Sunday, June 17, 2012

Finally, a Day Out

We have mostly been confined to the house because of the work we're having done and also by crummy weather, so yesterday we were pleased to have a day on the South Downs Way.  We were worried about weather because much of Britain was predicted to experience a big Atlantic storm with high winds and 3 months of rain in 3 days.  We read every weather report we could find and then watched the radar predictions over and over, making sure that the storm really would turn north, missing our little eastern corner of the UK.  Assuring ourselves that rain was only a possibility before about 11am and after 7pm, we went forth.

What we didn't do was plan the walk itself. The COG told me we didn't need maps or trail descriptions. It's easy, he said, you just go west from Ditchling Beacon.  I naturally trusted him implicitly. It goes without saying.  We took the bus to Ditchling Beacon, one of the highest points on the Downs. From there, we could see Brighton spread below us, in the distance, with the sea beyond.  And we turned west and began to walk.

At about 100 meters from the car park where the bus dropped us, the COG began to alarm me.  There were two paths  on the western edge of the car park. He pondered which one to take for a while and then chose the one with the most people on it.  We walked for a while.  Did I mention that the wind was 30 to 40 mph  and blowing directly in our faces all along the top of the completely unprotected ridge we walked on?  The COG told me that this was simply what the British referred to as 'bracing.'  That's like a Minnesotan telling you that 20 below zero is 'refreshing'.

I must say it was just grand. The wind adds a peculiar exhilaration and it wasn't cold, just windy. The views of the Downs descending abruptly to the north -  to the Weald -  and stretching more gently down on the south side - are glorious.  The COG kept stopping to take pictures and I waited very patiently for him. Honestly. I really did.  Complete patience.

This is a panorama of the weald side.

This is the other, more gentle, southern slope:

After a couple of miles of undulating trail always directly in the wind at the top of the ridge, we came to a full stop. The path led in two directions - left and right.  The trail markers did not mention Devils Dyke so we asked some boys from Burgess Hill school who we kept playing tag with along the trail, and they told us to go right, toward the windmills for Devils Dyke.  The COG thought that made sense.

I wasn't so sure, because I could see a portion of the trail twisting up a steep hill far to our left.  So I asked a man who was coming up the left side trail.  He told us to go left, past the golf course and descend into Pyecombe, then ascend the hill on the other side of the road. We did as he said, and it was very hard on the COG's poor knees.  The village of Pyecombe is in a lovely little hidden valley just off the main highway to London. There's an old Norman church,  which is so old that the church yard is much higher than the building and you have to descend steps to get into the door.  The church also has a great name:

Leaving Pyecombe we had to cross a big bridge over the motorway and then struggled a bit to find the continuation of the trail, but we continued climbing up and up and up to the top, with the high winds at our faces, making the climb even more of an effort.

I believe it was at this point when I asked the COG - what's Devils Dyke, anyway.  He said he had no idea.  Then he asked if we were halfway yet - we must be half way by now - were his actual words.  I was a bit shaken. We had gone about 2 of the 7 or 8 mile hike.  The only map we had was the one on my iphone, which has roads but no walking trails, but it was clear that we were only 1/3 of the way.  And it was pretty clear that the COG had no special knowledge stored away about the walk.  His trail knowledge was apparently limited to -  from Ditchling Beacon, you turn west until you get to Devil's Dyke. Whatever that is.

We had a couple more bad moments, one in which the trail seemed to end and the arrow pointed back in the direction we had just come. Another when we chose the wrong path leading to the top of Devils Dyke and had to back track, probably adding an extra mile to the walk. And, then, when we chose, well,  not the 'wrong' path to the top but, maybe, not the best path (as in quickest and most direct) to the top.

We persevered, because 1) we knew there was a pub with food at Devil's Dyke and; 2) the bus stop  to get us home was at Devil's Dyke.  And, of course, we were heading west, so we took it on faith that we would eventually, one way or another, get there. Even if we didn't actually know what it was.

And we did. There was food and drink, warmth, shelter from the wind. And a bus home.

It was a great day.  The view from the top of Devil's Dyke is one that the great English painter, John Constable, called 'the grandest view in the world'.  This isn't the view from the top, but it's a view of the Dyke, itself.

The Dyke?  Turns out it's the widest, deepest, longest dry valley in the UK, formed by melting ice 10,000 years ago at the end of an ice age.

Or, on the other hand,  it could be a ditch toward the sea dug by the Devil, himself, in an aborted attempt to drown the faithful Christians of the weald.

You choose.

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