The South Downs Way – Day 4

April 16, 1980: Hassocks to Steyning

Pyecombe Church

Pyecombe Church

Day four of my SDW quest began at 7:00 on the morning of Wednesday, April 16, 1980. After the usual night-before restlessness I got up to shave and dress and phone my partner for the day, the aforementioned Bunny Dexter. I made good connections to Victoria, where Bunny soon caught up with me, and, since we were somewhat early we bought tickets for the 8:30 instead of the 8:40 train. With the usual B.R. inefficiency we arrived at our destination on time ­– for the 8:40.

Bunny Dexter was one of our closest friends in my sabbatical year, 1979-1980. This was not her first hike but I was happy to have this opportunity of introducing her to the more formalized experience of the long-distance footpath. It was my way of repaying her for her many kindnesses, particularly for her enterprise in supervising the social life of two innocents aboard. To this day there is practically no one I know in London whom I can’t trace back to someone Bunny introduced us to at one of her many cocktail parties that year.

On the train she read her Daily Mail and the previous Sunday’s Observer, identified wildflowers out the window, and cooked up two more social weekends involving people she was reading about in her papers. Another woman, claiming to have been menaced by a ticket guard at Victoria, reported the incident to everyone in our carriage before borrowing the Mail. We detrained at Hassocks, two weeks to the day after my last trip – but Tony’s stick was no longer leaning against the building. Bunny insisted on a pit stop before we began so we went into a tiny grocery store and bought doughnuts, which we munched on the road to Clayton.

The weather was dry and warm, but hazy – with poor visibility. I took off my coat in Clayton and spent the rest of the day in a short-sleeved shirt, an unusual luxury for this time of year. The stretch uphill along the road after Clayton (I had decided not to use the “bridleway” and muckpath back up to the windmills) was unpleasant – since there was neither sidewalk nor verge and the traffic whizzed by at great speed. Furthermore we were walking beneath a noisy rookery and narrowly missed being taken for two passing blobs of toilet paper.

It wasn’t long before we found the turnoff for Jack and Jill, the windmills. When we reached them (actually heading east, the opposite direction for this day’s twelve-mile march) we turned south and reached New Barn Farm – before turning west again by a golf course where an elderly duffer was practicing his putts. Almost doubling back we now crossed our original highway, the A273, and passed through Pyecombe (for which you can read “gnat-infested valley”) – the former shepherd’s crook capital of West Sussex. The churchyard had a marvelous display of daffodils and, indeed, many of the private houses had wonderful gardens in full bloom today.

There followed a long and tedious ascent of West Hill, a rather bare eminence with little vegetation; in fact, the scenery was decidedly second rate today, with restricted views and the brown flinty soil still showing through planted fields. After we had reached the top we helped a girl get a horse through a gate. I pulled out my compass to get my only reading of the day – since some of the fences and hedges mentioned in the guidebook had disappeared since publication.

We began a descent to Saddlescombe, going through a wire gate that knicked me on the knee while I wasn’t looking. Cows gazed at us balefully. Once we had to climb an iron gate whose latch seemed to have jammed. After Saddlescombe there was another long climb up to the Devil’s Dyke Hotel – where we were to have lunch at the mid-point of our walk. It was getting hot. The path was too close to the road and full of litter. At the head of the dyke we met a little old lady with a red macintosh, gray beard, and knapsack. She asked us how to reach Poynings.

The beer at the hotel tasted good. I had a pint and a half and changed my film. Bunny ate a cottage pie and I had a baloney and pickle sandwich, a cigar, and an aspirin. Someone brought in an Abyssinian cat on lead; the hotel cat was already patrolling the bar counter. At a nearby table a granddad became interested in my Jennett. “Heading toward Hampshire or Eastbourne?” he asked. Then he told us about some things to look for on our route.

At 1:00 we shoved off again. The sun was coming through a hole in the clouds, but it was rather still and the visibility remained poor. Sweat poured into my eyes as we trudged over the next four hills on dry tracks. I guess it was better to be marching over this boring stretch with lager-fuel, but somehow it didn’t help enough.

Bunny, who kept worrying that she would poop out, did extremely well, and was often in front of me. Once or twice she actually broke into a jog. She described all of her previous hiking trips, each memorable because it followed a busted romance. She also discussed her distaste for Coronation Street (where all the characters were impossibly working class). None of them would ever be invited to a Bunny Dexter party. Hansel and Gretl left breadcrumbs behind in order to retrace their steps; Bunny would have to rely on all those names she dropped.

Scenery improved a bit at Truleigh Hill, where some farms, a posh youth hostel, and a few pine trees broke the tedium. We began a long trudge down to the Adur, where we had our second rest, a five-minute Mars break. Then it was past Botolph’s church and up through beautiful Annington, with more outstanding gardens on one side and manurial counterblasts on the other. At the top of the hamlet we left the SDW and headed for Steyning, passing some battery hens a-laying and a field full of cows who stampeded down to us in the vain belief that Bunny’s pink and purple bag was a new delicacy.

We reached Steyning at about 3:45 and strolled its charming and very ancient streets for a few minutes. Bunny bought us warm Diet Pepsis at the International market and we consumed these while waiting for the bus to Shoreham. When it arrived we went upstairs and were soon joined by half of the school children of Steyning, some of whom were discussing their early addiction to fags. One young lady was excited by the prospect of a Dallas spinoff, which she called “Knots on the Land.” Thus I first encountered one of my wife’s future TV favorites, Knots Landing.

At Shoreham we had about a ten-minute wait on the platform before stepping aboard a fast train to London. Too fast. The sun, the beer, the exertion, and the bouncing ride combined to give me a splitting headache. The rocking train didn’t help my stomach any either. Once or twice I managed to doze off. At 6:00 we reached Victoria and parted; I made good time on the tube, where my head gradually cleared. As usual I inched my way up to 6B, anxious to show off my new tan and ready to drink half a bottle of Quosh.

To continue with the next stage of the walk you need:

Day 5: Beeding to Amberley