On the South Downs, East Sussex

21 01 2006

If yesterday I had been asked to name a favourite seaside town in Britain, I would have had no clear answer. I have seen some beautiful coastlines in Southern England, most of them in Cornwall. But none are near to what may be called a town in the modern sense. Many are just overgrown villages, fishing communities that have lost their adventurous past and in some cases a beautiful beach or a cove with no population next to it. It is understandable that unspoilt beaches are away from the crowds, in fairly remote locations. So, I could have named Plymouth or St Ives, but only because there wasn’t a better choice.

Today, the situation is quite different. From the very first moment I am in love with Eastbourne. The very moment I stepped out of the train from London, a breath of fresh air hit me. It was as if the air, so long imprisoned in London, travelled by train to mingle with the sea breeze at Eastbourne. The first impressions of smell are hard to describe. It is an air that has been long at sea, frolicking and dancing with the waves and sea sprays, fully refreshed in such agreeable company, and then taking a short break at Eastbourne. Once I stepped out of the train station, the calls of seagulls are heard. The salty air is now much more noticeable. The eastern sky is a white sheet of light while higher up, the blue sky stretches to the farther cliffs. After many sunless winter days, this is a surprise. What is a seaside resort without these foods for the senses? Imagination plays into the ear and I fancy that the sea is just round the corner. It is in fact a good half a mile away from the station, passing the clean, well-kept streets of Eastbourne.

The beach is nothing close to the beauties of Asian beaches or the pristine wonders of Pacific islands. The gifts of nature are not bestowed equally on all. One must make best use of what one has and here in Eastbourne this is truer than anywhere else. The beach is clean and uncluttered. The walkways are pleasant. The buildings don’t interest much but they don’t spoil the view either. The shingle beach stretches a long way towards Beachy Head, the southern tip of this land. Groynes fill the beach all the way. Without them, perhaps nothing of the beach would have remained by now. The South Downs lie within sight of town, with their white chalk-cliffs and green rolling cliff tops. Although I love the uncrowded company of solitude, it was a nice to meet people along the esplanade and exchange short customary greetings. Elderly couples enjoy the rare sunshine. Others walk their dogs. Some explore the shingle beach picking perhaps shells, cockles, seaweeds, sea kelps or other secret wonders that the sea dares to throw up once in a while. Some fly kites on the downs. Others prefer to rest on the wooden benches and stare out across the English Channel.

There is indeed something more to be said of the wooden benches along the esplanade, along cliff tops or numerous other vantage points that offer excellent views of this part of East Sussex. As far as I could notice, all benches have been installed in loving memory of someone, by caring family or friends. There are not a handful of them, but hundreds. Love is strange and so is human ambition. Memories are faint and have little worth of their own. Nothing stands the ravage of time. All that matters is now and how we love the living. I could find not one bench donated for a purpose greater than its inscription, not one bench without an inscription. Perhaps, someday a bench will be installed out of complete benevolence, out of the need to provide a seat and not for holding memories of the dead or for self-glorification.

Perfection in beauty is hard to come by. There are elements of ugliness in Eastbourne but only in relation to my standards of beauty. There is some sense of decayed modernity in town where time has overtaken modern development. There is a mix of old and new but no harmony or special beauty. The pier jutting out into sea is an eye-sore. The bandstand cloaked in scaffolding is a misery. To make a perfect picture you must clip these intrusive details. Then you are with the sea, the sky, the beach and the breeze. Nonetheless, my love for mountains is greater and will always remain so.

At Eastbourne starts one of the many long distance National Trails, the South Downs Way, fairly easy on the legs at this stretch. The paths on the cliff tops are not steep or difficult. The outreaching views almost every step of the way are additional rewards. This is not the difficult South West Coast Path that we find in Cornwall. It does not take long to reach Beachy Head from Eastbourne. I could use many superlatives to describe these chalk-cliffs. Stupendous and magnificent were two immediate responses when I first saw them at close quarters. The cliffs are not nearly vertical or almost vertical. They are vertical. They rise without pause. They tower without fear. They glow whiter than snow. Veins of black rock run horizontally creating such a pattern that even modern abstract painters would find immediate inspiration.

A plaque at Beachy Head tells the story of the cliffs. It does not enhance my appreciation of the natural wonder but it consists of interesting facts that are worth relating. The cliffs were once part of the sea bed, as was the whole island of Great Britain. The cliffs have taken many million years in the making by deposits of algae and various sea life. Then sometime ago Africa started to push northwards into Europe, thus raising land above sea. This land stretched far into sea, perhaps a continuous piece of land with continental Europe. When the Ice Age ended about 14,000 years ago, sea levels started to rise. The process of land erosion by wind and waves accelerated. This has created these cliffs, the once sea beds exposed bare. This process continues to this day.

The waves beat incessantly against these mighty cliffs but their might is fragile as ever. At places on the cliff top, clefts are visible along the edge. These are by no means on the surface only. The clefts are seen to run deep and even visible along the sides as dark veins descending on a white face. If a group 20 men were to stand on one of these edges, the edge may well collapse and lose itself into the sea. Broken stones at the base point to this destiny. They lie as discarded bread crumbs on the floor. This process is constant and unforgiving. The sea will finally claim what was once hers. Thus we find that the magnificence of nature is made with patience and time, but easily destroyed by force and fury.

If walking on the cliff tops was an experience, walking on the pebble beach was more breathtaking. Access to the beach is by an iron stairway supported against the cliff at Birling Gap. Although no path is marked on the Ordnance Survey Map it is possible to walk to Beachy Head and back, but only at low tide. It was just after noon and the high tide was coming in quickly. It was still possible to walk a short stretch of the beach. With the sea on one side and the cliffs on the other, the path of a wanderer is advanced by guidance of nature.

It is hardly three weeks since my return from Yorkshire and today I am suddenly confronted with the same magic under a glorious sun brightly reflected by these white cliffs. The beach is full of pebbles but more prominent are the worn-out limestone rocks. These are the same wonders that I saw in Malham and the Three Peaks. That was erosion by rain water; this is erosion by the sea. The chalk dissolves easily. The water here acquires a colour as of coconut water. Even my light steps leave visible alterations to the texture of these rocks. While it is common for my boots to get soiled in colours of black, brown and yellow, here it picks up marks of pure white. The pebbles too are stunning: so many shapes, shades, curves and patterns. Each one is a unique piece of art, seemingly made without effort. But effort indeed is present though imperceptible; wonders take time.

From Birling Gap, the South Downs Way continues along the cliff top across Seven Sisters Country Park. These are seven chalk hills inseparably joined by green turf over graceful curves. Their sisterly bond can be made out only farther along the coast to the west and it was not in my privilege to seem them thus. I contented myself in walking the paths they had laid out for me. Then I proceeded north, along the meandering River Cuckmere which reflected warmly the colours of sunset. It is difficult to say why a river meanders in this manner when a direct path is available. Perhaps, there is a joy in lingering, to anticipate and prepare oneself before the final union. Perhaps, there is an uncertain fear in the thought of losing oneself. Perhaps, it is better to slow down after a long journey and savour each moment while it lasts. Thus, with such glimpses of river Cuckmere, I crossed Friston Forest, Litlington, Alfriston and finally Wilmington. The real purpose was to see the medieval chalk drawing carved against a hillside, the Long Man of Wilmington.

“The Long Man” is a name that has little interest. “The Long Man of Wilmington” on the other hand has much interest. It is not that Wilmington is a village of great consequence. It is a simple fact that the figure on the hill is so inextricably linked to the village that one is not to be mentioned without the other. The longer name has more music in it. It links much more the past and the present, the art of medieval people with the village that is as much alive today as it was once.

This figure on the hill is rather plain and simple. Much of the art of our ancestors have been thus made without fancy decorations or adornments. Some say the man is walking on the hills with two staffs. Some say he is opening the doors of heaven. I have no beliefs or truth to express but I do have an opinion. The figure is a representation of the people of the land who created him. He is a medieval farmer who worked the land, enjoyed its offerings and loved it. He is a tribute to the hard ways of life in which the fruits of labour are sweet. On this hillside, he forever opens his vision to the beautiful valley that has been his support and welcomes all to share it with him. If he is opening the door to heaven, this valley is the only heaven he knows.




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