8 min read

Solitary Walking: High Salvington

My first solo walk of the year; a 6.5 mile round-trip to a chalky grassland, from my back door in West Sussex.
Solitary Walking: High Salvington

With plans fallen through, I was left holding the opportunity for a whole day of time, and knew that this was a nudge to put my walking boots on - to take myself outside, and not relying on the company of others. I’m not sure I even remember the last time I did this - working through my anxieties to walk solo (I’m fairly certain, its not happened this year) and starting to build on my confidence and independence to travel and explore more freely. I decided on a local walk, returning to a place that I discovered during the first lockdown, and somewhere I’ve been yearning to be again. I found myself stalling, finding excuses not to push the door open, tried to find others to cling to and started to make other plans for myself so that I could do anything but be alone. Its such a frustrating cycle to be in; to know how much I want to do this, yet sabotaging myself at every opportunity - its the same with my writing. Yet, despite all of this, I found myself leaving the narrow alleyway opposite my flat, and was placing foot after foot along the edge of the busy road that joined it.

I gave myself permission to turn back at any point, that I didn’t have to make it to some 'end destination' - I was outside, alone now - I had already worked through that initial mental barrier and so anything else was simply flowing onwards. I recounted local paths, the smell of coffee from The Flour Pot meeting me at a corner as I passed a severed hawthorn. Seeing bright magenta foxgloves peeping out of the allotments I passed, where I had spent the whole winter desperate to see what would come up out of that earth; that tree had been a small waymarker for me, and I wondered what else might have changed since I had last been here. How had it been this long since I had dedicated myself to my walking practice? I acknowledged the huge ebbs and flows in my moods and motivation lately; feeling as though I’ve been struggling to keep afloat - constantly dipping in and out of quiet, darker spells and seemingly nothing to say, then to random outbursts of energy and ideas that almost take my breath away with their velocity, out of nowhere. The lockdown is an easy culprit and one not to ignore, though I know that by stepping towards my self, its set off this unruly chaos internally (as I touched upon last week, during a fortnight spell of ferocious panic and shadows).

I came to the coloured bars of my son’s soon-to-be primary school, following them for a short while and thinking about how much I will soon learn the feel of them - how much they will become a part of my daily life; the walk itself becoming so engrained in me - I wonder which plants I will become more acquainted with, of how it will feel on days when its sheets of rain and bitter winds. I wonder how it will feel to let go of his little hands behind those gates - a slow release of him into whole new systems, people and environments. I wonder how to hold my self, but it doesn’t yet bare uttering - it will come. Through further alleyways and empty parks, I began to edge closer to the rushing dual carriageway that is the biggest challenge of this six-and-a-half mile walk; anxiety in my throat and chest as I stood next to the first crossing point. Miraculously a gap in the traffic came quickly, so I stood in the middle of those streams of cars and vans, feeling my body almost get swept along with a large lorry as it hurtled close to my face. Sure that I’d not taken a breath through this whole ordeal, I had made it across the second lane before long and was then walking steeply uphill, recalibrating myself with the luxurious houses and their balconies and gardens that overlooked Cissbury Ring in the distance. It didn’t take long to feel as though I was high-up, golden sun beaming on the intense green landscape; every roadside bursting with nettles, cleavers, cow parsley and poppies. I stepped past a tree stump that I had gathered turkey tail fungi from last year, and felt a sense of reconnection to see there were still some of the dusky brown, striped polypores peeking out between blades of grass - how much foraging had reignited my passion to be outside last year, finding wild food and learning about my local ecosystem. Through what had been a swelteringly hot and dry walk so far, I was met by the most beautiful, cool breeze the higher I got. How much I had missed the feeling of the wind between my fingers; around my neck and whispering in my ears.

As I turned from the steep, dry gravelled roads to the High Salvington windmill and past the simple tin walls of St Peter’s church, an immense wave of relaxation shuddered through my body, and I no longer felt an ounce of anxiety or tenseness. Part of my desire to return here, was precisely because of this sense of ‘home’; something about this place settles me in ways I cannot put words to, and was completely unexpected when I first rambled my way up here. That I could walk here from my front door, from a housing association flat surrounded with so much unrest, to a place resonating so much peace and calm, was unreal to me. I didn’t need a car, or another person - I could bring myself here, with only my feet and my lungs to carry me. Though I’ve often felt displaced in many residential areas I walk through, I have never felt this way about this little stretch of village; it exudes a humbleness that reminds me of happier childhood days. Every time I emerge here, I start to feel a pull to experience the local community in more depth - to wander into the village shop, to sit inside the metal church surrounded by trees.

I turned into a nearby lane and passed some of my favourite houses - one in particular under the canopy of tall pine trees and plants surrounding the front door, all earth colours and rugged, like a true forest home. Where last year I followed trails of unknown mushrooms and dead brambles, was now awash with buzzing insects and the lime greens of new growth - ox-eye daises like jewels. Like Hansel and Gretel crumbs, I followed them up to the open expanse of chalk grasslands, the sapphire blue English Channel way off in the distance and the uneven city of trees bursting with leaves and blossoms. I was taken aback at the long grass before me, not seeing this place like this before; taking deep steps into those slender green stems that stroked my legs as I spotted countless little flowers growing in amongst them. The further through this that I stepped, the more my eyes fell upon swathes of other flowers and plants - I had never seen so much diversity in one place, with so much colour. I’m often drawn to identify plants as I come across them in this way, yet today I felt the call to simply enjoy them - for my eyes to tease out red clovers, bird's-foot-trefoil and yarrow amongst so many incredible purple and green grasses; all against the backdrop of blue indigo butterflies, small moths and birds. I was sure I heard a woodpecker from within the old oak woods ahead of me, too - its light drumming adding to the symphony of bird chatter and the gentle swish of grass; one of the most profound, calming sounds to grace my ears in so long.

I found a patch less populated with flowers and dropped my backpack down, sitting in amongst all of this life and finding my own place within it. Quietly I sat for a while, taking my sunglasses off to reveal the true clarity of rays that were slicing through the air and shattering into warm clouds of gold amidst the grasses. I started to feel the whole spectrum of my sensory body; how much my sunglasses had helped me make the walk up here with eyes wide open rather than straining, and how much I was overtaken by the desire to walk barefoot, or lay down, cocooned - to be completely sheltered, every available pore of my skin reading the earth that might stroke and smoothe it. I felt so completely safe and held by those plants; it reminded me of pressing my body into fields of wheat when I was younger - a lighter and more reassuring hold than perhaps those of the woods that lined the scrub. I was sheltered at ground level. I’ve mentioned this elsewhere, but I crave hills almost weekly - to feel the push against the ground, the earth coming to meet me; my joints and muscles stretching as they learn surfaces that rise and fall, reflecting the path of life itself - not simply thudding against the straight, hard coldness of concrete.

It didn’t take long for me to feel rooted - I could easily have sat here, soaking it all in, for hours. I had brought Anita Sethi (and Mary Oliver) with me, knowing how much the latter enjoyed carrying the words of Walt Whitman into the landscapes she explored; the words of both feeling more crystal and meaningful as I took in a few pages surrounded by so much beauty. Anita’s own reclamation of place seemed even more poignant as I too felt like I belonged amongst all of these colours and sounds, of life. Every responsibility, stress, idea and thought evaporated from me as I sat silently, in presence - as though nothing else really had levity or takeover of my nerves as I might have allowed before; I was here, simply being me, just like the bees that stopped at every waxy buttercup. I spilled some coffee on the earth as I clumsily tried to start packing up my things, and then paused to consider the notion of offering a gift to the earth (something that Robin Wall Kimmerer taught me), of not just taking - I had stuffed two little clovers into the pocket of my backpack, to take home to my son. I love the notion of bringing something from my home, up to this wildlife, and exchanging it (and more often, not taking anything at all - the mere ability to sit here was such a gift in itself).

Feeling completely achey the next day, dull and worn - perhaps all the anxiety and excitement had culminated in my body, or perhaps its the feeling of walking out of these things; their impressions left in my shoulders and hips. As though I’m now carrying the place in my legs, the weight of it in my thighs - the traces of the walk, of the ground now inside my own fibres. Not forgetting the sweet essence of wanting to keep this practice going that arose after my walk, too; to do it again - the ideas that came forth by breaking through the stagnation and resistance - my desire for more movement. I’ve fallen back into relaxing in the evenings again rather than forcing myself to grapple with the thin hour or two I have left after putting my son to bed. This giving-in to rest feels right to me, yet I also yearn to stand in the dark and watch the light go.

One of the main realisations this walk lent me, was that my anxiety is not just about walking alone - its about being around others, too. My reluctance to visit towns, take further-afield journeys, and stand amongst larger groups is just as much a challenge as it is to go somewhere more remote. Trains, buses, housing estates, cities and shops - my walks often don’t completely avoid other humans, and the more I (un)learn, the more I understand that I must continue to work out these anxieties - that humans and nature are not separate, and it can even be problematic and discriminatory to assume otherwise. For me, the perfect balance is seeking others in the landscape, where shared interests, backgrounds or passions intertwine with regenerating the earth (such as community allotments and growing projects); which when stripped back, shows the opportunity available in every moment (and not just ‘outdoors’). We all share something in common, regardless and because of our experiences, and that is the earth. This commonality is something I’m coming to see more clearly as each day passes; as each blade of grass makes me feel at home as much as the smiles on faces that sit with me next to the vegetable patch, or in parks as we watch our children gather sticks. I'm coming to see, that I'll never truly walk alone.