Up the Downs

The South Downs Way

As I’m planning on doing a certain epic, continent-spanning pants-shitting bear-dodging mother-fudging long distance hike next year, I thought it prudent to get in a couple of training walks before I go. You know, trying to get used to carrying all my gear, figuring out a comfortable pace, and forgoing all the usual things that society makes you do when you live in it, like showering. Stupid society. My destination this time was the South Downs, a beautiful stretch of hills located south of the North Downs, west of Eastbourne and north of, well, the sea. The South Downs Way runs from Winchester to Eastbourne along the escarpment, and it was of this trail that I decided to do a section.As seems to be a running theme with my London-adjacent trips, actually getting there was a bloody nightmare. The legendarily useless Southern Rail, which runs many of the train services to Brighton and the surrounding area, lived up to their corporate ethos of not only sucking harder at their jobs than the Human Torch in an ice cream van,but actively resenting you for daring to want to travel by train. But dare I did, and make it I did, eventually, to Shoreham-by-Sea, which would allow me to use the Downs Link, a path joining the South and North Downs Ways, to reach the trail.The Downs Link was a pretty cool start to the journey. Tightening upthe endless straps on my backpack and severely regretting the number of layers (another running theme, stupid Scandinavian genes) in thewarm summer breeze, the Link took me north along the River Adur, passing the imposing Gothic mass of Lancing College and apost-apocalyptic dilapidated bus

In Soviet Russia, bus catch you

depot before dumping me out at the South Downs Way. I joined the trail more or less at the village ofUpper Beeding, and then headed east up the Downs. The Way is one of 16 recognised National Trails in the UK, and one of the shorter ones at that. The section I was attempting was only about 24 miles over 2 days, but I’d made the mistake of giving myself deadlines, one to makethe campsite before it closed, and one to make it to my train thefollowing day, so I felt the clock ticking from the moment I startedup the hill.

You said it, vandals

Heading up the valley and over the rolling hills, to my right I couldsee Brighton and the English Channel beyond it, and to my left was the great plain of the Weald. There was an air show happening down the coast so the skies were filled with the occasional buzz of antique helicopters, and there was a spine-tingling moment where a squadron of Hawker Hurricanes flew over. It was Saturday so the trail was crowded with people on mountain bikes or walking dogs, and as I made it to Devil’s Dyke, it felt more like I was at the beach than on a long hike. Frankly, guys, you’re harshing my buzz with your kids and your loudness. Devil’s Dyke, a dramatic dry valley either carved out by glacial meltwater or by Satan himself fannying around with a spade depending on who you ask, was a hugely popular attraction in the Victorian era, and it seems like not much has changed. I stuck to thetrail and moved swiftly on.Moving over hills, down into valleys, and through the lovely villages of Saddlescombe and Pyecombe, saying hello to cows and walkers alike, even dealing with a spontaneous lip bleed, once the crowds cleared I was having a whale of a time. I caught a glimpse of Jack and Jill on the crest of a hill, a pair of windmills that have been there since the 19th century, and headed straight for them. I passed through a working stable and witnessed a horse fight (which was epic I have tosay), before cutting down the hill and finding my campsite for theevening, Southdown Caravan and Camping near the village of Ditchling (I’d highly recommend it to anyone doing the South Downs Way).I suppose I should be somewhat informational, so here’s a mini tentreview as an interlude. My tent of choice is the Wild Country Zephyros 2, super light at 1.69kg, super cheap at £120, and super easy to put up (after a bit of practice). My top tip: don’t use a folded up shirt as a pillow, you’ll have a terrible night’s sleep and a crumpled shirt. This isn’t Wild Country’s fault really, but I’m blaming them anyway. 8.5 out of 10.I awoke early the next day to make it the 10 miles to the station intime for my train. My phone had died the night before so I wasn’t able to take any photos, but I’ll try and paint you a mental picture of my view once I was back on the trail. Close your eyes and imagine a field of wheat gently rustling in the breeze, running down into a peaceful valley fringed by trees and a windmill jauntily keeping watch in the distance. Now open your eyes again. Surprise bitch, I just stole your wallet whilst you weren’t looking. I had this planned all along. Don’t trust anyone motherfucker.Anyway, the views early on the second day were actually lovely, as the trail took me through Ditchling Nature Reserve where I again befriended some cows, and down through a picturesque arable valley where the wheat stretched to the horizon. Unfortunately, as I descended the wind began to pick up, and as I climbed up to Castle Hill the rain started as well. Ah well, it was good #training, as a certain fellow hiker would say. As the weather worsened, I kept ascending, and things started to take on a decidedly Wuthering Heightsian vibe. Silent figures passed me in the murk, and a pair of horses and riders flashed past me at full gallop. Heathcliff, it’s me, I’m freezing my balls off. Luckily, the trail started heading downhilland the town of Lewes, my final destination came into sight. With adamp bag and aching feet, I trudged to the train station with 5minutes to spare. Overall, a pretty damned good weekend I’d say.

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Adventures on the Isle of Skye

The Isle of Skye in the Inner Hebrides in Scotland is not exactly where you’d expect to find an American band yelling at a room full of Americans in an American-owned bar, but the world is a surprisingly small place.

Saucy Mary’s (the bar was named after a historical noblewoman who’d use a glimpse of her ‘neeps and tatties’ to tip local ferryman. This tradition has sadly not continued. I checked.) was the decidedly non-local spot in the small port town of Kyleakin in southern Skye, full to the brim every night with Americans, Spanish, Chinese, and of course, drunk

Saucy Marys
Saucy Mary’s and one of its beardy patrons

geologists, of whom I counted myself a member. The local Skye beer and a particularly liberal waitress kept everyone suitably lubricated, so of course when the American band ‘Highland Reign’ came by we couldn’t resist a good knees up, never mind that they’d only decided to be Scottish a month beforehand (being Irish wasn’t lucrative enough apparently). “We’re from Indiana!” they yelled at a room full of people who were presumably also from Indiana, considering they arrived on the same bus and were part of the same tour. “Woooooo” they yelled back. The beer flowed, dancing was done and friends were made.

 

Broadford rainbow
Rainbow over Broadford Bay

So Skye wasn’t exactly what I’d expected. I’d imagined being in a tiny stone cottage in front of a roaring fire, eating porridge three times a day and living in the company of dour Islanders for weeks. In actual fact, the Wifi was pretty fast, and the Coop supermarket over the bridge to the mainland sold four different types of hummus. Just to the north of Kyleakin was the town of Broadford, which had an even bigger Coop and a lovely selection of cafes. There was a steady flow of tour buses pumping out international visitors, and the only Islander we met for the almost the entire trip was the gruff but begrudgingly friendly chef in the hotel, whose dislike of rowdy southern guests was second only to that of giving them a meal with any flavour.

 

Still, if you want wilderness, jagged peaks, swooping valleys and hidden tarns, you could do worse than a trip to Skye. Its volcanic past has given it a startling topography, with the Eastern Red Hills and Black Cuillins jostling for supremacy of the skyline. The Cuillins are comprised of a dark, grippy rock called gabbro that is perfect for climbers, making the range a haven for mountaineers and other pursuers of the outdoor arts. In winter, there are even some pretty hairy ice climbs to be found. The island is also full of wildlife, and we saw sea otters, seals, and a whole bunch of birds of prey, and driving at night you’ll often catch sight of deer’s eyes glinting in the darkness.

Cuillins and Red Hills
The Red Hills (left) come up against the jagged ridge of the Black Cuillins (right)

Situated on the West Coast of Scotland, and connected to the mainland by a bridge, the best way to reach Skye is from Inverness, all the way on the other side of Scotland. Inverness is easily reached by plane or train, and once there you can either hire a car or take one of the most beautiful train journeys in the world to the Kyle of Lochalsh, just over the bridge from Skye. Hiring a car will take you along the shore of the vast Loch Ness, which runs as deep as the hills that pile around it, through mountain passes and past the sites of ancient battles before spitting you out on the west coast. Skye has plenty of hotels and AirBnBs to choose from, though be warned, its desirability as a tourist destination has pushed prices up in recent years.

ExpeditionIf you do have the luxury of a car, a road trip around the island is a must, especially if you don’t have much time to explore. Only 65 miles from southern to northern tip, Skye can easily be explored by car over a couple of days, giving you time to take in the breathtaking scenery (quite literally in some cases, as steep hills and high winds abound) and find some of the more secluded spots. Breweries and a whiskey distillery can be found for the sauce-lovers, and there are a million and one hikes to be done that range from an amble over the moor to a full-blown expedition.

I was in Skye for a geology trip, so I managed to get a good look at most of the island, though more often than not from the minibus rather than a decent hike which I would have greatly preferred. Geologists are a quite a fun and earnest bunch, and luckily the considerable amount of geology terms that can be turned into double entendres meant that any mention of ‘intrusions’, ‘extrusions’ or ‘fingering in and out’ was guaranteed to have laughs for the rest of the day. Striding across a moor to try to find a particular type of rock does have its charms, though the endless stopping, starting and measuring meant a bit of frustration for the hikers among us. And the nightly drinks meant that there had to be the occasional minibus stop for ‘fresh air’ (or a quick hurl against the back tires), and brains and legs were both a lot slower than they could have been.

Heast moor]
One of our mapping areas in the south-west of the island (not pictured: massive rainstorm about to hit us)

One activity that we did that I would highly recommend is a boat trip into Loch Scavaig

Cuillin boat
Land ho! (Seasickness not pictured)

in the very centre of the Cuillins. Get yourself to the tiny port of the sinisterly-named Elgol on the north-west of the island, and find yourself a salty sea-captain to take you across the bay and into the Loch. For an even better experience, don’t do this on your last day on the island when only a few hours beforehand you were still in the pub getting leathered. Please. Please don’t do this. It will make everything so much better. The salty sea-captain and his first mate will laugh at you and the chances of you sending Davy Jones last night’s dinner will be very much increased.

 

A short but possibly wet and cold trip will take you into the mouth of Loch Scavaig, past swooping terns and basking seals (supposedly whales and dolphins are spotted sometimes out to sea but they must also have been hungover during our trip) and

Grey seal
This little guy!

back onto dry land. This is the site of the River Scavaig that links Loch Scavaig and the bay with Loch Coruisk in the Cuillin centre, and at a couple of hundred metres in length is the shortest river in the country. Walking to the centre involves quite a scramble up the rocks and across the river, but the view is utterly worth it. The eroded core of an ancient magma chamber, the Cuillin ridge is dark and imposing, and I’m sure for many climbers a very tempting prospect.

 

Loch Scavaig
Loch Coruisk and the Cuillin Ridge behind.

There are several walks around the Loch, and routes up and over the ridge for the stout of heart and leg. Whilst we were there an icy Arctic wind was whipping down from the mountains, and the collective hangover meant that spirits were fragile to say the least, so we contented ourselves with examining the incredible mineralogy of the rocks (Labradorite crystals the size of a matchbox if you’re interested!) and then hiding behind boulders from the wind. The boat comes several times a day so you can spend a good few hours in the centre, and even camp overnight if you have the equipment. Nursing our heads and souls, we returned to Elgol.

Skye really was unforgettable, a little slice of wilderness on the edge of our island nation.

View from the bridge

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