I am driving Nina part way to Hastings to visit her dad, and we decide we will stop off for a walk, despite the gruesome weather. The chosen destination is Firle Beacon, a place with which we are vaguely familiar, from when Nina did the South Downs Way in 2020. It is the usual landscape, green rolling hills, a metallic structure at the peak for lord knows what, three hundred and sixty degree views, and miles and miles of country paths. Normally, you would be able to see the sea just east of Brighton, and look across to the other rolling hills of Ditchling beacon, as well as a smattering of villages and farms in all directions.
But today it is misty, and blustery, and I do not think I will see much. I am still in my post-operative recovery, ten weeks after my second hip operation, and I feel fragile on country paths. It is the mud, boot-sole-thick and squelchy, glassy and treacherous. I cannot afford to slip, so I have a stick with me, to steady my stride, and help me if I feel my feet about to slide from beneath me.
Nina gets out of the car first, as is her way, and is already stomping off with the dog in the opposite direction to the way I intend to walk. I am slow to get out of the car, used to shortening the length of walk I undertake to thirty minutes or thereabouts, and it has become a routine for me to loiter in the car for a few minutes, sometimes even longer, driven by my annoying but habitual need to check my phone, or time-waste by playing a game. Today, I am simply gathering belongings – hats, gloves, coat, the stick, but I have become slow and elderly in the way I move, and Nina is already at the first gate on the other side of the car park by the time I emerge. She is going against the wind, and later tells me she could feel it pushing her on.
So now I am out of the car and looking about me. I am not well dressed. I still cannot do up my lace-up walking shoes, and I am wearing corduroy trousers – they’re cotton, a lethal fabric to hill walkers, as they absorb and retain water, and make you more liable to suffering from exposure. I still have all the gear from when I did a lot of walking – the South Coast Path, the Thames Path challenge, Iceland, but I am not wearing any of it today. Nevertheless, I think it unlikely that I will be out long enough, or far enough away from civilization to risk any potentially harmful or long lasting chilling.
And cold it is. There is a wind blowing full force into my face, the occasional peck of an icy hailstone bullet grazing my cheek. I really am being sliced and soaked by a brutal sky. Still, I have layers. First I zip up my fleece, then the inner zip of my coat, and I carry on through the first gate onto the grassy path towards the beacon. But it is not enough. I can feel my cheeks drying and lips chapping. The cheap wool beenie, whilst holding my hair out of the churning wind, is not enough to keep me warm, so I stop for a moment to zip up the out layer of my coat, over my throat, so that the hood sits protectively and snuggly around my face.
Suddenly all external sound in muted. I am cosseted by the cosy fake fur of my hood, all too aware of the rhythmic rasp of my breath, and with a muffled warmth surrounding by head. I feel cocooned, and safe. The wind is roaring around me, so strong that it is buffeting me around, and I struggle to hold my ground. I imagine being lifted, like Mary Poppins, though never so elegant, into the clouds.
There are people in front of me, a large family with their sprightly dog, who it seems to me covers at least twice the distance of their walk, and people coming in the opposite direction.
‘It’s windier at the top,’ advises one friendly fellow walker, alert to my stick and wanting to warn me of potential peril. But I am exhilarated and in no mood to stop.
‘I’ll lie down in it then, and let it carry me aloft,’ I reply and laugh. He smiles back, and I continue my slow lumber up the hillside.
The legs of my trousers are flapping, but I am warm inside my thick padded coat. I am vaguely aware of the irritating slide of my hat down my forehead and into my eyes, and I am eying the ground keenly for hazards.
But despite this sense of physical irritation, and the constant alertness to potential pitfalls, I feel strangely calm. The wind is driving angrily around me. Hail is still occasionally mauling my face. I feel vulnerable, only one stumble away from possible dislocation. Nature is forceful and punishing, and I am fragile and mortal, small and insignificant. And yet I am at peace amidst the turmoil. I am enjoying this wild wetness, and the turbulence of the elements.
Sometimes I count, focusing on the rhythm of my steps, to gauge the distance travelled. It was a habit I developed when I was training and the miles seemed endless; and one that I nurtured when distances were a fraction of my prior achievements, but goaded me on, just an extra hundred steps, just an extra five minutes, and helped me when the pain of the arthritis was unbearable – with the ‘just another…’ mentality pushing forwards. And I have counted during recovery, to help me know that I am improving, that I am getting stronger. First the eight hundred steps around the local park, then the number of steps from lamppost to lamppost, to the local shop, to Chichester. But today, as I battle against the wind and find my stride, I do not count. I attend. To the rhythm of my breath, to the pound of my steps, to the wail of the wind, to the slice of the rain, to the roll of the hills and the shafts of light fanning, like signs from beyond that all will be well, out of a dark and gloomy cloud. And I find a place of peace and tranquillity.