I make coffee in the almost-light that waits for sunrise. Shouldering the bike down the front steps into a silent city, the main road empty other than a gang of gulls ransacking the bins outside the local chippy. Urban foxes, an air of insolence and disobedience skulk suburban streets. Without the white noise drizzle of traffic my ears fill with birdsong, the dawn chorus of blackbirds and sparrows and other garden birds. As I edge through a hinterland of underpasses and bridges, escape routes to the Downs, light laps against the day, latent images of the land slowly exposed. My shadow creeps up on me as I climb but it’s OK he lives in my household so no rules broken.
The wind is coming from the wrong direction, in the lee of hedges the wind and sunlight both drop and I feel a chill I wasn’t expecting. The sun drags shadows across fields, flickers between trees. Reaching the exposed ridgeline in full view of the sun warmth becomes constant. Unzip my gilet, roll up sleeves. I gaze ahead, follow the lines of the hills from the left, skipping north-south to west-east, my mind jumping from hilltop to hilltop, trig point to trig point, all the way to the right where the Downs literally fall into the sea. Mist floods the weald to the north, the distinct curves and etched onto my memory shapes of hills the only land that can be seen. Islands in the sky. Just the other day I read that our word isolation derives from the latin for island: insula.
What I can see is the limit of where I can ride for now. Ditchling Beacon, Firle Beacon, Itford and Beddingham hills, Kingston Ridge. I’m riding as I did as a kid, not venturing too far from home but exploring, finding my own places, testing the limits of my knowledge. No plan, just going out and riding. Routes are dot-to-dot puzzles repeated using the same dots, joined differently each and every time. Variations on a theme, regular ways mixed with the unfamiliar. I take turns I usually pass or don’t notice, getting lost without actually being lost, mislaid if you like.
Unlatching a gate with my elbow only to notice the fence to the side has been peeled back. Later I will skid sideways to a halt where yesterday the trail ran uninterrupted but today a gate. Livestock and boundaries are moving. Tangled bundles of wire sit on trailers, silhouettes scribbled against the sky. Cattle and flocks of sheep move from pasture to pasture. New born lambs bundle along fencelines, race me up hills and invariably win. Graffiti spray painted numbers match kids to mums, each farmer his own tag. Field patterns obvious again after the fallow of winter. A track disappeared under plough yesterday only to be trodden back into existence by this morning.
The quiet of the hills, the (re)discoveries, the change of pace, the solitude I like but the café stop is missed, the chats about which way to ride back, the “Have you been down there?” whilst taking a swig of water where paths cross. Stories passed on and favourite places shared. Memories and landscape interwoven, layers compressed. During this period of physical isolation online means take on a different significance, social media creating digital songlines, archived folk memory. Trying to place photographs, pinged “Where’s that?” messages leading to guessing games. I’ve only just noticed the track introduced to me as Never Mind The Heffalumps has two labels on gps recordings, Deeply Dippy or Steeply Dippy depending which direction I approach. The vernacular of friends differs dependent on the medium of the telling.
I trace the lines of paths along and up hillsides, white chalk lines scrawled into the landscape, others hinted at by the subtle way the low sun glances differently from flattened grass. Long shadows describe the curves of land showing why a path is where it is, guided by the natural contour, millions of footsteps over thousands of years taking the easier option. Disappear into the long shadow of a coombe, out of sight, a zagging path, partly forgotten, partly obscured by crop, a right of way I feel the farmer would prefer wasn’t here. A tunnel of trees, a collapsing gate bound with blue nylon twine, a steep climb, rasping breath, flint shining silver-black in the chalk.
Futile Turnip Field #1. Striped patterns interlocking and distorting, sweeping curves intersect straight lines, vanishing points everywhere I look. Op art on an agri-industrial scale. I spy the ferry in harbour in the distance, its yellow funnel clear against a background of blue and green. My mind switches from the here and now to the past and future, thinking about rides across the sea in previous years and those existing only in my imagination and on the maps stacked in old shoeboxes on the bookshelf at home. A momentary melancholy but my destination will lie beyond the horizon again, that time will return. A temporary change in scale for a while, close cropped social distancing rather than wide angle.
Futile Turnip Field #2. Head for the aerials. Fields that were not that long ago the dusty tan of dry earth are shimmering green with new growth. Fields changing their attire from brown courduroy to green velvet. Spring is colouring in winter drab. Riding the same places days after day, week after week, repitition makes even the smallest changes noteworthy. The slow motion firework displays of blossom. The path through the woods has the aroma of wild garlic, the other woods nearer home the scent of swathes of bluebells. Dandelions scattered into yellow sunbursts across a meadow, clumps of daisies exploding into bloom. It makes me think of composite images of the universe, my mind jumping from here to there again.
In the warmth of the sun I lean my bike against the trig point and sit on the grass, pull my breakfast and a small bottle of hand gel from my pocket. The air is thick with the sound of larks, coming from everywhere and nowhere. I scan the view ahead, the river flowing towards the town to which I would normally be commuting. Mount Caburn, a true island, a South Downs hill that sits separate. The ridge of the Downs extends away to the west. Hidden from view but in my mind’s eye I can see other regularly visited hilltops; Newtimber, Devil’s Dyke, Truleigh, and further away Chanctonbury Ring but I’ve not ventured beyond the Adur yet. I’m tending to head east, always have done, not sure why, maybe because this way the hills stick closer to the sea. I like the constant of that flat horizon and the contrast of the hills against it, both concentrating the essence of the other.
I start for home. Same fields, different edges. A buzzard glides over the dip between ridges, a shallow valley with no paths or tracks, no one to disturb them, they can hunt in peace. A rabbit scarpers across the field ahead and disappears into the long grass. I remember the squirrel I saw last week bouncing along an empty city centre street before jumping into a shop doorway only to rebound startled from the glass. I couldn’t help but giggle a little, again. Three kites dive and swoop over a field, not far above tree height, playing, fighting? Two more join and all twist in a thermal until high in the sky and splitting off in different directions. Twenty minutes later a kestrel hovers over a field’s edge.
Into the Hidden Valley and climb out on the Italian prisoner of war path (more folk memory or possibly myth). I emerge from the hills into a street of bungalows and follow the white fence of the race course until the city is spread out below. Clicking down a couple of cogs I settle into the drops. Back home flick on kettle and laptop, start to switch brain to work mode. However whilst I wait to connect to the office network I scan the bottom edges of OS Explorer Series maps 122 and 123, looking for bridleways and tracks that I may have missed, expand to the repertoire. Maybe I can discover another new favourite tomorrow.