“England! With all thy faults I love thee still!”
Byron’s bombastic line – engraved in my mind by years of literature lessons – seemed suddenly pompous as it escaped my lips into the salt-tinged air, yet not entirely out of place.
Our first month in Albion was grey. Not the slate grey of brooding seas, nor the charcoal of low clouds above them, but the inoffensive grey of freshly painted office walls, the chipped lacquer of train tray tables, the cracked concrete of pavements learned begrudgingly by heart. Today, for the first time, the country decided to show its colour. There was no question that we needed to be out there amongst it.
And so it was that, decked out in more outdoor gear than was strictly necessary for a coastal meander, we set off from Seaford station with the great grassy mass on the horizon as our first goal. The beach was peppered with humanity, emerging from their winter cocoons, blinking in the bold daylight. Bird watchers huddled together with their telescopic lenses, retirees opened the doors to their beach huts for spring’s first cup of tea, children untangled kite strings from months of winter storage. A trio of ravens regarded us while picking through the pebbles, comically incongruous with the cheerful seaside scene.
Our first ascent to the clifftop looked agonisingly steep from the beach below, yet took on a gentler aspect as stones turned to glossy sea grass. Already from the top, the little town of Seaford seemed a mile away, and as we strolled along a narrow track, attracting the attention of irate ground-nesting birds, all memory of streets dissolved. We soon came to realise that the highly detailed guide we had downloaded that morning didn’t need too much attention on a winding coastal path, and could be surmised by “If you’re in the sea, you’ve gone too far”. We tucked it away in our bag and focused instead on the view.
As the track widened into a gentle descent, we caught our first glimpse of the Seven, stark and pale through a sea-mist filter. We noted the thick columns of chalk that seemed to hold the very hills up, and the deep lines of erosion in between them – like nature’s flying buttresses. The thought returned me to the bold white visage of Milan’s Duomo, both vast and fragile, and infinitely awe-inspiring. We stood and counted the seven distinct hilltops, as it seemed the thing to do, then rolled up our sleeves and wandered hand-in-hand toward them.
The wide swathe of green led us down through rotted gates and past a row of cheerful yet crumbling cottages, then out onto a shingle beach framed on either side by dramatic cliffs. It took us ten minutes of gentle strolling along the length of the wooden groyn to realise that the river Cuckmere flowing on the other side of the makeshift dyke became neither shallower nor slower-flowing as it neared the shoreline. A quick consultation of the guide suggested a five-mile detour inland to find a footbridge. We exchanged glances, and without a word (though with many a wobble) began to remove our boots.
The knee-deep water of the Cuckmere’s mouth was deliciously freezing and surprisingly forceful, the sharp and shifting pebbles at its bed adding a further challenge to fording it. When we reached dry beach on the other side not five minutes later, we collapsed on the stones and laughed, feet already drying in the tentative sun, to think we might have added an hour onto our walk for the price of slightly-damp cuffs. A few fellow walkers had begun to follow our lead, seeing that the water didn’t reach much above the knee. One intrepid soul emerging behind us called out jovially, “I’m not going back now!” No, we agreed. There was no going back.
The path up onto the first of the Sisters was a steep white streak in eroded grass, crumbling even as we trod on it. The overall effect was one step forward and two steps back, but the view when we reached the top was worth the challenge. We traipsed our way to the crest of the hill, and reclined on the pale, waxy grass that had woven itself against the wind and wild exposure into a sun-warmed carpet. It was the warmth that surprised us the most as we lounged and nibbled our breakfast flapjacks.
Once we had finished our rudimentary meal – and dropped suitable libations to the crows and gulls that wheeled around us like avatars of sea gods – we lingered for a while. Sam rested his head on my ribs as I lay back on the grass, soft as any king-sized bed, and closed my eyes against the gentle glow of unfettered sunlight. Despite the hundreds of walkers who had chosen to grace the path that day, in that moment I felt like we were the only living, breathing things in this vast and unpredictable seascape, and a long-awaited connection with it slipped into place.
We paused for a breath at Birling gap, bringing to mind my Grandma’s stories of long-ago holidays. From a modern yet handsome National Trust cafe that certainly wouldn’t have graced her memories, we procured a cheese scone and a bottle of beer, which we shared on the seafront as we watched the beachcombers, unselfconsciously absorbed in their search for treasures. By the time we had toasted our adventure, remarked on the excellence of the scone and reattached our packs, the wind was picking up and a dark band of cloud could be seen obscuring the furthest views behind us.
We pushed on past a cheerful lighthouse, its idyllic red-and-white stripes belying its role as a warning of mortal peril, and ran down what the guide described as a ‘surprise’ saddle in the landscape, and began the climb to our final destination.
Beachy Head itself was familiar ground beneath our feet, yet entirely new to my eyes. We had crested its heights from Eastbourne nearly three years ago, with the added challenge of pitch darkness. Glimpsing now the unguarded cliff-edge drew a shudder, heightened by the rows of tiny wooden crosses planted in the crumbling chalk. We stood for a time by the sheltered benches where once we played dark songs into the sea wind, and watched the weather roll in. By the time we were making our descent, the first determined raindrops were sliding their way down our necks.
Later, in thoroughly rainy Hastings – a world away from the summer breeze of the same morning – we shuffled from the station through the winding Tudor lanes and through the door of a near-packed pub, eager for a seat and a steaming plate of chips. Dismayed to see that every table was not only full but surrounded by eagle-eyed drinkers with the same idea as us, we settled for a swift half at the bar – or would have, had we not got talking to an older Australian couple brimming with colourful tales of misadventure in Kazakstan.
One story of quaintness and culture shock led to another, and soon we found ourselves filled with ale and anecdotes, an enormous slate platter of battered fish between us, and recurring promises of one more for the road.
The unexpected burst of international kindness was the perfect end to an otherwise quintessentially English day, and as we marched home through the drizzle the ache in my ankles from walking was rivalled only from the sting in my cheeks from smiling.