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The Old Ways and New Ways

Jump on a train west to Chichester to make the most of the forecast weather. Head for home with the wind on my back and scudding clouds and an intermittent shadow for company, looking for a route with as little tarmac as possible rather than the shortest way. Out of the city on back streets and alleyways, a muddy desire path not on any official maps through woodland to a superstore carpark, tunnel under a roundabout. Head north to the hills, past the motor racing circuit and up towards the sculpture park where we once accidentally trespassed and had to slide our bikes under the fancy steel gates. A low barn on one side, a high wall on the other, both flint, containers made from the earth they sit upon.

From the ridge the sea sparkles the silver-grey of enamel paint far to the south. Ducking into the woods instantly lose all tractions, slide sideways along forestry lanes in the tracks of machines no longer present except for the stacks of logs at each junction. Beech and bracken glinting golden in the slanting winter sunlight. A Roman road intersects with a King’s escape route. Damp roots and bright chalk exposed in the grass. A long straight line to the many crossroads at the top of Bignor Hill. Stane Street and the South Downs Way the most ancient but I continue along the Monarch’s Way. A field’s boundary in the shadow of the trees and into the forest. A shotgun blast cracks open the sky, shards of sunlight cross the path as well as bolting deer. Another shot, more deer. Hooves tapping on the deep dark flint that shines through the rotting leaves underfoot.

Across a main road and a ploughed field and drop into a holloway almost to the River Arun. Join the South Downs Way for the rest of the way home. Steeply up Amberley Mount, looking down on flood plains reflecting the sky showing features usually only obvious on maps. A freshly eaten pheasant carcass, still brightly feathered, head and tail intact but it’s innards gone apart from bones, looking like a cut-away diagram from a biology text book. Play tag with hill tops; Rackham, Springhead, Kithurst, Chantry, Sullington, Barnsfarm, Highden. Splash in and out of puddles, let the wheels find their own way, last time I tried to steer my way I almost got thrown off, unclip and fling legs out for balance. The clang-clatter of a cattlegrid and slop through slurry, slip-slide up a field. More puddles, submerged feet, wet socks but clean shoes again.

Cross the A24, back within the perimeter, home turf, familiar hills. Heel into the wind past Chanctonbury Ring, surf the edge of Steyning Bowl. The narrow footbridge over the Arun and up to the youth hostel. Can see home from here still six miles away. A smudge of rain ahead and behind, caught between. Dark clouds stalk the hills but sunlight glances off the sea down to my left. The wind gives me a stiffer shove. Swap hilltops for golf courses, one, two, the caged bridge over the noise of traffic. Scruffy city edge woodland and suburbs into the sunshine.

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