassed turning them down.
I forget how far I got on the third attempt but I do remember that it was an exceptionally wet year. It never really stopped raining. The South Downs can be very hard underfoot in dry weather because the chalk drains so well. In wet weather the various cow herds churn up the deepest mud in their fields, which is usually in some dip or coombe (a Sussex word for a chalkland valley) where the gate is. The gate you have to travel through. Fields ringed with hawthorn except by the gate were a nightmarish quagmire. I kept slipping over, falling into an uncertain sloppy mixture of mud and cow shit. Somewhere along the way I had to ascend a short steep slope which proved nearly impossible. With my heavy pack, the greasy chalk, the mud and 100 feet of incline took two dozen attempts. With no-one there to laugh at me there was no-one to share the joke with. When I eventually got to the top I was absolutely caked in crap, bruised and had insufficient daylight hours left for much more walking, so I just camped at the top. My kitchen was restricted to a spoon and a single billy tin which I ate everything out of: porridge in the morning and vegetarian mince in the evening alike. It didn’t take long for both meals to resemble each other and nothing pleasant.
I can’t claim to have been happy but I was pleased to have got further than on the first two attempts. Walking along like this on my own at midwinter, with a full rucksack, made other people realise that I was walking the whole route. Often they would stop to talk. Consequently I enjoyed briefly intense moments of companionship with people who would probably otherwise have never spoken to me regardless where they met me: many of them were farmers out with their dogs in the early morning.
Somewhere along the Way on my third attempt I chanced upon one such conversation. It was the evening. The sky had not yet darkened but it was low in the sky. As per usual at this time, I was urgently looking for somewhere suitable to bed down. This was always a dilemma because there was a fairly small window to make a sensible decision in. I had long since given up asking for permission only to be refused. Instead, if I saw a likely spot I would keep walking whilst fretting about whether I would have turn back to it. The thought of retracing my steps was too much to cope with emotionally. The stranger struck up the conversation along the usual lines, enquiring whether I was walking the whole South Downs Way? When I replied that I was, he remarked that perhaps I was camping out? On hearing that I was, he directed me over a low hill in front of me and said that about half a mile further than that there was an abandoned house and suggested I camp out in its garden. “You can’t miss it”, he said, “it’s got the tallest pine tree on the Downs in it.”
I thanked him for this information and pressed on. The weather got really bad. By the time I made it to the gate of the abandoned house’s garden, all paranoia about someone knowing where I was camping being a problem had evaporated. All I cared about was getting somewhere I could warm up. The house was boarded up, the garden heavily overgrown but it was miraculously dry underneath the branches of the pine tree. I put my tent up there, right next to the trunk and pulled out my wet sleeping bag. I was using a hollow fibre sleeping bag which would warm up even if wet but it was grim getting into it. Knowing the best way to retain whatever body heat I had left did not assist me through the suffering of undressing completely and getting into the cold, drenched bag. I put my clothes in with me, hoping that my heat would dry them off in the night. I turned on my stove but the firing mechanism packed in. No hot food. Knowing I needed some energy, I ate the vegetarian mix raw. The wind creaked the rusty gate and a loose board high up on the house flapped in the wind. The scene resembled something out of a Hammer House of Horror film.
Shivering, I curled up into a ball inside my sleeping bag and worked at furiously wiggling my toes to keep my circulation going. Not sure this was a good idea. It probably just kept my blood flowing to my cold extremities. At least it gave me something to concentrate on.
Suddenly I had something else to concentrate on. There was a flash and I could hear thunder way off in the West. I counted the seconds. Here I was, directly at the base of a soaking 200 foot pine tree. I had looked higher than the little hill I had just walked over to get to it. Within a few minutes darkness fell and the lightning was getting closer. By 5:00pm the inside of my tent was either pitch dark or brighter than daylight. I could no longer count any time between the flashes and the thunder – they were simultaneous. I wondered about my ability to break into the house and get a fire going inside it but the thought of failure prevented that idea from being pursued. Without a torch and with the various overgrown ornamental ponds in the garden I did not want to risk climbing out of my sleeping bag, pulling my cold wet clothes back on and attempting to find somewhere else to camp. Besides, any moment now the lightning would strike my personal conductor and it would all be over.
Looking back, I think by this point on my walk I had mild hypothermia and hadn’t been thinking straight for some time. At the time I became convinced that at any moment I would be electrocuted or crushed or both. Unusally, for Southern England, it was a very bad storm. After about hour, my brain grew tired of the constant fear. I gave up. I even began to wish for death. “Let’s get it over and done with”, I thought. Your brain is a clever beast and plays all sorts of tricks on you to keep you going. This was my subconscious brain preventing me from panicking. I lay still and relaxed and waited for the inevitable tragedy which never came. After an hour of the raging wind, lashing rain and constant lightning close at hand I became annoyed at still being alive. Although an athiest, I started shouting at God.
Aping Capaneus, no expletive was too strong for my angry prayer. Like he, I vented my hatred upon His Mercy. Time and again I screamed the challenge to on high. “Go ahead, kill me!” I shouted myself hoarse denying divine justice. Eventually I shouted myself to sleep. The storm did not rest. In those sixteen hours of darkness I dreamt violent and horrific scenes of killing and sacrifice. The constant flashing and noise was playing havoc with my mind. Several times I realised I was awake but was still beset with visions. I slipped in and out of consciousness throughout that long night. By the early morning, the storm had blown itself away and my anger with it. My sleeping bag was still wet but I was warm.
All of us can go beyond what our rational minds can cope with. During these dreadful moments, focusing on some higher power is palliative. Whichever theology you subscribe to or avoid, prayer finds a way to settle the mind when all else is lost. Thus, athiests can pray as fervently as believers although we prefer not to. I’ve often thought of making this confession but have hitherto stopped myself because of the apparent implications on the lack strength of my convictions. Yesterday, I read about another athiest’s prayer, which he uttered in an hour of desperate need. He’s a friend of mine and had got himself into a far worse predicament than I have just described. His account of a week trapped by a lack of equipment on a rocky ledge high in the Alps is amongst the finest first hand survival tales I have ever read. The photographs are chilling. During that awful time he was truly open to himself for the first time about his homosexuality and has been honest about it ever since. Whatever makes you pray, carry the prayer with you afterwards.