I'm sitting on the close cropped turf of the South Downs, halfway down the escarpment with Jack and Jill Windmills above me and the village of Clayton just below. The windmills are grade 2 listed buildings dating from the mid 19th century, though Jill had a prior life in Brighton before she was towed by teams of oxen the 7 miles or so from there to the top of the Downs. They fell out of use in the first decade of the 20th century but were kept in good repair and appeared in the 1973 film, The Black Windmill featuring Michael Caine and Donald Pleasance. Jill, a wooden post mill, is now restored to working order and is open to the public in the summer, while Jack, a brick built tower mill, is a private home.
Clayton is a typical downland village of no more than around 200 people, built at the foot of the scarp slope where the clay of the Weald of Sussex meets the chalk of the Downs, providing a springline to irrigate the settlements. At the very base of the Downs is a Saxon church of simple design with a squat wooden belfry and steep roof. The Church of St John the Baptist at Clayton is mentioned in the Domesday Book and is a Grade 1 listed building partly due to its great age, but also because of the 12th century frescoes of the Last Judgement which adorn the interior walls and are unique in England.
I've been cooped up in the house for the past few days. It's good to finally get out, relieving my cabin fever and avoiding the otherwise inevitable irritability that would confront my family. As I sit cross legged on the hill with my laptop on my knees and sheep grazing around me, I wonder how this might appear to the passing hiker. Although the computer is now the universal tool of the writer, I can't quite imagine that I look like a modern day romantic poet, composing an ode to the landscape that lies before me. What then? Do I look like a workaholic unable to leave his work at home, let alone the office? Or just completely incongruous? Worse still, maybe no one's noticed me!
Rosey will be with me in about six weeks, assuming the visa goes through without a hitch. Her arrival can't come soon enough. My life has been characterised by distinct phases since coming of age and these have been mediated by periods of stagnation or consolidation as I try to work out the next move. So I have been living in limbo for the past six months. I've made some progress, but it has mostly been of a somewhat intangible nature, buried in my head and difficult to quantify. I have learnt about the areas I may go into without making solid progress into them. That is about to change, but that's another story.
I'd been surprised earlier to find a thick layer of ice in a water trough that lay in a shaded hollow. It hadn't seemed that cold to me as I walked up the hill in the mid afternoon but all that has changed now. The sun is setting beneath the brow of the hill behind me. I have maybe 20 minutes of daylight to play with, and two hours of battery life. The only place I can think of to spend it is at the 19th century coaching inn at the foot of the hill, with its selection of ales and roaring log fire (a cliché maybe, but a fine one). As the breeze begins to bite on my thighs and my necessarily unprotected fingers lose their accuracy upon the keyboard, it is becoming an increasingly attractive option. Time for the pub.
I reach Underhill Lane and must walk past the church to reach the pub. Isn't it traditional to visit both of these places on a Sunday? I like old places, so after pausing under the lychgate, I decide to go in. The path is paved with a rippled stone that was once the floor of a shallow sea. It always amazes me how transient features such as a muddy seabed are petrified, frozen in time. An earthquake suddenly raising the seabed before it is sun-baked before being covered by the sands of time, perhaps?
I have a little difficulty opening the heavy oak door but the cast iron latch eventually slots into place and I make my way into the now darkening church. Using my phone as a flashlight, I look around, imagining myself to look like a burglar until I find the light switches hidden in a wooden box on the wall. I turn them on, lighting up the chancel, nave and vestry in turn and bringing the ancient paintings, only rediscovered in the 20th century, into view. As I look around, I imagine seeing the ghost of a long dead clergyman crossing the chancel or passing through the wall into where a medieval chapel once stood. Nothing so dramatic for me so I mooch around, wondering if there are any rules about where it is appropriate for the hoi poloi to go. I decide the chancel with its benches for the choir is probably ok, but beyond the altar rail is probably best avoided. After reading the tourist information and history of the church, it is time to head to the pub.
A little later, I find myself (as if by accident?) warming up in the Jack and Jill Inn. A couple around my own age are having a Sunday evening meal and another, perhaps twice my age, have booked a room for the night. This is somewhere a stone's throw from home and it is initially difficult to imagine it as a holiday destination, but it is a welcoming place in the shadow of beautiful rolling hills. It is worth making the effort to appreciate the familiar. I would gladly now make my way up to a hotel room after a good meal and a few drinks. After two and a half pints of ale, my creative juices are beginning to flow, however the energy has almost entirely flowed out of my computer. It is time to finish my drink and make the trek home across the fields in the dark.
The sky is clear, and the air is cold. The stars are bright against the dark blue sky and I can see every breath clearly. The route home takes me down The Cinder Path, with the railway line to my left and dark woods to my right. For much of the way, I can see nothing, except by light of my phone. I am aware that when I was younger my imagination would have run riot in these circumstances, but I have an assuredness lacking in my early 20s. I am grateful for the cold. When I turn off the Cinder Path and cross the fields towards home, the ground that was muddy before is now frozen solid. A worthwhile trade.
When I set out from home six hours ago, I was frustrated, grumpy, unable to say much that was positive. This was not good, particularly since my sister had been visiting. I'd rather she didn't take away the impression that that was how I was at the moment (hi Sophie, hope you're reading). In short, I needed to get out, to do something and I felt much better for it. Exercise, countryside, history, culture and ale, washed down with the brightest stars I've seen in some time. Can't beat it.
And as a postscript, Stephen Moffat's contemporary interpretation of Sherlock, enjoyed with my parents in the warmth of our living room with a cup of tea (I phoned my dad as I walked across the fields and said it was really cold and a cuppa cha would be very much appreciated). A good day (and three late nights to write it up!)