Castle Hill Nature Reserve

The path forks on the far side of the crossing. A kestrel hovers, dips, hovers and lands. I rush over in between speeding cars and bear right, skirting the electric fence, the grass shorn back to bare earth. In the field between the chalk bridleway and a row of houses, two men struggle gamely with an inflatable kangaroo. It’s a spring afternoon and I am in rural Sussex, looking to get marginally lost. My coat is stashed in my bag, my sleeves rolled up to the mild sun.

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I am tired of walking in the city. Of dodging traffic, heaving my son’s pushchair up high kerbs, swerving through crowds at bus stops. The late cold of winter and the non arrival of spring have left me feeling desperate for something greener, more languid, less in tune with the gale force gusts that blast the streets and sweep through my mind.

This is the first day of something approaching warmth. I have finished work early, closed my laptop on unsaved documents, left so–called urgent emails left unanswered. My boots are dusty with mud from their last outing, a day–long yomp around Langdale in the Lake District last September. They have gone unworn during the icier months, the relentlessness of parenthood and the occasional pull of the icy sea taking precedence.

I walk the same path that I took towards Whitehawk in January, Brighton and Hove sitting in a hazy bowl to the west, the Downs lifting up on the horizon. I cross over Race Hill and pass along the inside of the race track and Whitehawk Camp. I am not inclined to stop and look for the first butterflies of the season. I need to get away from buildings, from people. This is Edgeland, where the city meets the country. I need a full escape.

It’s after walking the sealed track around Woodingdean that I spot the kestrel. She is unperturbed by me and other stragglers strolling this way, her eyes trained on something we’ll never see. The last time I saw one this close was after a cold September swim four years ago in the Cambridgeshire Fens. We were so close then I could feel the glint of unblinking eyes boring into my forehead as I craned my head high in wonder.

My previous trips this way have sent me on the main path, the old drovers road to Lewes. I need something new, hence I have taken this right fork, the kangaroo carriers the kind of welcome I couldn’t have dreamed of. A skylark, invisible without my glasses, pipes me on, through the gate and into Castle Hill Nature Reserve.

My interest in flaneury has until now been city–based. But I’ve found myself unable to enjoy urban environments of late. London has left me cold on my weekly work trips. Brighton’s narrow streets and alleyways are nothing compared with the open expanse of downland to the north and the cold, churning ocean that slams into its beaches. I am struggling with anxiety again. Swimming in the sea is a quick fix, but a long walk in the Downs near my home holds more allure right now. A chance to feel my legs unwind slowly along with my mind over a few hours, rather than the fast blast cure of icy water.

The path traces the top of the escarpment. Herring gulls compete with the skylarks for audio supremacy. They will always win. I can see where the path drops into the valley. There is no need to look at the OS Map in my bag. As I walk I talk, a solitary chat to work through my worries. Work, mostly. My perceived failures. My readiness to anger at the smallest of problems. My shame at my readiness to anger at the smallest of problems. I am watched by a wren on a fencepost. I’m fairly certain he thinks I’ve lost the plot.

Deep in the valley sit a number of derelict buildings, surrounded by grazing sheep and their suckling lambs. As ever, my anxiety makes me acutely aware of time, even though I have nothing to rush for. But in the spirit of aimless wandering (and taking the chance to assuage my worries), I cut across the open access land, bounding down the steep hill, its grass terraced by soil creep, arriving at what I later discover is the ghost village of Balsdean. My usual curiosity has deserted me, so I leave behind the abandoned barns and outhouses and simply follow the track along the bottom of the valley. A solitary walker in red is at the top of the hill, but otherwise I am alone with the unseen wildlife of this deep valley. 

It’s taken me two hours to walk here from my front door. It’ll be another two before I get back. Time enough to get lost walking through wind–shaped gorse, scouring the milky sky for birds I won’t be able to identify, happy that nature rather than the city is working its way into me. I have thrown off the deep tiredness I have felt recently on busy streets. The chalk mud clogs my soles and sends my heart soaring. I am still anxious, but these hills are close enough to let me do battle with worry in a space where I will always win.