Being Wistful: South Downs Way 3 – Chanctonbury Ring to Amberley

Third post out of four – wistful memories! Feeling desperate to be out walking in these wonderful places again, but hope you’re all keeping safe and well!

We left Chanctonbury Ring without being spooked, and continued on our way.

Near Washington, the South Downs Way drops down off the Downs and walkers have to cross the busy A24. Here, they have a choice – either make a dash across the several carriageways of rapidly moving traffic and hope their luck holds, or take a detour of a mile and half to the small town itself, where they can cross via a small bridge beside the church, possibly after taking refreshments at the Frankland Arms, a conveniently situated pub.

Well, which do you think we did?

Before we reached Washington, however, we passed four disused lime kilns set into a bank. These were built in 1839 by two farmers, and were in use from then until 1930 when production ceased.

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Historically, lime Kilns were constructed to burn limestone, such as chalk, which produced quicklime. Quicklime could be added to soils that were low in nutrients, helping to fix ammonia in the soil, aerate the soil, release calcium, and make the soil more workable. It was also used to produce mortar for building, and if mixed with mud it could be used to plaster walls and floors.

It has also been used for disposing of bodies in dozens of whodunnits from Sherlock Holmes to the present day.

Useful stuff, quicklime.

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It was scorchingly hot by now, and our pace had slowed considerably. As regularly as we could, we took advantage of any shade we came across to take a breather and drink some more water.

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‘The road goes ever onward’ Wrote Tolkien. It was certainly beginning to feel that way.

After the heavy rains and wind we had encountered during the first few days, this was to be the first of several extremely hot days, during which covering ten or more miles a day with rucksacks and hills to negotiate became a mighty chore. On the plus side, we certainly felt we’d earned a cold beer when we reached our destination each night.

Coping With The Situation

Now so many of us are confined to our homes for most of the day, there is apparently an increase in social media engagement. This probably should not be surprising.

But curiously, while many people seem to be engaging more with social media, I’m finding it harder to do so. I also find I’m losing patience with the few combative posts I see – the few, because I try not to follow anyone who puts up those kinds of posts. Of course, anyone might choose to do so now and again when irritated or infuriated by something, but I do try to stick with those that don’t. And I’ve unfollowed a few who do.

So because of this, I shall put up the last two posts in the series I’m doing at the moment, then withdraw gracefully (sort of) for a while. I shall continue to reply to any comments that might be posted, of course, because I make a point of doing that. It does mean I won’t be reading other posts for a while, though, unless the urge takes me occasionally.

So take care, stay safe, and I hope you’ll understand.

Being Wistful: South Downs 2 – Steyning up to Chanctonbury Ring

Continuing the re-post of this series while we’re in lockdown and looking forward to better times:

Mouse Lane begins in Steyning and runs along the foot of the scarp slope of the Downs, until it climbs a little towards Chanctonbury Ring, an old hill fort. It is a delightful route, as delightful as its name; a sunken lane full of flowers and bees and butterflies (and, no doubt, mice), cool under the overhanging trees in the hot morning’s sun. It would be pleasant to follow it the whole way, but our route takes us along the ridge, and so we leave the lane to take a footpath up the steep scarp slope.

But where we leave the lane, there is a poem inscribed on a stone block. It was written in 1915 during WWI, by a British soldier poet stationed in the Somme. We pause to read it then stand for a while in silence, each of us alone with our thoughts.

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I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring

In summertime, and on the downs how larks and linnets sing

High in the sun. The wind comes off the sea, and, oh, the air!

I never knew till now that life in old days was so fair.

But now I know it in this filthy rat-infested ditch,

Where every shell must kill or spare, and God alone knows which.

And I am made a beast of prey, and this trench is my lair,

My God, I never knew till now that those days were so fair.

And we assault in half-an-hour, and it’s a silly thing:

I can’t forget the lane that goes from Steyning to the Ring.

Chance memory – John Stanley Purvis 1890 – 1968

Our footpath, ironically, then takes us past an old rifle range. So old, in fact, that according to a walker we stopped to talk with it is still possible to dig musket balls out of the bank behind the range.

On top of the ridge, there is a slight breeze, but it is already very hot and we are clearly in for a hard day’s walking.

Robert Macfarlane, writing in The Old Ways, records sleeping in the Ring one night, and being woken at 2 a.m. by blood-chilling screams that seemed to come from above him, and then proceeded to circle the Ring for a quarter of an hour, although he could see nothing that might account for the sounds – he rules out the possibility of a screech owl – until they finally disappeared and he fell asleep again.

I would never have shut my eyes there again, if that were me.

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The Ring has a reputation as the most haunted place in Sussex, with tales of hapless benighted travellers being scared witless for centuries. In 1966, apparently, a group of bikers decided to stay the night there and were forced to flee in terror.

We’ve been to Chanctonbury Ring before and it certainly has an atmosphere. I would have liked to have lingered for a while longer, but the downside of the journey is that we had still to cover quite a few miles in the heat to get to Amberley that afternoon.

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Three years ago when we visited the Ring, the weather was gloomy and somewhat more atmospheric, although we were mercifully left alone by whatever might be lurking around there on the astral plane.

Thankfully, it seems they only come out at night.

 

Being Wistful: South Downs Way 1 – Eastbourne to Steyning

Some of my own response to the Covid-19 crisis and the restrictions we all find ourselves under is to revisit my favourite places, in books or thought, films or photographs, or even old blog posts. It is sobering and depressing to realise I may not be able to go more than a few miles from home over the coming months, but this does help a little.

The South Downs are a favourite, so I’m going to re-post this short series I put up a couple of years ago after our most recent walk along the South Downs Way:

 

Once upon a time, or five or six years ago, if you prefer, I thought I would start up my own outdoor adventure company. It never happened in the end, largely due to the cost of insurance. However, if I had gone through with it I have to admit it would have been largely so I could go on long distance trails both in the UK and overseas without having to pay for it.

Oh, well. It was a nice idea.

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath of one hundred miles in length, running from Eastbourne to Winchester, or Winchester to Eastbourne, if you must, along the top of the South Downs.

Hence the name.

We walked it in May.

It is usual, when writing about a journey – especially a long distance walk – to write in some detail about the scenery and the route, in sequential order. I don’t think I’ll do that this time. Instead I’ll probably jump about all over the place writing about odd things we found particularly interesting.  And post one or two photos of the stunning scenery…

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Such as this one.

So, a few points of interest.

This, then, is a dew pond:

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Chalk is a porous rock, allowing any rainfall to rapidly soak away, so the only way of providing water on the top of the downs is by artificial means. Dew ponds have been made up there for hundreds of years; a hollow is dug and lined with clay, which then fills naturally when the rain falls. Dew is probably not a significant contributor, despite the name. The downside to this simple system is should the pond dry out, then the clay, too, will dry out. When this happens, it will shrink and crack, and subsequent rainfall will leak out.

And while on the subject of rainfall, we didn’t have glorious weather all the way:

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We were forced to seek refuge in a convenient pub at the Devil’s Dyke for a couple of hours, but we made the best of it. This was clearly A Good Move because although it was still pouring with rain when we eventually left the pub, it began to clear up in about an hour and then we had sunshine for the rest of the day.

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These are cowslips. The word comes from the Old English cuslyppe, which means cow dung, because, yes, that’s where they like to grow, apparently. Years ago, before the coming of intensive farming practices and industrial weedkillers, our fields were full of cowslips, but they seem to be met with now primarily in the more open landscapes – like downland. For the first few days of our walk, especially, we saw lots of cowslips.

We had a rest day at Steyning, although we stayed at nearby Bramber.

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Bramber Castle is a strange and mysterious place, which magically energises the over sixties and causes them to revert to their childhood.

Although not for long, sadly.

Stir Crazy – A Bit

We are not quite in lockdown, but for someone who likes to spend as much time outside as possible, it feels a little like it.

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We are more fortunate than many, in that we are a short walk away from woodland, and then a limited amount of open countryside. But I yearn to walk the hills, the truly open places like moorland and marshland. I wonder whether to take a bus or train the comparatively short journey to these places. I could be up on the South Downs in two hours, and their pull is almost painful at the moment.

And my reading and writing have been affected by all this, too. I was halfway through My Name is Red, by Orhan Pamuk, which I was enjoying then but suddenly I have lost all interest in it. It is set in Istanbul in the sixteenth century but my heart yearns for the English countryside. So much so, that I can no longer bear to read it. So I have set it aside for now and begun to read The Moor by William Atkins; stories of myth, history and literature connected with the moorland areas of England.

And likewise, my enthusiasm for my current writing projects has dried up, and for similar reasons. I am in the middle of re-writing one novel, and over halfway through writing another, but I cannot currently drum up any enthusiasm for either. One is set in sixteenth century Persia, the other in Northern India in the 1980’s and yes, I just want to be outside, here.

I have been writing notes, though, for another idea I had intended to start only after completing one or both of those novels, but I have now decided to allow myself to begin it. I need a project I can really enthuse over, and this one will be set in the wildness of Southern England at some point in the past (I know what it is, but I’m not telling you yet!). I hope this will both give me some sort of pleasurable focus for my writing and also allow me to wander, in my mind, in those places I yearn to be.

The Government Response to Covid-19 and Some Numbers

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I wasn’t going to write anything on this subject, since there is hardly a shortage of articles everywhere you look, but some of the things I have been reading online have prompted me to put this up. This post concerns the measures put in place by the UK government for the protection of the public. But first, a caveat. It is a commentary on the UK response ONLY. I do not know enough of the details of how other governments have reacted to comment fairly on those.

And please understand also, this is not any sort of commentary on the financial aptitude or ineptitude of their response, which is another kettle of worms entirely.

The prime difficulty of any measures taken is that there is not one immediate and obvious action that can be taken to protect the public. The issue, of course, is that we need to meet, as far as possible, two opposing objectives. First, we need to develop as much immunity in the wider population as possible and second, we need to protect from infection those who are recognised as vulnerable. And to satisfy the first objective, we need to expose large numbers to the virus but to satisfy the second, we need to shield as many as possible from it.

And these objectives are so different that it is impossible to meet both at the same time, but are both so important that each needs to be addressed. Like many things in real life, there is no perfect solution and the best that can be put forward is a compromise of some sort.

And each person’s opinion on which is the more important will be coloured by their own circumstances. Those with vulnerable relatives, or who fall into that group themselves, will likely favour protecting the public as far as possible for as long as possible. Some others who may not have those concerns, may be more likely to favour ‘getting it over with’. Although most will, naturally, want to meet both objectives at once.

It is no wonder that the government has been caught in two minds over how to react, and I rather doubt any other make-up of government would have either found it any easier or managed to square that particular circle.

And what is incredibly unhelpful is a strong partisan approach on social media especially, to the way it is being dealt with. There is always a tendency for the extremes of one side or the other of the political spectrum to denigrate any decision made by the other, and to exaggerate or invent motives for them, and I am seeing this more and more on social media. I may not agree with a particular course of action taken by the government, but to ascribe that action to a policy of deliberately killing the vulnerable, to name just one opinion I’ve read, is both ridiculous and highly insulting to both the government and the public. And hardly conducive to encouraging people to support the measures put in place.

Their response has been hampered not only by trying to find the impossible – a solution that accomplishes both the goals just mentioned, but also by having no real idea for some while how many infections there actually were. It was recognised the figures were under-reported, due to the inability to test the entire population for infection, but no one seemed to really know what they were and, for a while, what the infection rate was.

But how many people are currently infected?

The published figures may actually give a false impression of both the virus’s spread and how lethal it actually is. Depending on how effectively authorities gather the data, there is always going to be under-reporting of the infection rates. Those who self isolate are not tested, nor are they included in official figures. Even those displaying definite symptoms are not tested unless they satisfy various criteria, such as being admitted to hospital, or in a position where testing is seen as necessary, such as high profile involvement with the public. It is even reported that front-line NHS staff are not necessarily tested if they fall ill.

A far more realistic picture might be gained from extrapolating from the death rate. If we take the, admittedly still vague, official estimate of between one and three percent mortality rate for the virus, and perhaps making a judgement call on the efficiency and effectiveness of the health system in place in that particular country, we may get a closer figure. As of yesterday, the UK figure was 55 deaths which would equate to somewhere between 1,800 and 5,500 people infected, most likely closest to the higher figure in the UK. Sadly, the higher the figures, the more accurate the extrapolation is likely to be.

But even these figures are probably far lower than reality, since those who die will have been infected with the virus for some time, so those figures probably lag around a week behind. And on the basis that known infections are doubling approximately every four days, that figure of 5,500 is probably closer to 22,000 and showing no sign of slowing down.

Wishing everybody well.

Lost and Found in Translation

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I have read many novels, short stories and poems translated into English from other languages, but I wonder how much of what I read is true to the original intentions of the authors?

The Argentinian writer Jorge Luis Borges wrote many short stories and poems, all of them in his native Spanish. Although I did buy one collection in Spanish, my own knowledge of that language has always been too poor for me to do anything other than read it slowly and laboriously and, undoubtedly, to miss many of the nuances in the writing. So for that reason, I’ve had to read them in translation.

And in any case, even if I spoke Spanish well I could do little more than read it as translation in my head. Unless I spoke it like a native speaker, I would still likely miss much that the author intended to convey.

And so I buy translations.

Zima Junction by the Russian poet Yevgeny Yevtushenko is a long poem that tells of the poet’s visit to his home town in Siberia, having left some years before to go to live and work in a city. It is a beautiful depiction of rural life in Russia at the time, seen afresh after a gap of several years away, and describes the poets now ambiguous relationship with it.

Long poems can be good vehicles for describing journeys; my own poem The Night Bus does just that, and was written because in that instance I could not find any other medium that worked as well to convey what I wanted to say.

Another favourite of mine is Dart by Alice Oswald, which describes a journey from the source to the sea along the River Dart in Devon, England. She gives voices to the various people encountered along this journey, and to the animals living there…Since it is written in English, I am not left with any worry I am missing things the poet wanted to say, other than perhaps my own occasional inability to understand her.

I have a book of poems from North East India. It is an anthology that I bought in India, with contributions from a huge number of poets. A few of them wrote in English, but the majority of them wrote in other languages – some in Bengali, but the majority in one or other of the plethora of languages to be found in the North East States. And, sadly, most of the translations appear to have been done as a straightforward translation word for word, with no thought given to the feeling of the poem. Any rhythm the poems may originally have had seems to have been lost. The sentences are often clunky and uncomfortable to read. Their meanings have become lost in translation.

But Zima Junction has a natural and comfortable rhythm

The translator of a poem has, to my mind, a task that is more difficult than the translator of prose. Yet, paradoxically, they also have more freedom. More difficult, because they have to get across to the reader ideas or meanings that may be partly concealed in idiomatic language used by the author that perhaps we have no parallel for in English, and hence they may have to completely alter the structure of that part. This will affect a line of poetry far more than it would a line of prose. Immediately, the rhythm of the poem is disrupted, the word count of the line changed.

Yet the reader of a poem has a right to expect a poem. And so, strangely, the translator has the freedom to re-write the poem. In the need for the end result of their translation to be a poem, they may have to completely alter much of the structure to enable the translated words to reassemble themselves as a poem. And so the translators of poems must, by essence, be poets themselves.

So to return to Borges and Yevtushenko, when I read the poems I do wonder whether I am actually reading their poems, or someone else’s?

On Windover Hill – The Premier

It was Saturday 7th March, and we were in Chichester, Sussex, for the much-anticipated premier of Nathan James’ On Windover Hill cantata.

It took place in the church at Boxgrove Priory, in the village of the same name a few miles outside Chichester. Just over a month ago I posted here about a walk we joined at Windover Hill, viewing and discussing the Long Man of Wilmington – the subject of the cantata, which gives some of the background to this work.

Nathan describes this piece as ‘a result of 3 years of writing and research into the ancient figure and how it has inspired writers, poets, artists, and musicians’.

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Nathan introducing the cantata

It was performed by the Royal Philharmonic Concert Orchestra, Harlequin Chamber Choir, and Corra Sound, conducted by Amy Bebbington.

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The cantata is in nine movements, with each movement scored around a piece from various times ranging from c 1340 BC to 1996. These diverse sources include English folk song, poetry, extracts from plays, literature, and even a piece from 14th century BC Egypt, used here because there is a carving on a chair found in the tomb of Tutankhamun which strongly resembles the Long Man.

The music has a very English feel to it, reminding me strongly at times of Vaughan Williams or Holst, another element that contributes to the sense of it being grounded in Sussex.

Much more about the music, and the story of the project, can be found on the On Windover Hill website, here.

Between several of the movements, there were readings chosen to help illustrate aspects of the mythology of the Long Man – poems, excerpts from books and an extract from an article arguing that the Long Man may have been, in fact, a Long Woman. All pieces by writers challenged by the meaning and significance of the figure. At the back of the church, too, there were a range of artworks inspired by the Long Man. And several times during the performance, a couple of dancers took the floor, their actions visually interpreting the subject of that particular movement.

This, what I might term holistic approach to staging the work, contributed strongly to the listeners total immersion in the work without, I think, distracting from it.

As well as the cantata, the program also consisted of several other pieces, all with a Sussex connection. It began with a beautiful piece by Thomas Weelkes (c 1576-1623) Hosanna to the Son of David. Weelkes, the program notes informed us, was frequently in trouble with the ecclesiastical authorities and was ‘noted and famed for a common drunkard and notorious swearer and blasphemer’. Strangely, I immediately felt an affinity to the fellow.

There were pieces, too, by Frank Bridge, John Ireland, an extract from Goblin Market by Ruth Gipps, and a piece largely unknown today: Wyndore (Windover) by Avril Coleridge-Taylor which was its first performance in this country for 82 years.

The acoustics in the church were wonderful, an especially appropriate setting for a choir. It was a hugely pleasurable and satisfying evening.

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The Long Man, photographed on the pre-concert walk

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During the afternoon before the concert we wandered around Chichester for a while and I bought a few old postcards of Sussex from the indoor market including, by chance, this one of the Priory church, where the concert was held, about a hundred years ago.

It seemed to fit comfortably into the feeling of history, myth and tradition I felt that day.

The Oddness of Time – 2

I was eleven, and it was my first year in secondary school.

I don’t remember the day or the date, which in a way surprises me, since everything else was so vivid. But I was walking with Chas, a sometime friend, and we had just finished a maths lesson and were on morning break. The day was overcast, and I suspect it was early summer.

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We had just walked down the half dozen steps that ran down to the Lower Quad from the strip of asphalt beside the cloisters which connected the two main school buildings, and separated the Upper Quad from its lower cousin. At that point, I know I had not yet realised that ‘Quad’ was short for ‘Quadrangle’ – why would I? I was in my first year there, all was relatively new and there were more than enough new things to get my head around and cope with, without adding any unnecessary ones into that particular stew.

At the bottom of the steps I looked to my right at the large building that housed the dining hall and the geometry room, among others. There was nothing unusual or special about it that day, I just looked at it and had a powerful realisation – an understanding – that I would never again experience exactly what I was experiencing in that moment.

I might view the same view again, and perhaps the weather would be the same. Maybe even every boy in the school might occupy exactly the same place as they occupied at that moment, either outside where I could see them or elsewhere, unlikely though that might be. But it could never actually be the same again.

The universe would have changed; in one year we would occupy the same position relative to the sun, but not to all the other bodies in space. That would never be repeated. The Virginia Creeper on the dining hall wall would have changed – grown larger, grown new new leaves and lost many of the older ones. So too the other trees and plants.

We would never occupy the same point in time again.

I did not discover anything new that day. I did not add anything to the sum of human knowledge. But what I did was actually experience my existence in a way I had never done before, and have done only a few times since.

It is tempting to look back across that huge gulf – over fifty years, more than half a century – and fill my eleven year old head with profound thoughts that were not there at the time. But I knew I would never experience that moment again, yet I understood instinctively that I would forever be able to recall it. In a way like a snapshot, but a snapshot that included physical feelings and a strange sense of wonder.

Time is sometimes described as an infinite series of moments – because only the present exists – much like an old-fashioned cine film where the perception of movement is supplied by viewing a rapid sequence of still images, each one a gradual progression between the previous ones and the following ones, yet in a way this idea negates the whole concept of motion, since if that really was our experience, we should lose the consequences of motion; just think of the effects of a car crash, or a punch to the jaw, for example.

This was a snapshot in time, but it was anything but frozen. I felt it not only as a moment, but as part of continuous stream. I could still feel the rest of the world flowing past me as I stood there.

Buddhists speak of ‘Little Enlightenments’, which are moments when one has an almost overpowering feeling of existence, a strong sense of being connected to the whole world, during which that person experiences a heightened awareness – they seem to hear what is around them more clearly, see unusual detail and find that even colours appear more vivid than usual. At the same time thought seems unusually profound. This only lasts a short time, perhaps a couple of seconds, but leaves behind a powerful impression. I have twice experienced this, and each time I was somehow reminded of my experience that day at school.

And I wonder if the connection there is that I had an unexpected understanding of time for a few moments at the foot of the steps below the cloister.

 

The Barrow

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On wind-sucked Sussex chalklands

Rises a barrow older than itself;

A mock-maternal swell of earth,

Long overdue.

 

O my land!

Let me hug you close and put my ear to your bump!

I will listen for the sounds within!

 

But tell me,

If it is true that it only contains

The remains of the dead,

Then why do I hear a heartbeat?