A couple of weeks before Christmas 2016 I decided that on New Year’s Eve I would catch the bus to Eastbourne and walk to Brighton, arriving in time for sunrise. During the walk I would think about what I liked about 2016 and what I’d like for 2017. I invited others to join me but everyone had plans so I walked alone. Here’s my story:
Finally, the sky is beginning to lighten. For the last hour I’ve told myself, ‘I just have to make it to the next bus stop; if a bus doesn’t come I’ll sit for a few minutes, then walk to the next one.’ Brighton’s street lamps and pier are visible. Eastbourne is far behind me. My legs, feet, shoulders and back ache, and my head is throbbing from where the head torch was strapped to it nearly all night – I’m holding it in my hand now. The pavement is jarring, not like the muddy grass of the cliff top, but I must stay close to the road.
At 20:50 the previous evening I sat on a bench near Brighton Station waiting for the number 12 bus to Eastbourne. My bag was packed with water, food, waterproofs, spare socks, head torch and batteries, mobile phone, portable phone charger, hat, two pairs of gloves, survival bag, ventolin inhaler, money, and toilet roll. Clutching my bus pass, I climbed onto the number 12, selected a seat on the bottom deck about half way up on the right and took out my phone to reply to texts. The excitement I’d felt earlier diminished; sounds seemed bigger and intrusive, especially the voices of other passengers. Earlier, a friend shared his concern about me walking alone from Eastbourne to Brighton overnight; he warned that I could be attacked by a man. “I can’t account for other people,” I’d stated, “but I’ve taken into consideration the risks and done my best to ameliorate them.” “Of course,” he said, and asked me to send texts every now and then.
I jumped off the bus at Eastbourne Rail Station, wishing the driver a Happy New Year. A group of people sitting on the floor just inside the station entrance called out “Happy New Year” to me and I responded alike. Next came calls of “I’ll give you meat! Put my meat in your mouth!” I was wearing my Vegan Runners hoodie. Ignoring them I followed signs for the loos. They were locked. “Where is the nearest loo?” I asked the three men at the ticket gates. “I’ll unlock it for you,” the uniformed man sang in his Welsh accent. He pushed open the toilet door and a blast of warm air rushed over me, making me want to hole up in there. I thanked him and locked the door. I left the toilet wearing my fluorescent yellow windproof and waterproof jacket over my Vegan Runners hoodie. Leaving the station via the exit on the left to avoid the uncouth boy shouting about his meat, I walked across the road, aiming for the seafront. I’d walked for some minutes before I checked Google Maps and realised I’d headed in the wrong direction.
Passing lots of pubs with people standing outside blowing grey clouds out of their mouths and talking over one another, I felt glad and odd that I was doing something different on this night. Every so often I pulled my mobile out of the pocket on the back of my jacket and checked my location on the map. I’d made my way back to the A259 and was heading out of Eastbourne. The streets became less populated with people and I began to notice my walking rhythm sounds. It dawned on me that the entrance to the South Downs I’d planned to take (having studied Google Maps many times before the trip) was not on the A259, but closer to the sea. However, it seemed more sensible, since I was alone, to keep on the main road for now. My friend’s doubts were lingering in my mind and I could, at least, get a bus if I decided to quit. Reaching a point where there were no street lamps I stopped to put on my hat and the head torch I’d borrowed, and zip up my jacket. Turning on the head torch’s front beam and back light, I hefted my rucksack and marched up the road.
The front beam seemed quite faint but it gave just enough light to see obstacles. At the top of the hill the pavement ended and an entrance to the South Downs beckoned. ‘Should I go off-road here? Or walk on the A259 to Cuckmere Haven?’ As I ventured onto the grass to investigate the terrain, I heard voices laughing and hooting; they sounded drunk and were on the Downs somewhere. I re-joined the road. ‘How visible am I to traffic behind me?’ I got into a rhythm; the sounds of my breath and the rustles of my jacket were comforting but broken every so often by tyres on tarmac, accompanied by bright lights. I learned to keep my vision just in front of my feet as a car approached and the white line painted on the side of the road became a constant guide. I noticed a glow of man-made lights in the distance and stopped. Turning around I saw a similar glow over Eastbourne. In between these two glows, directly above me in a break in the clouds, millions of stars twinkled. I laughed, turned off the head torch and gazed up at them. ‘This is what I came for,’ said the voice in my head.
Switching on the head torch again, I set off and the annoyance I felt at the cars lessened to a minor disturbance. A car slowed to a crawl behind me and my shoulders tightened. I heard the window lower. “You all right?” I turned. Bright yellow and blue shapes painted on the side of the car gave the man inside a sudden authority. “Yes, thanks!” He asked what I was doing and when I explained I was walking to Brighton from Eastbourne he frowned, “why?” “I wanted to do something that didn’t involve alcohol and… stuff… for New Year’s Eve.” After I refused a lift he asked if I could walk on the grass on the other side of the road on account of the light on the back of my head being quite dim. I agreed to this and we waved goodbye. The grass was wet and uneven; my foot landed clumsily about three or four times and I could feel the wet seeping into my socks. I switched back to walking on the left side of the road. ‘Maybe the batteries are low on the torch – I’ll change them at East Dean; not long now’ – I was at the top of the hill and beginning my descent into the village.
At the bottom of the road there was a path leading to a bench at a bus stop. I sat and, using the torch on my phone, I replaced the batteries on the head torch, managing to work out how to open and close the battery compartment. Sitting still invited the cold to curl its fingers around me so off I went with a much stronger front beam.
At the top of the hill the path ended and I plodded along the road again. The night felt colder and more serious. I came across a gate with a sign asking walkers to close it behind them. ‘Ah! This must be a way down to Cuckmere Haven!’ Keeping the fence on my right in my sight I walked until another fence blocked my way. ‘Damn.’ About to turn back, I noticed lots of moving glow-in-the-torch-light-eyes in the next field. I froze and held my breath. “Bloody hell! Sheep!” I laughed. Turning back, I walked through the damp grass to the gate and took once more to the road that led to the bottom of the hill, where the Cuckmere Inn sat next to the river.
My lower back ached a little now. I sat on the low wall opposite the inn and took some water and a sandwich, while determining whether to head alongside the river and over the cliff top or stick to the A259. A couple of cars slowed almost to a stop then drove off again. I imagined them to contain taxi drivers wondering if I needed their services. I didn’t look at them and the sound of their tyres felt like an intrusion. Standing, I pulled on my rucksack and headed for the gate to the cliffs as two men emerged from the pub and slurred words at one another.
The trail was muddy and wider than I remembered from when I’d once cycled it. I’d seen a sign by the inn telling me the river was deep and had strong currents. I made myself stop looking around and keep the torch focused on the ground; if I slipped and hurt an ankle I’d have to either keep going or wrap myself in my orange survival bag; my phone signal was non-existent. I suddenly felt very alone. A rustling in the bush made me gasp; ‘just some creature doing creature-y things. When will I get to the cliff top? Is this actually the right direction? I haven’t seen the river for a while.’ When I looked up and to my left I could see car headlights. ‘Have I somehow crossed the river and am heading back to Eastbourne? Impossible! But is it?’ As the incline increased I heard amplified grey noise. ‘Bloody cars! No, wait! That’s the sea! I can hear the sea!’
With the sea shhushhing on my left in the darkness and no sounds but the glow of man-made lights in the distance on my right, I climbed the first cliff hill. A sign told me the cliff edge is crumbly and “Dangerous”! My heart began to beat a little faster. Stay this side of the marker posts, it told me. ‘I will definitely do that,’ I agreed. There was a fair gap between marker posts but the trail had close cut grass (or should that be bunny-gnawed or foot-cropped?) and either side of it the grass was longer. I kept close to the longer grass as a way of keeping track of the trail. I could hear the sea’s continuous movement and as I reached the hill’s peak, the wind tried to push me inland. Two glowing eyes ahead of me bobbed about then stopped still. ‘What’s a sheep doing here?’ They moved again then disappeared. A few metres later I turned and my torch lit up the cat they belonged to, crouched at the side of the trail. “Meow,” I said to the cat but it didn’t reply.
It was nice being out here, alone in the dark, moving and staying warm, picking my way with care, enough to eat and drink but not too much, millions of stars visible, the sea invisible but making itself heard, no towns, no people, no talking, just one foot in front of the other and occasional decisions about which path to take. I carried on like this and crested the hill at Seaford, then descended to the seafront. The seafront went on and on and on. It was flat and an icy wind blew from the sea. I desperately wanted to sit but I’d be cold in seconds so on I went, back, legs, feet, shoulders aching. Finally the path turned inland and the wind dropped. I continued plodding to the A259 and saw a bus shelter on the right. It had a bench in it but it wasn’t on my path. I veered left. I could see a 1920s art deco building, lit up like a Christmas tree, that I thought might be new – a hotel, perhaps. As I wandered the path by the Nature Reserve I realised it was a ferry, parked in Newhaven Port. All those lights burning brightly hurt my eyes but they’d intrigued me all the way along Seaford beach.
Instead of carrying my rucksack on my back, I tried carrying it on my front, like a baby, and experienced some relief in my shoulders. I held my hands either side of it. Approaching a roundabout I heard a trance bass line thump out, stop, thump out, stop and I wondered where the rave was. There were factory buildings on my right. ‘Is it in one of those? Is it illegal?’ I not-very-seriously considered checking it out. It sounded full on and reminded me of a rave I went to on an industrial estate in Enfield last year. Industrial. Loud. I felt tired. Everything ached. I crossed the roundabout and some people shouted “Happy New Year!” at me; I returned the greeting and one of the boys said, “awww!” I passed another group of people; they were debating the correct pronunciation of a phrase in a foreign language. I crossed the swing bridge. A sign told me pedestrians must stop when the lights flash. I wondered what would happen if a pedestrian was on the bridge when it swung; nothing much, probably.
As I veered left again to head for the cliffs, I found a bench facing the dock. A robin stood on the bench and as I drew near it flew off. Oh, it felt good to sit. The robin perched on a railing in front of me; it chirruped. I’d not heard a robin make noises before. I ate something and drank some water. The robin stood on the path and I took a photo. I could barely see my phone screen properly and couldn’t understand why. Later, at home, I realised I’d inadvertently turned the brightness all the way down; I’d thought my eyes were tired. Cold was creeping in. ‘Time to go. Maybe I should stick to the road in case I need to get the bus or phone a friend to pick me up. But the road is boring.’
Down towards the sea, along the quay I went. I’d been along here on Google Streetview a few times but I’d forgotten whether there was a through road on the bit I was walking. ‘How would I feel about turning around and walking back? I might cry.’ But there was the other road adjoining this one via a roundabout. Turning left towards Newhaven Fort, I trunched up the hill to the car park and beyond to the cliffs.
The wind was a little fiercer now and its friend, rain, came with it. Diagonal rectangles flashed in the light beam and stung my face. The cliff edge was closer to the trail here; at times I was a few feet away and I made little gasps at the closeness of potentially falling over the edge. The edge had a magnetism to it; I kept close to the right-hand side of the trail in case something should leap out of the darkness and drag me over. The lighthouse loomed in front of me with big concrete structures buried in the chalk at its base. I stepped gingerly around it. Its lights looked warm and welcoming but nobody was there. I’d seen a road sign at Newhaven, pointing to Eastbourne with the number “17”. I couldn’t get this out of my head. ‘Have I really only walked 2 miles? That means there are 17 miles left to walk.’ I have no idea how I worked it out like that; it’s 26 miles from Eastbourne to Brighton along the A259.
Between Newhaven and Brighton it’s possible to stay on the cliff top nearly all the way. Eventually rows of houses edged their way towards the path. The walk went on like this for ages: clusters of houses, open field, clusters of houses, open field. Once or twice I had to move to the tarmac because the cliff top was fenced off due to private ownership. By the time my feet were on tarmac I no longer cared about anything other than pushing myself to put one foot in front of the other. I could see a person waiting at a bus stop; ‘the bus must be arriving soon. I could get on it. No. If the bus comes when I’m at the next bus stop, I’ll get on it.’ I turned back to the cliff path; it hurt less than the tarmac. As the next bus stop drew closer I noticed a building hulking out of the ground in the near distance. I reached the bus stop and looked behind me. No bus was visible. I sat on the bench for a moment and drank some water. ‘Next bus stop then.’ Suddenly, I realised the building I could see was St Dunstan’s Home for Blind Veterans. ‘Brighton is close!’ A burst of energy took me past the next bus stop, and on to Roedean Girls’ School, which used to look like Hogwarts until it was painted. Just past Roedean is another bus stop.
I plonk my rucksack on the bench and pull my mobile from my pocket. I take a photo of Brighton and post it on Instagram. It’s 7:06. Looking at the timetable, I can see there’ll be a bus in five minutes. I lean against the shelter to stretch out my legs and in no time at all I see the bus approaching. I stick out my arm and it pulls, rather quickly, into the lay-by and stops about twenty metres away. I try to walk fast, hobbling a little, and use my pass. There are about ten people on the bus. Sitting, my eyelids feel heavy and I’m glad for the lady’s voice telling me the name of each stop we approach. I get off at the Law Courts and cross the road, heading home. I think of home: warm, thick duvet, but everything hurts so I focus on the next step and the next. It doesn’t hurt when I’m focusing on what I need to do right now, when my mind is here and not imagining the future, however cosy and warm that future might be. In this way I arrive home.
My intention for Walking In The New Year was to think about what I liked about 2016 and what I’d like for 2017. I’d imagined I would literally think about those things whilst walking from Eastbourne to Brighton overnight, arriving in Brighton at sunrise with a well-thought out plan for 2017. What actually happened was this: I made a mind map of things I liked about 2016 on the afternoon/evening of New Year’s Eve, then prepared and left to do the walk. I didn’t think about 2017 once during the walk but, since I have a tenacious grip once committed, this was a good thing since it can make me blind to opportunities. Already this year I’ve signed up to some exciting projects that I wouldn’t have thought of on New Year’s Eve. Even though I didn’t spend focused time thinking about 2017 on New Year’s Eve, the time I did spend embodying mindfulness is like a physical representation of what I’d like more of in 2017: I challenged myself to walk alone, in the dark, for 26 miles; I prepared as much as possible for things that could go wrong; I carried on despite others’ less than helpful interactions; I checked my progress against a map and adapted my course as necessary; I adapted to the changing environment; I made decisions that honoured my values; I listened to my body. It was an awesome, meditative start to 2017.