The following is an extract from my final Masters dissertation, written about my 80 mile walk along the Sussex coast in July. (The rest is, er, still being written…)
Brighton claimed me the moment I tilted back my head onto its shingle and heard the suck-hiss of the Channel working on the layers underneath. That shingle, pushed by the sea, piles up in a couple of increments like a set of stairs leading down to the shoreline: the further you walk down towards the sea, the greater the privacy from the city offered by the shingle’s layers. We were only halfway in, twenty metres away from the shoreline, our curiosity levels lowered by hangovers, yet as I lay there it was as if I were hearing the sea directly underneath my body as it roamed an underground cavern. No calm lapping, no sense of regular exhalation that I’ve come to associate with the shore. This was the sound of the sea feasting on the land.
Three of us had come to Brighton in order not to think. We’d been seeking pleasure in its more superficial and transient state as we sauntered through arcades and absent-mindedly browsed the emporiums. We’d drunk too much the night before, eaten junk food, bought tat from souvenir shops, and simply didn’t care that it was a Wednesday afternoon and that we weren’t at work. Why had we done this?
While my two companions threw pebbles into an empty disposable coffee cup with increasing competitiveness, I stared vacantly at the overcast sky and then realised that I had asked myself a question. I sat up, leaning on my forearms to look at the sea, properly, for the first time since I’d arrived. What I felt was a flutter of disappointment similar to what I’d felt that morning when I had poured a cup of tea in the room of our decadent, unhealthy hotel (with its licensed early morning bar, curly wurlys to accompany the sachets of tea and instant coffee, rock and roll posters on the walls). The tea had turned out the colour of dilute mud; barely a colour at all. A cup of tea in Cornwall was bright and golden, and as I stared at the Channel, I tried to find the right word for the similar sort of half-colour it was displaying.
I settled on ‘sunken green brown’. Hardly the sharp aquamarine of Kynance cove, or the teal-milk-blue of Falmouth’s bays when the weather was right. Yet thousands of people flocked to Brighton’s seafront each day. The city was grimy yet elegant, boisterously oblivious to the aggression of the sea, run down by the arcades (‘that’s what I imagine hell to be like – but with a carpet’, my friend had said earlier as we walked along the pier) yet hoisted up by the trendiness of the Laines. The fish and chips were a disappointment, people littered, the blare of music and the traffic along the city’s seafront road never let off – yet I didn’t want to leave. Ever. I couldn’t work Brighton out, its character of paradox and multi-layeredness elusively shifting identity with each attempt to understand it. It frustrated me, and it was then that I realised that it had seduced me.
I pulled up Google Maps when I arrived back in Cornwall and typed in Brighton’s name. It was the jewel in the crown of Sussex’s coastline, smack bang in its centre, with Bognor Regis to its far left, Eastbourne and Hastings to its right. Each seaside resort was a cast-on stitch threading a seafront road named the A259 between them. In some areas the knitting of these road-threads was neat and full: at Worthing, Hove and Peacehaven, barely a stitch was dropped along the grid-like patterning of streets. I couldn’t see the railway termini on the map but I knew that they were there, lines that sloped away from Southampton and London and ended at the Channel. I pulled up another map, one of the county borders of England, and raised my eyebrows to how much of the South-East coast Sussex claimed. It lay luxuriously underneath the affluent and London-tied Surrey, sharing its first two letters before breaking free with its double-s into that glorious suffix, -sex, heavily charged with the promise of excitement, energy, taboo and freedom.
It’s so easy to look at maps and spin hypotheses. To have the hunch I had formed in Brighton confirmed by Sussex’s geographical location: that it was close enough to London to pull in crowds and city culture, but not so close as to be eclipsed by it. To zoom out of the map and allow the North-Western tip of mainland Europe to creep in with each mouse click, offering another ingredient to the Sussex identity. To learn with excitement how the South-Eastern coast is continually blighted by long-shore drift: to read a sentence such as this – “South-Westerly storms and currents have carried debris from the West to build shingle bars and sand banks across the river estuaries to the east, blocking harbours and accelerating the setting up of river valleys” – and imagine a shifting coastal line that challenged a long-term rooting of identity as the Sussex people fought a losing battle with the sea. To suspect that this battle lies behind the Sussex motto, ‘we wunt be druv’, translatable from the now obsolete Sussex dialect as ‘we won’t be driven away’.
I decided that I would walk Sussex’s coast, casting my own line along the shore to stitch together resorts that the day-tripper often sees in isolation when making their ephemeral visits. I hoped to work out a sense of Sussex identity that would help me understand Brighton’s own; I wanted to sense what it was to live on a shifting coast. As I stepped off the bus that first day, I was carrying a mind full of preconceived ideas as well as a rucksack. Some of these ideas and theories would expire as I walked; some of them would hold to be true. And along the 82 mile journey I spent many hours wrestling with an elusive, shifting regional identity. I worried over the limitation of my perceptions, and felt a faint despondency that for everything I noticed and for every conversation that I fell into along the way, there would be countless things unseen and unsaid that would spin their own narrative of life along this strange and shifting coast.