Following Chalk Tracks


Ambulatory
; in one meaning, a walking place, a covered passage around a cloister, confined, circumscribed, a safe place. But also, a walker, of no fixed abode, an itinerant, someone who walks about, without a home, a vagrant. Both measure distance, confined, or open; distance measured in a confined space; open and potentially unsafe.

Road becomes footpath, track, turf, chalk country; where one seems to end the other might begin. In Life in a Sussex Windmill (1920). Edward Martin describes summers, from 1908 -1910, when he lived in the New Mill at Clayton. Alive to a sense of place; to weather; to the experience of walking an open downland. In a second book, Sussex Geology (1932), he describes a more confined landscape. The war followed four years after I ceased to occupy the Mill-the war and all that it entailed; open downland enclosed, tracks hemmed in by barbed wire fencing. For all that there are and always have been lengthy tracks over the Downs which are undoubtedly rights-of-way and it is important that these be constantly patrolled and kept open.
The archetypal figure of the shepherd is central to W. H. Hudson’s Nature in Downland (1900). Hefted to the land, he is a figure of stability, continuity; the solitary shepherd with his dog at his feet will doubtless stand watching his flock on the hillside for some thousands of years to come. For both writers, walking gives meaning to the idea of, the rural as the bedrock of Englishness. And there is a right and a wrong way to inhabit the rural landscape, foregrounded in the image of the tramp.

In a chapter dealing with sound and silence on the Downs, Hudson notes that, The coarse and common sounds of the lowlands do not penetrate in the silent country of the hills, only those sounds intimately associated with downland. The shepherd’s voice, the percussive bark of the shepherd’s dog, birdsong; and silence. But this solitude is broken when Hudson encounters, three very unpleasant-looking tramps, one of whom has the temerity to speak to him; a singularly unpleasant specimen […] a small man with low cunning and rascality written on his dirty face.

The tramp’s presence disturbs, it’s the voice that betrays, a man with a loud, thick speech is not a native of the hills. Although Edward Martin isn’t as hostile towards a tramp he sees making up his bed for the night between the two mills, he thinks it, advisable to close all exits and entrances to the Mill.

So, continuity and change; two points of departure. Walking a landscape, more confined than the Downs I imagine when reading Hudson and Martin. And the persistence of attitudes; thinking about the disruptive presence of the outsider, the unwelcome figure in the landscape. Recently enclosed downland to the east of Brighton, being one current manifestation of these attitudes; old paths made narrow by new barbed wire.

Read posts from Following Chalk Tracks