Beachy Head Walk - 16th October 2020
A drama teacher once told me a long time ago that everything starts with the breath. In this case, as I look up at the steep gradient of the hill before me, I know at some point in my climb that I’ll be more aware of my breathing. Gradient, thigh muscles and breathing: a balance of physics and chemistry.
I’m on my way to Beachy Head, a prominent landmark at the eastern end of the South Downs National Park. It’s a place where many people walk to, either stopping to look around, or walking past on route to somewhere else along the coast. My heart pumps away, my lungs expand and contract in the service of moving my body up the hill in the autumn afternoon air. My feet scuff the worn chalk path, this path of chalk and flint, parched grass and in my face, a keen south-westerly wind.
Chalk and flint have always been part of my life. I was born in a market town nestling in the Chiltern Hills, a band of chalk hills lying thirty miles north of London, and now, after years of moving around the country, I am back on the chalk. Apart from the winter months when the wind is in a northerly airstream, the rest of the year down here has a mostly south-westerly push. But today is cool, almost still air with blanket cloud cover.
I’ve done this walk many times over the last twelve years I’ve been living in this area, and the walk is different every time I’ve done it. What I’ve read, or heard or watched is with me, as is my mood, other walkers and their voices, the season and what’s in flower or not, temperature and light, and whether the ground is wet and spongy, slippery, or dry and rock hard.
A few years ago I was approached by three young walkers asking the way to Beachy Head. I said I was going in that direction and would be happy to walk with them. We fell into conversation and it transpired they were originally from Lithuania, working and living in London, and this was their day out from the city. We talked about the landscape, languages, Brexit and working in the UK. The encounter changed the tone of my walk. I remember thinking how good it was to have seamlessly entered into other people’s worlds.
I pass dog walkers in their unspoken communion. Ears of long grass bend to the breeze, rocking in unison. I’m at the top of the hill now, heading towards Beachy Head. Small groups of walkers go by, their conversation animated in their walking speed. And then, on to the trig point, that reassuring marker of Ordnance Survey precision, BM81834. Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain at over 500 feet above sea level.
My ultimate destination is not a concrete survey point, but a submissive hawthorn bush, battered over time by the prevailing wind. This contorted shape marks Beachy Head for me, where often the heads of many are lowered against the wind and the view. I keep being pulled back to this bush on account of its natural framing. Framing is how I often view the world. It’s about people I see entering and exiting the space in front of me as if they are actors walking across a stage and I’m watching them from the framing of the proscenium or camera lens.
Heads are also often lowered by trained members of the binocular wielding Beachy Head Chaplaincy, a volunteer organisation of teams regularly patrolling the coastline on the lookout for potential suicide jumpers. There are around a dozen jumpers a year. Some years ago, when walking in this area, I had noticed a lot of activity near the edge. There were people in uniform, some wearing fluorescent jackets busy with equipment. An almost tearful man walked past me and stammered ‘someone’s gone over.’ Those three words chilled me; ‘someone’s gone over,’ words associated with the old Berlin wall and spy stories, and with borders in many different countries today.
It’s about the edge here, the edge as boundary, marker, the unpredictable, and for some, release. A dilapidated wire fence is all there is at the edge, a token division between land, air and sea. I stand and look at the wind-trained bush and catch snatches of conversation from passing walkers: German, Arabic, French, Polish. I’ve always thought of Beachy Head as an international gathering place. It’s a place of talking, listening, and looking. It was the last piece of land seen by WWII bomber aircraft as they flew across the English Channel, and later the site was occupied by a temporary cold war radar station. Looking and listening; tracking and tracing.
The place is also about warning, as can be seen by the prominent iconic red bands around the Beachy Head Lighthouse, due to be re-commissioned in 2020/21. It stands as a lone sentinel against the backdrop of towering chalk cliffs.
I watch people as they look out across the edge. The image of a painting comes to mind; that of Caspar David Friedrich’s The Wanderer above the Sea of Mists. A man stands high up on a promontory, looking down across the mist over a rocky landscape. It’s a metaphor about the uncertainty of life, and I wonder what the relaxed looking watchers might be thinking as they stand and stare across the expanse of water.
Above me, seagulls swoop and cry, whilst in the distance, long shadows from oncoming clouds creep over the landscape.
ructions of heel howls
mark out codes of surveillance
tramping in traction