When does instinct kick in? The moment you head out of the door, impulsive, intuitively ready for the drift, or before that, lying in bed, considering places and possibilities? To walk ‘instinctively’ is not as easy as it sounds. Decisions have to be made: to walk from the door or to drive? To take money, water, raincoat or just go like Herzog, without looking back?
A blue choke of cars lines Sackville Road. Buses screech, Skip-lorries grind metal on metal, spew dust and grit. I’ve walked from my front door to open country many times, ferreting out green arteries leading through suburbia to the edge of the Downs, but doing so today would be utilitarian not instinctive; a quick way out. Instinct requires time. Time equals speed over distance. I go back for the car (oh irony), drive west along Portland Road, towards Foredown Tower,
A path opens through ripe wheat, steps down to tarmac, a seventies housing estate, satellite dishes, squished bags of dog shit, begonias, neat and pink, arranged symmetrically in tubs – their tidiness somehow more depressing than the dog shit and satellite dishes. Drives are empty, streets deserted. PACA rises in the distance, crowded by roofs, labyrinthine streets with dormers and paved front gardens.
At a picket fence, bordering a white pebble-dashed semi, a narrow path winds behind garden fences, opening to scrubland, thistles, fag butts, flattened cans and feathery scraps of plastic bags snagged on brambles. Shoulderland or Bastard Countryside, as Victor Hugo called it – half scrub and scree, overgrown and careless, its wild selvedge makes me uneasy; aware I am a woman walking alone. I find myself looking back, over my shoulder, often.
Thistles snag my jeans. Long grasses gone to seed, looping purple walls of Rose Bay Herb I used to call Rainbow Willow until Jayne put me right, walking the straight fire tracks of the Forest of Dean, while the children raced ahead, lobbing pine code grenades at unknown enemies hiding in the thickets. Now, Jayne has moved to the Limousin, to a glinty flat lake, bordered with pines, the house at night, big square rooms creaking in the dark; five dogs barking at the wind.
The vacancy of the land quickens my step; I feel it more as absence than presence, a rattling on my chest. Psychologists refer to these spaces as liminal, sites of chaos, , transitions, ambiguity, a hiatus between endings and beginnings. Geographically, a liminal place serves no inherent function. They are places to be got through to get somewhere else. We cross them quickly, paying scant attention to details; what thrives or grows wild, or hides deep in its neglect. The temptation always, is to hasten on, towards a lovelier, more orthodox vision of countryside.
At the bottom of the valley, the path drops to a concrete tunnel running under the A27 – horses have left sweet tails of dung. Mad graffiti covers the walls: I love Izzy…. brown beer……pease pudding now. Sunlight flares. I turn, follow the path along the edges of a wheat field. Poppies wave in the breeze. A sleek black crows rises from the fence post; the hallmarks of country ‘proper’. My footsteps slow, a sense of ease, spaciousness returns as I climb the path to a high ridged chalk track. Below, Brighton sprawls in white boxes, a blue haze of sea bleeds to sky.
Outside Foredown Tower, I sit in my car, staring through the windscreen at the stone wall in front of me, struck unexpectedly by its beauty; the weathered grey brick is studded with milky white and blue flints, spotted with silver lichen. Auerbach or was it Bacon, painted the view from his studio, the same Camden roofs for years, like Cezanne painting Mont Victoire, studying it in all lights and seasons, trying to capture its zeitgeist, the mercurial effect of landscape on the soul. That night, I write in my diary: ‘some days walking makes me feel strong, confident, mastering the world… some days I feel tired and insubstantial, as if my feet are barely touching the ground. I’m not making any impact.’