An Annual Ritual
It’s a strange attitude but events that happen on a set date every year make me feel that I’m getting older quicker. I resent them, traditions of friends meeting at a certain pub the day before Easter, the habit of a couple of days in Wales come the last weekend of May, even birthdays make me cringe as I count off another year and watch the grey hair level creep higher like a snow line flanking a mountain.
There is an exception, however, that fosters a feeling of age nonchalance and a blasé attitude towards gaining years, hair colour, any other concerns at the time and I look forward to it immensely every Decemberr. Come the last Saturday before Christmas, a group of friends and acquaintances meet at a quiet, unassuming railway station just outside Brighton in southeast England. No one speaks of it beforehand, no emails, texts or phone calls with ‘Are you going’ are despatched or received, we all know where and when and save a few casualties to illness or whatnot, this is where we head.
This tradition goes way back to the first year the idea, and indeed the actual walk was undertaken – 1977. The inaugural characters present on that day; Ian, Michael, Ted and Smoth still grace us with their presence now with Ted still wearing the original jacket he donned that first year, albeit now barely holding itself together.
The point? Nothing more than a 15 mile ramble over the glorious South Downs, a range of chalk hills 270 metres at their highest point in the county which I call home; West Sussex. We put the world to rights in a few hours, solve the economy, find the cure to most diseases, save a few marriages and indeed perhaps ruin a few in the process. We are shrinks, life experts, super athletes and master politicians for a day. We also have as much fun and cocking about than most of us manage in a month.
A first break is taken after a measly 30 minutes in the shade of a little copse, a weak shelter from whatever elements have come out to play that particular year. To be fair on Mother Nature, most Decembers are cold but bathed in glorious sunshine, some sprinkle our shoulders with snow, others offer gale force winds driving rain at us from a suitably inconvenient direction. We take a few minutes in that copse and break out the seasonal homemade mince pies, usually courtesy of Ted, Ian cracks open a whisky filled hip flask and someone will offer a sausage roll or two.
Suitably snacked and whiskied, we venture onward. The South Downs is a 260 sq. mile area recently designated a National Park and therefore now protected. Undulating gently in all directions, 1000 year old footpaths carve through the surface to streak our surroundings with white tracks on sage coloured grasses. The Downs gently shelve away either side of us from our meagre elevation, to the north all the way to Scotland and south, the English Channel glistens gloriously away to our French neighbours. The occasional clump of trees funnel us through, birds soar and dive on thermals like boats on choppy waters and sometimes a lingering mist in the lowlands below us clings on as church spires break through and bells toll.
Lunch? Of course! The Downs descend every now and again to charming and historic hamlets and villages, some no more than a few houses. Thatched roofs blend into oak beams whilst wattle and daub still clings in between and The Abergavenny Arms welcomes us each year with a roaring fire. Food plays second billing, this is fine English Ale time and chins are scratched as we peruse the various beers on offer. Menus are scanned and the specials board eyed before deciding on a lunchtime fuel for the afternoon shift. Invariably chips feature somewhere, or fries as my American friends would know them better.
Perhaps the strangest, most curious, weirdest and amusing tradition of the entire walk is known as ‘The Fondling of the Marble.’ In 1977, Michael, for some reason, had a marble in his pocket. Wondering if it would fit into a hole drilled hundreds of years before in one of the weathered oak beams he quickly discovered that it did and subsequently, could not retrieve it. 36 years later and it is still nestled in the same spot. Turns are taken in eagerness for the ceremony as each of us stands on a small chair, inserts the middle finger perhaps a couple of inches and fondles this small glass treasure. Never in the history of mankind has such a humble ball been held in such high and revered esteem. The act of fondling the marble has been likened to touching god, reaching enlightenment and indeed, shares somewhat dubious sexual similarities. Those with us for the first time, known as the ‘Marble Virgins’ are forbidden from taking part as it came to light one year that participants were using the walk as cover to take part in the marble caress. Virgins are barred, if it’s a marvel at the marble you’re after, show your dedication to the cause and wait till your second year.
A few notes scribbled in the visitors book and on we march over the bridge spanning the River Ouse, a quick dash between traffic speeding along the A26 is now a much more sedate affair with the installation of a fine wooden bridge. The steep climb up Itford Hill gets harder each year and after a further 3 or so hours, we descend to our final destination. The name of this charming village dating back many hundreds of years is our secret but I visit regularly during the year and it always welcomes me.
The café always knows we are coming, often staying open late to solve an immediate hunger crisis with offerings of toasted teacakes, coffee and of course a cup of Earl Grey before the pub caters for the main stomach fill later that evening. A few of us hard-cores splinter off to the village green and erect tents, just within visible distance of the ‘No Camping’ sign. I like to think if there is a warden, he or she turns a blind eye our way in favour of our harmless tradition.
And to round of, as we say over here, a ‘splendid’ day, we all squeeze in the local pub. Built in 1358, it still hangs on to many a fine feature. Original stone slabs lay an uneven floor, logs blaze in the fire where 2 seats either side offer a somewhat hot resting place until limbs are warmed, and I still peer up a soot scarred chimney and wonder at the height. Blackened timbers bolster a sagging ceiling, dogs seek affection and food scraps whilst many a froth topped beer lines the bar or is held in right hands. Once stomachs are satisfied again, carol sheets are handed out and with a small keyboard guiding us, the room is filled with somewhat poor voices, becoming worse as the evening moves on and beer intake increases. Rumour has it that some travel miles just for the experience and arguably some of the locals travel miles just to get away.
Come last orders handshakes are offered to those driving back home and the rest of us retreat to our tents on the green as we ponder and delight in another year of jolliment.
And, of course, tradition.
About Keith Foskett
Keith Foskett has hiked around 7,000 miles in the past few years and holds a deep respect for our outdoor spaces. He has written two books on thru-hiking and a third, his Appalachian Trail account is due for release in early 2014. He contributes to various outdoor publications and hosts his blog, amongst other stuff at his website detailed below.
In 2012 Keith was shortlisted in 2 categories in The Great Outdoors Magazine Awards – Outdoor Personality of the Year and Outdoor Book of the Year for The Last Englishman, his Pacific Crest Trail account.
His future plans include walking the Continental Divide Trail in 2014 and a long route somewhere through Europe with a border collie.
Partial to a decent bottle of Rioja, down sleeping bags and woollen underwear, he divides his time between writing, walking, running and the odd cycle ride.
He was born, and still lives in West Sussex, England.
To follow his adventures, visit www.keithfoskett.com