Sussex-By-The-Sea: Brighton – Beachy Head

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back,” writes Solnit in Wanderlust. Perhaps it was the distance travelled or the time elapsed, but once I left Brighton three things happened within the space of a few hours that made me reflect upon that sentence.

The first was brief: a sudden fear of disconnection with the coast. I boarded a busy morning bus from Brighton to Peacehaven, and within minutes felt anxious that I did not have my feet on the ground. I couldn’t tear my eyes off the coastline from which my feet had been severed; when the bus ducked inland briefly at Rottingdean, I felt a wave of irrational panic because I could no longer sense the sea.

The second was more substantial: a shaky reunion with the coast as I walked over the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Land that was smooth, grassy and fairly level formed folds that were accentuated the closer they came to the edge, then were sliced short, like a block of Viennetta. The cliff’s verticality was picturesque from a safe vantage point, but unsettling to walk on. There was nothing in its face that would break an accidental fall. As at Brighton beach, I had an odd sense of the land being active; I dismissed it because the chalk underfoot was new and strange to me; I was used to granite. I began to climb up and into the folds, noticing that there were no signs warning people of the sheer drop. People sat close to their edge, chatting and eating, possibly dangling their legs.

Then the land stopped correlating with cartography. I came across concrete pillboxes that perched quietly on the land, collecting litter from previous visitations, waiting, perhaps, to be used again. They were not on the map, and the implication of this hit me as I recalled that I was coming closer and closer to France. Then, the reverse: on map paper heavy with orange contour lines, I walked over ancient settlements and tumuli, their age indicated by the use of calligraphy script. On the ground itself, I saw no trace of these features, nor felt their imprint under my feet. Recalling my anxiety on the bus, I stopped looking at my map. From now on, I would follow my instinct and trust my feet. This was when things began to go wrong.

The cliffs were tough. They tugged at my calves as I scaled one fold after another. I was sure I had counted more than seven. And I was tired; really tired. I noticed that each fold had paths made from ruts in the chalk, little white nicks in the thin, grassy scalp that would make the climbs more manageable. Perhaps they had existed for centuries, for millennia. My eyes dropped to focus on my feet. Then followed the head. Left foot, right foot. The rhythm helped my mind wander, it returned to Brighton beach and lingered there. Then a wick of wind brought me back to the present; still walking, I lifted my head.

The land had vanished. Only dark sea and light sky, two separate halves of blue.

My back foot on the edge transferring weight – the lifting of the front leg

Reaching for land that wasn’t there –

The backward stumble of the body, as it screamed at the mind

To step away from the ed

ge

A feeling of calm would eventually replace the convulsive waves of adrenaline and the deep breaths, the shake in the hands and legs. I should have seen how the path I had chosen streaked, from twenty metres inland, diagonally towards and over the edge, a route that had once continued upon land long since lost, eaten away by the sea. My mind returned, its shock fading while it threw forward disjointed memories of Alton Towers, a page of a book I was reading, the sea kelp near Bognor Regis, and my parent’s bathroom.

I started to walk again, checking each step until there were other things to worry about. Light was beginning to fail. Bracken was thickening and replacing the grass. Mist curled over the cliff. I hadn’t yet reached Beachy Head, the famous suicide hotspot. I returned to the map, worked out where I was, and saw that I was near a road that would take me there in safety. I moved inland.

The road was deserted, sweeping through the down-land. I dragged my feet on the asphalt, my shoulders rolling forwards. Once more, my head slipped down. Then the sound of a car, and a flash of approaching headlights. I moved onto the verge. As the car passed, I read ‘Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team’ on its side. Its engine note dropped as it slowed, and I turned to see it pull up at a lay-by, where it could see for miles around.

I’d heard of a suicide patrol team that watched over Beachy Head, approaching jumpers and offering help. This had to be them. The car’s engine was still running; I decided to watch.  Perhaps they had been alerted to a potential suicide victim; perhaps they were looking to see whether cars had been abandoned further up the road.

The car continued to idle.  I continued to watch.

Something had to happen.

Then a window was wound down. Despite the mist, I could see the driver, a woman with her blonde hair tied back.

“Are you looking for me?”

Each word clear, enunciated. A gentle, imploring emphasis on the ‘me’.

“Me?” I placed my palm onto my chest, mirroring her clarity. I didn’t know what else to do.

“You were looking in my direction. I wondered if you were looking for me.”

She too had been waiting for something to happen.

The hand on my chest formed a dismissive wave, an act of bravado, almost, to make it appear that I was fine. “No no, I’m not.” I turned and started to walk, realising how I must have appeared: alone, lost, depressed.

I never did make it to Beachy Head. By chance, a bus soon came along the road, ‘Eastbourne’ on its front. I boarded it before I could change my mind. This time I did not look out of the window, out at the mist. I stared at the face of my mobile phone, waiting for it to show bars of signal, feeling a flush of relief when they appeared.

“When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back”: Solnit surely didn’t mean for her sentence to be experienced in quite this way, for her verb to darken and sharpen. Lying in a cheap hostel bed at Eastbourne that night, I listened to traffic outside the window. I stroked my thumb over the screen of my phone, held under the covers. I thought of the patrol car, possibly still out there, rescuing souls from themselves or from the land. I thought of Brighton beach, and I tried to sleep.

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Silent Retreat

It’s Monday afternoon, and the world feels a slightly different place.

I’ve just returned from a week long silent retreat at Gaia House, where the focus was on mindfulness, and how it can lead to equanimity in life.

I’d never gone on a silent retreat before; never even considered that this might be something for me.  I’d recently been introduced to meditation by a friend of mine, but the enquiry ended there. The week was tough, with a few home truths to swallow, but I can honestly say that, yes, my world has now changed a little.

Don’t worry, I’m not going to go into the details.  In fact, mindfulness and meditation made me think quite hard about how best to write about the experience of retreating from the world for a week – no verbal communication, no reading, no mobile phones, no email.

In the end, I felt that the only way to best sum it all up was through poetry.  I wrote this whilst out walking in the stillness of the Devonshire countryside; whilst sitting on the cushion instead of focusing on my breath (I couldn’t help it), and whilst sitting on a bench, with a cup of tea, looking at the huge trees in the grounds. One of them, a great sycamore that had felt more time pass than I could ever dream of, had a trunk shaped like a twisting torso, arms held out to its sides supporting the weight of its own life.

The poem began from this tree.

 

Gaia House

Deep in the limbs of vast trees

That the eye has to roll in its socket to see

Began the wind; from the brush

Of countless leaf with countless leaf

Drew up an endless breath.

 

The sun left the hills again.

Lawn lights pricked awake at the edges

Of grass, grass that human shuffles had swept

Not so long before.  The two rabbits,

That bared without fear their flanks to the house,

Saw what the rabbits saw.

 

Did the Meditation Hall hear the wind?

Fifty souls, fifty shifting selves,

Lids shut tight on their infinities,

All felt different things.

 

Silence had sealed them in deep.

 

And when one mind strayed to the

Scent of handsoap when another

Shifted his seat and made to twist,

She curled her thought, again, to the refrain:

‘How is this breath?  And this one?  And this?’

 

Number 1

I figured that a good place to start might be with something prewritten.

I wrote the below for a writing workshop, about 3 months ago.

When I want to be alone, I go running before anyone else wakes up.  I put on shorts and a T shirt, tie up my trainers.  I strap on my watch, flicking my wrist first out, then in, letting the catch find its familiar hole in the watchstrap.  Then I think twice and take it off, leaving it on my desk.  I peel the house key off my main set of keys, pad downstairs on the parts of stairs that don’t creak, and open the front door, taking care not to slam it shut behind me. Wherever I’ve lived over the past few years – be it in Hertford, where I used to run through the fields of a private estate, or in Dalston, where the care taken over door-slamming was unnecessary, seeing as the constant Zone 2 roar made the walls of our flat vibrate – the ritual was, and continues to be, the same.

For the solitude to work, you have to get out as early as you can.  In winter, I run down streets in complete darkness, running from memory of my surroundings in the light, waiting for the sunrise to catch up.  In summer, I run with the tail end of the dawn chorus, the chill on my arms torched off by the strength of morning sun.  I jog slowly and stiffly at first, breaking in my ankles, which respond like the spine of a book being flexed open for the first time.  Then I run as fast as I want, letting the mechanical movements take over.

It’s the mechanics that detune the wavelengths of my brain, like a fingertip rolling itself across a radio dial.  My head slowly fills with a white noise, over which only my heart, my breath, and my nervous system can make themselves heard.  I focus on emptying and filling my lungs.  I feel the shock of the ground through my ankles and knees and resist interpreting it, or deriving from it a train of thought.  It can work for about forty minutes.  After this time, the reason for my search for solitude finds a way to tune in, and people start to appear, going about their morning routines.

Last year, during the worst period of my job, I had to sack scores of people. I would run away from my laptop, my mobile phone, and my responsibility to everyone, as often as I could.  Sometimes I couldn’t wait for the following morning.  ‘I’m going out,’ I’d tell people I worked with over the phone, on days that the rest of the world recognized as weekends. ‘I don’t know when I’ll be back.’ I used to run like I was being chased, avoiding the main thoroughfares. When I lived in Stevenage, I had a loop of seldom-used subways that I ran through, smacking my palm against the wall of each as I passed.  It was not how I normally conducted myself, but the aggressive connection with something solid helped me to re-calibrate something inside.

Once, while working overnight in London, I got up at 5am and ran out of my hotel towards Blackfriars Bridge, overtaking late night partygoers sobering up in the dawn.  I finally ended up down Oxford Street, a road never normally accessible for a brisk walk, let alone a run.  The street cleaners were out, their machines sucking up junk from the gutters, but I was still alone: they didn’t take any notice of me as I darted around their one-man vehicles, with wide circular brushes that fed the machine’s jaws with rubbish, a fish feeding on plankton.

This year, now I live in Cornwall, I try to get myself lost if I need the solitude.  Yesterday I followed a footpath I’d never noticed before.  It slowly petered out into thick grass and uneven ground in the middle of a field. I ran bewildered, the dew juicing in my trainers, unsure where to run without a path to follow.  My watch had been left on my desk: I had no idea how long I’d been running for.  I didn’t know whether I was trespassing, and I wished I’d taken my phone with me.

I stood in the centre of that field for several minutes, panting, eyes searching for an exit.  It took an age to pick out the fence in the distance, over which I would then climb, snagging my shorts on its rusted barbwire.