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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Sussex-By-The-Sea

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.

Peninsula Magazine

Last week, Peninsula Magazine was published – a product of my postgraduate Writing course which is now winding down and coming to its close.  My coursemates and I spent over six months working on Peninsula – from conceiving its theme, contacting our favourite writers to ask for contributions, liaising with copyeditors and designers to get it just how we wanted, and then getting it out there – in UK bookshops and as a downloadable PDF online.

The process made me fall a little in love with litmags, and realise how invaluable they are to the spread of good writing, and new writing too – something that I’m hungry for, more than ever.  For my part, I interviewed Jay Griffiths, one of my favourite writers, about Wild, one of my favourite books.  I was also fortunate to get other great writers involved, whose work and sentence craft continue to inspire me: Robert Macfarlane, David Lawrence, Matthew Oates, Kathleen Jamie, Jeremy Mynott, Mel Challenger…all of these writers, some whose work I read prior to making the decision to pursue writing more seriously, some who I stumbled across whilst completing dissertations for my course, all have given their words to Peninsula with generosity, and have made it eclectic, diverse and very, very readable, covering themes as wide ranging as footpaths, Antarctica, butterflies, London, birds, the paranormal, Glastonbury, road trips, Hawaii and Cornish policing.  I also contributed some of my own writing, on pages 68 – 70, about returning to my childhood home.

There are very few print copies left (which, by the way, are free – we post them out to whoever wants them), but the PDF is available here.

I think you should click on that link.