As I passed below the mysterious Chanctonbury Ring, an Iron Age hill fort planted with a copse of beech trees bent north-east by the prevailing wind, I saw a figure stop at the gate I was approaching. It was too far to see his face but he was wearing a pack like me (for it was a he). He was waiting for me, but not only this – I had a very strong sensation that he was expecting me, that this coming encounter was somehow timed in the same way that turning a corner on an obscure street and coming face to face with an old acquaintance sometimes seems to be.
His face continued to be a blur for some time, for longer than it should have been and he somehow lacked substance during that time as though his corporeal reality depended on me being able to see him clearly. (If I passed behind the shoulder of a hill would he, in fact, vanish?) In the absence of actual detail, my mind began to fill in the space. No, I could see him now – a cockade of blonde, wavy hair ruffled by the wind, a high crown, blue, friendly eyes squinting against the white of a big sky, square jaw. His skin was ruddy, tanned and lined healthily from wind and sun. He looked like one of Thor Heyerdahl’s rugged Nordic travelling companions from the Kon-Tiki, a modern day Viking adrift on rolling green seas of grass and towering white waves of chalk escarpment.
I had been walking for four days now, camping in woods on the high hills with nothing but my night time fire for company. I was solitary by nature, I always thought; craving space in a city and with friends and family is one thing but having no one to turn to and share a moment with when the night is pressing in on all sides around a guttering flame is another, even in the relative human density of Southern England. I began to welcome these chance encounters even after the first few miles of my journey, whoever they were with. I discovered that, like the rest of my species, I was a social animal after all. I would savour those moments, ring every last drop of nourishment from them in a manner that would be crazy to contemplate in normal conditions.
It was late morning – a happy time to be on the road. Lunch was not far off and I had the satisfaction of having already tramped five or six miles. There was a white sky above, broken here and there by some electric squiggles of blinding light and even some larger patches of blue. Still, it was relatively balmy for October and I was dressed in shorts and tee-shirt.
The path I was on ran right along the crest of the Downs for a hundred miles, from Saxon Winchester to Victorian Eastbourne. For most of the way it was hard broken flint and dusty chalk – a composition of the surrounding hills hauled and stamped in a concentrated line – a defiant and unbreakable track. It had been used by Iron Age man to connect his forts and various vantage points but was probably much older. A softer hunting trail possibly existed from the Stone Age when the majority of the country was still clad in virgin forest and the valleys were un-drained. It was used by the Romans when they settled the land and built their villas and temples (the remains of one was excavated in the nearby Chanctonbury). It continued to be used as a drover’s track when the succeeding Saxons moved their homesteads off the harsh and exposed uplands. And so it remained for centuries, the little round dew ponds dotting the summit signalling where generations of sheep have drank and where the hardy shepherds washed their ragged pelts prior to shearing.
As I tramped, a heavy load on my back and a recently cut hazel staff in my hand, I thought about all the feet over the centuries that had trod this way and it struck me with a lightning thrill that threaded me through time and space, that perhaps some of my own kin had strode here as pilgrim or warrior or perhaps like me, as wanderer.
Patiently, the stranger watched my plodding approach. Gradually the Northman I had imagined – that I had more than imagined; that the dense, filtered atmosphere of the hills had seemed to create – sloughed away and I was met with a stocky man of early middle-age and average height. What was most striking and, at the same time, disappointing, was his physiognomy, which so contradicted what I had anticipated. His head and face were large, bald and imperfectly round like an outsized new potato or squashed football. His features were irregular and lumpen. It was the face of a medieval peasant, something out of a Breughel painting. Perhaps it wasn’t the waxen-haired bard I was expecting, but in a different way this was a countenance equally out of time.
His small, widely spaced eyes twinkled generously and intelligently as I stepped up. I was struck profoundly by a very curious feeling that I don’t think I had ever experienced in quite the same way. I felt an unburdening of ego and in that space relegated, came an inrushing of pure primitive joy. I could be myself! What I had done and where I was from didn’t matter. What counted and what I was left with was the essence of me. It was light but dense, natural but somehow unfamiliar in so undiluted a state. I was meeting another man, another human being entirely as equal, without side or guile or agenda and it was happening on the roof of the world (at least the English world) miles from human habitation and any other soul.
We clapped hands, grinning the same grin, feeling the same sense of kinship. My pack was large and heavy and I tilted forward slightly, leaning against my stick. It was time to speak – we wanted to – but words are a poor expression of feeling. There is such a gap between soul and tongue.
“Where have you come from?” He was first to speak. A pleasant, even voice with traces of an old Scottish brogue.
“Winchester. I’ve come along the Downs.”
“Really!?” His eyes lit up. “And what’s it like over there?”
It was a regular enough question, but there was also something faintly curious about being asked it by someone who was evidently a fairly serious walker. In this world of detailed photographs and information on demand, we can find out everything we want to know about a place before we even arrive. The mystery, as they say, is gone. But here was a man for whom the mystery was still there. It wasn’t that he was ignorant or uneducated; mystery cannot exist without curiosity. It was clear that he knew of Old Winchester, but in the same way that I knew of Zanzibar – as a place that was foreign and exotic, (how quaint to think of anywhere in this country as being exotic, so accessible is it all), a place of tombs and amulets, of crumbling stone, the blood of kings and the distant din of battle.
“It’s beautiful!” I replied rather feebly. But was referring not to the town, which was that also, but to the South Downs which linked three counties like a sleeping dragon – to the wooded dells, the solemn barrows and tumuli which spoke of man’s passing and the mist shrouded valleys of dawn where all of southern England to the north lay wreathed in a translucent patchwork glow.
“What about you?” I asked. “Where have you come from?”
Evidently he wasn’t a day tripper. From his manner, from what he had said, perhaps more from what he hadn’t, he wasn’t trekking the South Downs Way. That left no category unexamined. Unless he belonged to a category as yet undefined.
“Here and there. I was down in the valley around Plumpton. Before that…”
Yes, and before that?