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.

 

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?

Who Knows Where The Time Goes?

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Today’s mood music is early Fairport Convention while I tinker around with a poem about crows and contemplate a painting of the same. Sandy Denny’s wonderful voice should lift my spirits a bit. The climate crisis and the dreaded ‘B’ word just leave me feeling depressed and listless.

Perhaps I’ll read something.

Or go for a walk.

I’ll catch up with everyone sometime soon.

The Old Way 5

Poem five out of six.

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The Old Way 5

 

The Old Way now rises,

Leaving the rich damp soil behind

And attacking the ridge.

It becomes a wound, a scar,

A deep, dry incision in the chalk.

It runs up beneath the shelter of ancient trees,

Their roots knotted and matted beside the path,

It passes a mound, faintly visible in the turf;

The ghost of a cottage, if buildings can become ghosts.

Although is there any reason why they shouldn’t?

If they die abandoned, deserted and unloved,

After long years, perhaps only their sadness remains.

 

There are other ghosts here, too.

You might tell me it is only in my imagination

That I hear the plod of hooves, or

Voices speaking in strange tongues,

That I hear the creaking of cart and harness.

But I have heard them.

I know that we are walking in the footsteps of giants,

And giants do not fade away readily.

 

 

Sunday Morning

It’s hard to think that just a few days ago we were enjoying exceptionally warm and sunny days for the time of year. This morning the weather is grey and windy and wet, although it is still quite mild.

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That was then…

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…and this is now.

The cats have made it clear they are not going out this morning. One is at the back door obviously pleading with me to do something about the weather. But he always does that when the weather turns bad. And I suppose it makes sense; he knows we give him food and shelter and all the cushions he can sit on, so we must be gods and can therefore fix anything. Surely?

I want to write a review for a book this morning, but I’m finding it hard to get going. That Sunday morning feeling. Getting up late and taking a long time over coffee, indulging ourselves by listening to choral music by Thomas Tallis and William Byrd.

Staring out at the weather.

I am in the process of completing a long poem about a long journey – one that shaped, in many ways, much of the art I practise now. Well, not a long journey in strictly temporal terms, but a bus journey from Delhi to Kathmandu that took about thirty hours, the first of many long bus journeys I have taken in India and Nepal. Sometime afterwards, I had wanted to find a way of recording my impressions of this journey, and toyed with a few earlier poems, and then some watercolour painting, and what amounted to prose in the form of reportage, but nothing seemed to work. This led me to experiment with my painting styles in acrylics, giving rise to the semi-abstract style I have used to paint a number of Indian scenes.

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That was another then. Not the then I was talking about, but another. Quite a similar then, though.

I assumed I’d never get around to recording that journey satisfactorily.

But last month we were travelling home on a bus after dark, going through open countryside near home. I was gazing out of the window into the darkness, when I began to understand exactly how I wanted to write that poem, over *cough* thirty years ago…

And now it is almost finished, with just a bit of tweaking to do.

The Climber – 3

This is the third poem in my series ‘The Climber’. Links to the other 2 can be found at the bottom of the page.

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He breathes climbing.

 

He eats and sleeps climbing.

Hell, I guess he even farts climbing.

 

His would be the van you didn’t notice,

Parked unobtrusively in the farthest corner.

His, the life pared down to the bare minimum.

 

If asked, he might condescend to teach for a day,

To earn enough to buy some food.

For a week or more.

 

Or perhaps to go towards that new rope

That he really ought to get.

 

But he will resent the waste of his time,

When he might be climbing.

 

Just as he will, too, on those days when

The rain just falls and falls.

And he sits frustrated beneath the shelter,

Dispensing good advice and

Recounting adventures

To anyone who will listen.

 

Or muttering ‘Perhaps we should all move

To Spain, or Yosemite,

To somewhere it doesn’t rain

All the bloody time.’

 

But when the weather clears

His good humour will return

And he will be back on the crag.

 

Climbing any route you care to suggest.

Links:

The Climber 1

The Climber 2

Acrobat

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Totally irrelevant photograph: Mt. Kanchenjunga from Darjeeling

I don’t suppose he would think of himself as an acrobat,

As anything special.

But I watch him measuring the distance by eye,

Before he gathers himself

And leaps,

Two…

Three…

Four feet into the depths

Down

To land on the tip of a tiny wooden post,

All four paws

Together.

 

The Climber – 1

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A few days ago I went for a walk which included passing along the base of the crag where I was teaching climbing for all those years. It was a fine day, but I was the only one around – no one climbing, or even walking. As you do, I began idly looking at different climbs and visualising the moves I would need to climb them. It was then a few lines came to me that might constitute a poem on the subject.

I wandered around slowly, musing, jotting ideas down in my notebook.

Well, surprise, surprise. I now have several finished poems and will probably put them up here later this year as a series – perhaps once the climbing season has started again, and when I’ve decided what to illustrate them with.

But as a bit of a taster, here is the first one.

He steps one foot onto the thin ledge,

Hugging his body close to the rock face,

And slides,

Slowly,

His fingers walking up the wall,

Into balance.

 

He thrusts a leg out into space

And the watchers gasp.

Is he falling?

They move unconsciously away

From the base of the crag.

 

But no,

He keeps his balance.

 

Ah!

 

Now he reaches up

Up…

Just a little…

Further…

There!

 

Two fingers hook over

A thin flake of rock

And he scrambles up.

 

He smiles.

 

‘It’s all in the technique,’ he calls down.

‘Nothing to do with strength.’

 

Refugees

I posted this poem a year or so ago, and I think it bears re-posting again now. In fact, I think I should post it repeatedly every year until everybody understands the situation most of these people find themselves in through no fault of their own.

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The first time she ever set eyes on the sea,

She was forty seven.

 

It was a long road there.

She set off with little enough,

And arrived with much less.

 

She had a home, once.

A house,

In a well-to-do area of the city.

Life was good.

 

But fear came,

In the form of bullets, shells and bombs.

Once, gas.

Then everyone lived in fear.

 

Her house is rubble, now.

Memories and possessions buried,

Alongside her husband.

 

Alongside her daughter.

 

Alongside her middle son.

 

Her hands are scarred from the digging.

For weeks,

Her palms were raw and bloody,

from blocks of masonry,

Too large to move.

 

Dust and tears.

 

It was bad enough to lose everything,

But when you’re caught in the cross-fire,

And the food runs out,

What else can you do?

 

Her eldest son paid for the crossing,

With borrowed money.

 

Somewhere,

He is ‘paying off’ the loan.

A bonded labourer.

A slave.

 

She fears for him.

 

Her youngest son was washed away.

The dinghy was too small,

The passengers too many.

Fear.

You could smell it,

Alongside the despair.

The panic.

There were fewer of them when the sun rose.

 

There is shelter here,

Of a sort.

But when the wind blows she shivers,

Drawing near to the oil drum blaze.

 

There is food,

Once a day.

Of a sort.

 

There was a welcome.

She soon learns what sort.

 

Now, she walks down to the sea.

 

She wonders whether she should,

Whether she should just,

Just, slip under,

The waves.