Snagging on the undergrowth I search for the little known bit bridleway out of the park. It used to be here, where’s it gone? Over the fence panels I can see the wall and hedge that guided it passage between the houses. Who blocked it off. Can they do that? It’s still marked on the OS map. Back into the park to follow the blue signs.
A thumb print in the grass. Into the woods between the suburban streets. Dog Shit Woods. Three Corner Copse to give it its ‘proper’ name. Desire paths and short cuts, slipping out of the city behind the fences. Red Hill and Green Ridge, along the boundary of the city. Branch out over the trunk roads above the noise. A gate and a sign I’ve not noticed before. There’s no reason why I would have, this isn’t a usual escape route, maybe only the second or third time here.
Scare Hill and The Pylons. Worth a punt, somewhere new. Half way across a field stippled with hoof prints solidified by the cold I change my mind but don’t turn back. At least it’s not thawed, if it was I’d be ankle deep in mud and cow shit. Through a gate and along a fence line towards the trees and pylons, a different view of hills I know. The low drone of traffic on the A23 hidden behind the trees below rises to meet me. A green roadsign catches the sun and stands out luminous against winter greens.
Turn right through a gap in the fence, follow where I think the bridleway goes. No obvious sign of previous passage, it can’t be used much. Head for a gate, the only clue. Then another. Chattri to my left, back to where I intended to be, intercepting the route in my head when I left home. A ploughman has scored lines across a hillside. A wire strung between plastic poles, like tape at a ‘cross race. I’ve never seen sheep in that field. Into the copse for that bit of singletrack that avoids the puddles in the tractor tracks.
One rutted field, then another. The wind that was forecast but not yet felt suddenly hits, buffets me from the side. I make a mental note that I’ll turn into it at the top. Flint and horse hoof prints temporarily fossilised in the pale frozen earth. Turn for the dew pond until curiosity gets the better of me and I turn and drop off the other side of the downs. A gravel track through a tunnel of trees, perhaps a holloway but maybe a modern intervention in the hills as it leads straight to a car park. I need to get back to the top. Burnhouse Bostal is more ancient than the gravel path, etched into the chalk, exposed roots polished by years of wear. Ice hides in the cracks. Chalk and ice. White on white. Tyres slip into ruts and pedals clip tufts of grass. The gradient eases after twisting through the trees but steepens again towards the gate. The low winter sun hardens the soft edges of the Downs, shadows are cast. The light at this time of year seems more solid than in summer. The wind is from the wrong direction, against the bent trees, and carries with it a cold not felt all winter. The dew pond is still.
Away from the main path I dip into the hollows. Out of the wind I hear skylarks. Wind and skylarks – the sounds of the downs. Through a gate and over the road into the woods to squirm through and around the trees. Rear wheel slides along a root and PINGS off a stump. Put a bit more air in the rear tyre and set off into the gaps between the trees again.
Another footbridge. A section of main road. I climb up the side of the park. Muffled cries from the Sunday league game below. Blue versus red. The white line around the pitch almost a perfect rectangle from this angle, confirms what my legs are telling me, this track is deceptively steep. Roots disguise themselves as shadows. Across the golf course, white flags describe the wind. Along the back of the allotments and pop out back on the road.
Lock the forks out and head for home.
A wind with sharp edges and a hint of snow. A slightly faster ride home with the wind at my back.
That thing the Downs do with a low sun than makes you swoon just a little bit.
Empty. Silent but for the creaks and squeaks of snow and the muffled cracking of frozen puddles hidden beneath.
Playing Russian roulette with the roots. A frozen waterbottle.