Handle, up; it honks like a goose as the lock is engaged into the PVC doorframe of the porch – I spin the key and then fold it neatly into my shorts. The house is on a steep hill at the North end of Brighton. The sky is clear, odd on a day as hot as this – with miles of view you expect to see gossamer films of mist, but it’s a day when all the landscape can see itself in itself. The Isle of Wight must be fifty miles from here, it looks just as close as Worthing pier. Both shimmer in the heat.
I have lived here for three years. It is a big house, a beautiful one, but it isn’t mine. It has more character than any house I have ever seen. It has a solid oak staircase. In every window there is stained glass, and in every window pane the stained-glass design is slightly different. The garden is full of mature roses, peonies, lilac, the borders are lined with sweet woodruff and lavender. But these are someone else’s plants, someone else’s idea of what a garden should be. This was the forever house. It was one to grow old in. How could it possibly have lived up to that?
At the last house, I had made a garden out of nothing. It began as builder’s rubble with a thin skin of recently unrolled turf. After a couple of years, on almost any day, you could see jays, wagtails, greenfinches, sparrows, robins, wrens, blackbirds, goldcrested finches, blue tits, rooks, hedgehogs, jackdaws, swallows, great tits, dragonflies, toads, hummingbird moths, or bats. Here, there is nothing. Pigeons occasionally land in the centre of the lawn like they are counters on a square of Snakes and Ladders, and in seconds, with the look of one who has mistakenly grabbed someone in the street they thought they knew, they are gone.
The house is empty and leaving it always feels better than returning.
I am not a very good runner. I have a big appetite, though. I want to run more than I can, and for the moment I see this as a physiological desire, like hunger, rather than an emotional one.
I climb to the brow of the hill and turn north onto an artery clogged with the earth’s adipose deposits, cars. I imagine the queue of traffic running for two solid miles all the way to the NCP Car Park in the town centre. Brighton Sundays, everyone seems to want them. Not me, not today, it’s air I want, not sea.
After a mile up this road, the traffic suddenly turns hard East or West and you are left suddenly alone. A couple more hundred metres and you cannot hear it. A democracy of pathways lead you towards the long peaks from which you can see most of Sussex and Surrey. The South Downs are an escarpment of chalk deposits, folded like soft dough, some sixty million years older than either you or I. They stretch for hundreds of miles. The nineteenth-century poet and naturalist, William Henry Hudson wrote that ‘during the whole fifty-three mile length from Beachy Head to Harting the ground never rises above a height of 850 feet, but we feel on top of the world’.
It is summer, 2006. I have been running for a few weeks, eight perhaps, and I am able to do about six miles. I have been here before, many times before.
My body is about to reach a very familiar point when an injury, so common as to be named after the activity itself, will break cover to stop me in my tracks: runner’s knee. Not today, though – and probably not tomorrow, but somewhere in these long grasses I know it is stalking its prey.
Weight has been falling away. I haven’t been trying to lose it, but I find that it is being burned quickly by something. People often think that running is a good way to lose weight, but it isn’t really. Most of the energy that’s consumed in the run is glycogen that will be replaced by the next meal or two you eat. It is a little like saying that a car has lost weight in it’s drive across town because it has used some petrol. No, I think that both have the same cause: I want to run because of something else, I am losing weight because of the same ‘something else’.
The Romantic poet, Charlotte Smith, devoted a sonnet to this place – although like many Romantics, the place became a means to explore herself. In ‘To the South Downs’ she hopes,
Ah! Hills beloved – your turf, your flowers remain;
But can they peace to this sad breast restore,
For one poor moment soothe the sense of pain,
And teach a breaking heart to throb no more?
While the lexis and lyricism may seem recognisably, perhaps tiredly, melancholic – the rugged syntax, a jigsaw piece forced into the wrong position – the poem knowingly sees in this place an inoculation against something that cannot be borne. The poem ends bleakly in a wish for the oblivion of death as a liberation from pain. A desire for the heart to stop ‘throbbing’ is also found in Hardy’s 1898 lyric to sexual frustration. ‘I look into my glass, / And view my wasting skin, / And say, “Would God it came to pass / My heart had shrunk as thin!” If only we might stop feeling, both poets seem to say.
But here, when I touch the first grass of the Downs, I feel like I have stepped onto a web. That my movement has set it tingling. That my footsteps are like tiny tremors, detectable for miles around. That this spun fabric is all connected and it can see me from every angle. That I have left one community and am communing with another quite different one. That it is a labyrinth in which I am not lost. That it is not today, but everyday, any day in the past or future. The last thing I feel is the desire for it to end. To not feel this.
In mile three, I am still headed away, and I arrive at The Dyke. How many times have I been here? A thousand, perhaps? I am used to telling people that I go there, not for the hundreds of square miles of view of the Sussexes, but that it is the same place and I have never once seen it looking the same. I know every pathway and wobbling styal, even today I could find some puddles and mud. The acidity of sun-baked cowshit pinches at my nose. In the distance I see Havoc with his owner tearing behind after him. I chatted to the man a couple of years before.
‘Havoc? Why Havoc?’
His eyes bulged. He took a breath. ‘ “Cry, ‘Havoc!’ and let slip the dogs of war.” Julius Caesar, Act 3. Do you know it?’
‘Yes.’ I didn’t.
Feeling suddenly inadequate. ‘Oh. He’s called Ben.’ Hearing his name, he looked up at me. I scratched his head. Mr Havoc seemed unimpressed.
On days like today, the Downs take on a strange timpanic resonance. As my feet strike the ground of this 500ft crease in the landscape it sounds empty, like my footsteps may be heard for miles around – perhaps even in the villages on the Weald, below. People will have been farming the land here for thousands of years. Others in that time will also have wondered at this echo from within the hills, it makes the earth seem unreal somehow. And with every beat of this drum a breath of white dust is thrown up by the chalk as it reaches the point when it cannot separate into any more constituent parts. Only water and unthinkable tectonic pressure, an event so dramatically catastrophic – just like one that will have made these hills reach for the heavens millions of years ago – will bring these micro-grains together again to form solid ground. A new ground for the future, one whose landscape is unimaginably different to today’s, but is fundamentally made of the same parts.
It does not occur to me that, of course, I am not thinking about the landscape at all. After only a couple of hundred metres my runner’s leash is at full stretch. I turn my back upon the world, retracing my steps South, and home.
It has only been a few weeks, but I am already addicted to this powder. At first it was free, but I am beginning to realise that it has a price. It is expensive, and I cannot afford it for long.