When was the last time you went walking without a destination? The last time you left the map at home and found your way by following the paths that were most inviting - a cool green tunnel, a mysterious line of steps, the hint of a sea view, the promise of wildflowers?
In the hot June sun, mapless above the rooftops of Hastings Old Town, I’m faced with a decision: which way? Swallows dart overhead and the clouds bloom white and pale grey, like the sky from an old railway promo poster. I head for the top of East Hill, past the icecream truck and a small hollow filled with reeds and yellow flag irises, and find a west-facing bench to eat my lunch. Halfway through my baguette, I look up and see that Eastbourne has disappeared. By the time I’ve finished, Bexhill has vanished and a dark ribbon is moving across the sea towards me. Church bells carry on the wind, sounding an alarm. I hear the distant rumble of thunder.
I don my raincoat and set off to explore. It feels high and bleak, perhaps all the more so because it was in full sun only minutes before. The stormfront cuts across the sky, stretching out over the channel to a smudged horizon. A fat, sludgy raindrop hits me on the back of the head. I follow rabbit highways through fields towards the shelter of a young oak. The sound of the rain increases in volume and deepens in timbre from shishi-shishi-shishi on the grass to tosha-tosha-tosha as I approach the trees.
I find a bench and watch birds, unfazed by the weather, wheeling around of the cliffs on the other side of Ecclesbourne Glen. Lightning sparks. A monster crack of thunder makes the ground tremble underfoot. A boat races against the storm towards Hastings, white sails pale against the cloud. I’m glad I’m not on board.
And then, as quickly as it began, the storm abates, leaving the air fresh with petrichor - the smell of soil after rain. I head up to Rocklands Lane and further into Hastings Country Park. Here, the grass grows lumpy with dock and thistle, the latter festooned with cuckoo spit. Trails dive into the brambles, masked by nettles, buttercups and cleavers. I follow one into the scrub, ducking under an arch of blackthorn and ash, to find a hidden shelter. Another leads into a world of ferns and tiny waterfalls, submerged in shadow.
Wandering without aim, I follow a path awash with pink campions and emerge in another clifftop field. Redheaded sorrel waves in the wind and troupes of tall ribwort plantain, the seedheads in flower tutus, bend gracefully above the grass. Looking back towards Hastings, I see I’m on the other side of Ecclesbourne Glen: here are the gulls wheeling and the jackdaws flicking and diving on the wind. Beyond the safety fence, sea pinks cling to the cliff edge. I lie down for a moment to listen to the sea on the rocks far below. Half an hour later, I wake up.
I meander a little further east, but soon feel like it’s time to turn home. Cutting through the woods, I follow paths that could be human but might just as well be made by deer. At one point I find myself walking amid slow swirls of hawthorn petal confetti - May is over and her flowers are falling.
Back on East Hill, there’s a point at which it seems the grassy path could carry me straight into the sea. This is one of those invitations that can never live up to its promise, I think - a soft road onto a wide plain that shimmers green as mermaids. And yet, when it is time to leave, that is the path I take. What better way to go?
A shorter version of this article first appeared as "A mapless meander across the Firehills" in the Battle Observer, Friday 12 June 2015, page 60. I've been publishing a walk every month in the Battle Observer (and affiliate papers) since October 2014.
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