The Familiar One

by Keith Foskett

The familiar one is the route we know intimately. Without directional distractions like map reading or GPS checks, our minds can wander. Indulge in more rewarding pastimes such as searching for wild food, wildlife spotting, or checking the stream still flows. The familiar one dispenses with formalities and interruptions, leaving us free to ramble leisurely and entertain thinking time.

With familiarity comes contentment. Your familiar route is intimate; chances are it’s local, where you grew up and walked as a child. You remember building your hidden camp out of dead branches. Perhaps you nurture memories of your dog, bounding through the leaves, and you smile.

A tree on the South Downs Way

Mine centres on the charming village of Alfriston in West Sussex, and follows the South Downs Way for much of the route. The teahouse knows how I prefer my eggs cooked and always keeps a bottle of Tabasco. The deli shop deftly assembles my lunchtime sandwich. The first hour of easy walking hugs the River Cuckmere, warming my legs gently, and then eases me higher to glimpses of the White Horse.

The White Horse

I can relate to my ancestors, who lived, gathered and hunted in this valley thousands of years ago. I love the hill that climbs from Westdean, my lungs working hard to be rewarded at the crest with one of my favourite views in the world, Cuckmere Haven. The river meanders, folded back and forth to the sea, shining silver in a midday sun amidst green flanks peppered with grazing sheep.

I let my momentum take me, pausing at Exceat Tea Shop for a leisurely Earl Grey whilst Red gulps from the dog water bowl. Usually teeming with tourists at weekends, today is Monday and I revel in the quiet. The Haven funnels me towards the coast with the river to my side. Red chases dogs and brings me sticks, waiting expectantly for praise. The sea air drifts over and I taste salt, seagulls cry, the onshore breeze increases but I refuse to wear a warmer top because, walking the familiar one, I know what is coming.

Seven Sisters Cliffs

The Seven Sisters, quintessential white chalk cliffs rising majestically from the English Channel. A symbol of steadfast solidarity, the British spirit. The Sisters are too strenuous for many; negotiating them feels like being tossed around in the English Channel itself.

A dog lies on its back, relaxing.Reel in three or four and it’s time for that sandwich as Red slumps beside me, tongue dangling, eyes squinting as he lets me trickle water into his mouth. Sussex stretches away behind and France lies over a glistening sea. I slip off my shoes, devour my lunch, prop my head on my pack and drift off with the sun on my face.

After the final Sister I arrive at Birling Gap. Every year the sea pounds the cliffs, erosion is inevitable and one day, the café and the house will topple. I leave thinking it may be the last time I see either.

I turn inland towards my native South Downs, rolling and bumping around me. I cross the road near Friston, my head flicking left and right for traffic as Red strains on the lead. Into the copse where I pause to remember directions before descending a slippery trail, emerging into a field bordered by flint stone walls and the solitary oak tree tucked into the corner.

Cyclists on the South Downs WayWide tracks on the familiar one now, shaded by Friston Forest. I share a nod with a mountain biker, no words needed as our smiles confirm the perfect day, his gears click as tyres crunch and he speeds away. I reach Westdean again, running my hand along flint walls, watching the chickens scatter before climbing past Charleston Manor and returning to Alfriston. The sun is lower, the White Horse in shadow and the River Cuckmere brims with tidal flow.

The legs tire but endorphins come alive. Through the field where the horse grazes, lifting his head to check Red as his tail flicks at flies. In Litlington, signs on gates offer jams or produce, glasses clink outside the Plough and Harrow as laughter spills from the windows. Turning into the alley I am back by the river with a flat path to Alfriston. Ducks splash and cows nonchalantly glance my way. I look forward to late summer when I will pick wild samphire from the banks.

The white bridge brings me into the village again. The Smugglers Inn pub, circa 1345, faces me as I emerge by the old market cross. Buildings graced with red brick, flint, dark beams or colourful paints stretch through the High Street. The store still looks the same as it must have done 50 years ago. A dog, tied to a post whilst his owner peruses the ice cream shop, barks at Red, and he retorts.

Singing Kettle CafeA pot of Earl Grey outside the Singing Kettle as I slouch on a chair and catch the last of the sun before it sinks behind the roof tops. Spoons clink on china, jam drops onto scones and teacakes are buttered. She brings me a bowl for Red as he pleads with customers willing to part with a morsel, feigning innocence as I catch him begging.

Patient meandering and re-acquainted again with my favourite. The familiar one.

Originally published 24/09/19

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