The South Downs Way – Day 6

May 22, 1980: Amberley to Cocking

On Westburton Hill: Bunny Dexter greets some cows.

On Westburton Hill: Bunny Dexter greets some cows.
I used a version of this photo as an illustration in A Walker’s Alphabet.

On Thursday, May 22, sixteen days after stepping aboard the train from Amberley, I returned to this station next to the Chalk Pits Museum and prepared my pack in the station hall –while Bunny Dexter went to get the key to the ladies loo.

We had agreed to undertake this expedition only last evening, at the book launch party for Christopher Walker’s Armenia. I had not had a good night – the party had given me not only a case of tedium magnum but a headache from too much Scotch. Consequently my pre-hike sleeplessness was almost complete, though I do remember falling asleep at 5:00 or so, an hour and a half before my alarm went off. I shaved and taped (back of heel only on these simple expeditions) and had a cup of coffee before alerting Ms. Dexter on the telephone. I was so sleepy that I let the first Morden via Bank train go by before realizing that I wanted a Morden train myself. At Victoria I noticed that the Bognor train had been rescheduled since I last checked and would leave at 8:00 instead of 8:05. But Bunny arrived at 7:50 – as she had been told to do – and we were off. She read a series of newspaper clippings on the titled British jet set and added personal anecdotes. I stared dazedly out the window, wondering if there would be rain.

The day remained dry and there was even unexpected sunshine throughout the morning. Now, our walk underway at last, there was quite a wind racing through the valley of the Arun – which we crossed via a bridge to Houghton. We turned north next to a thatched cottage and Bunny ran down a hill in her blue Adidas – “just to get the blood circulating.” Mine was also dormant. We hadn’t had any breakfast so we agreed to stop for a snack at the first comfortable spot in Combe Wood above us. Bunny gave me a pickled egg, a portion of which I managed to lodge in my windpipe. “Did you know,” she asked me as I continued to cough sporadically, “that next to steak most people choke to death on eggs?” I drank a little Diet Pepsi.

We moved on past a huge pile of stable muck and reached the A29. We crossed this and walked over Westburton Hill. “The path now climbs very steeply,” Jennett says, and he was right. Half way up I began to feel very weak and winded and when I reached the gentler ascending track I had to lie on my back for a few minutes to collect myself. I felt a little like vomiting, but didn’t. Bunny made a speech about palpitations being good for you and insisted that we rest whenever I felt bad again, but I was soon better. A couple of other times on ascents I felt rather unwell but it was usually worse stopping than just pushing slowly on.

We passed the stone honoring the master of the Cowdray Hounds and crossed the top of Bignor Hill. Then we walked down to Stane Street and uphill again. Partly because of my lack of concentration and partly because of inadequate signposting we missed a turn on our descent to Littleton Farm, though we could see it before us at all times. In consequence we probably added an extra half-mile before we reached the A285. The views were all very lovely, though still not as clear as Day Three, and our gazing off into the distance may also have contributed to our inattention to waymarks. A long and steep ascent of Littleton Downs now followed. I took it at a slow and steady pace and did much better than I had a few hours earlier.

We decided to have lunch in the first of the summit woods, among the beech trees. It was a delightful spot. I had to open a can of sardines for our sandwiches but managed to keep the oil off everything but my hands. “Why is this roll so damp?” I asked Bunny. “Because I soaked it in water this morning in order to freshen it,” she replied. She was drinking a can of lager from Papua New Guinea (which she had snapped up in a jumble sale somewhere); I drank a Heinekens. We only tarried about 20 minutes before packing up again. From this point on I did much better. Even my feet seemed to have escaped any new blisters.

We walked over Graffham Down, Heyshott Down, and Manorfarm Down. Sometimes we were surrounded by the woods but at other times the hillcrests had been cleared of foliage for planting. There were occasional views and so one did not feel too claustrophobic. Bunny picked wildflowers and talked incessantly about her dieting problems. There were many pheasants about and once I saw a big brown owl flying through the woods in front of us, a rare daylight sighting.  I could see we would easily make the 3:52 bus from Cocking. As we descended Manorfarm Down there were good views of Cocking Hill and the route for Day Seven.

It was not particularly pleasant walking down to Cocking village on the busy A286. There was no verge and one felt a compulsion to throw oneself into nettles whenever a petrol lorry or a caravan hove into sight. In Cocking we sat in the town park, a green with beautiful chestnut trees in pink blossom. I bought a postcard and a mint-choc ice. The bus, again full of school kids in uniform, took about 30 minutes to reach the Chichester bus station as we headed south along the same highway we had just used to reach Cocking.  We had plenty of time to walk to the Chichester railroad station next door. In the loo I got rid of the last of the sardine juice on my hands. Our train arrived at 4:39. I took some aspirin, my headache almost gone.

We both dozed a bit on the two-hour journey, which again passed a field full of rabbits north of Amberley. At Victoria I stopped by a closed office of British Airways and then Bunny accompanied me home so that she and Dorothy could pick up a sit com script they had been working on this spring. I felt better at the end of this day than I had the last time out.

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

Day 7: Cocking Down to Buriton