Sunday morning. It is the eve of the vernal equinox, yet the sea still rages with wintry wrath.
As we walk back along the rough concrete walkway from Rottingdean to Brighton, we squint through chalk dust whipped up from the cliffs and watch immense bridal veils of foam blowing up and over the distant Marina.
It would be a stretch to call the Undercliff path a hospitable landscape, especially on a day like this one. On one side stand forbidding cliffs, scarred with steel bolts and foreboding metal doors. On the other is a bleak expanse of salt-and-pepper canyons, white chalk and black kelp bound together in countless rockpool formations.
And yet, tucked into an inauspicious gap beneath a brutal concrete stair, is a tenacious beacon of community. Of humanity.
This is Ovingdean Cafe, with its shabby plastic chairs and tables tucked into the cliffside, its rust-ringed porthole windows, its seldom-shuttered hatch through which the scent of bacon wafts and thank yous are exchanged.
We stop for coffee in chipped and mismatched cups. It’s jet black and steaming in the bleak and biting air, paired with a perfect wedge of home made carrot cake. We take a seat between promontory and eternity and warm our hands while the congregation gathers.
The thing about this little slice of comfort is that nobody comes here by accident. The Undercliff walk is no shortcut or minor detour on the way to another errand. To choose this path is to wilfully walk with the elements.
And so they do – the older folks rugged up in raincoats and the young ones in active wear. They prop up bikes on the low concrete wall, and pause to scratch sea-drenched dogs. Over marshmallow cocoa and warm bacon rolls they greet one another by name, pleased yet unsurprised to cross paths.
Unlikely as it is, here on the edge of all things, this unpretentious cafe has become an epicentre. A different kind of communion, with the wild sea as its witness.