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Seaside Special - Ramblin' Men: East Sussex Part 2

“That might be nice”, said Mrs A. “Find a nice little B&B up on the South Downs for an overnight stop”.

Bryn had e-mailed me a link to a British Heart Foundation page about a London to Brighton walk over a Summer weekend in 2015. It did indeed sound appealing. Tough going, but over a couple of days, probably achievable.

A short stroll to the beach...

On further investigation, the challenge seemed a tad tougher than Mrs A and I had initially thought. The idea was to depart from south London on Saturday morning and arrive in Brighton on Sunday afternoon, having trekked through the night. BHF had filed this little trip under their ‘extreme events’ section, described as ‘The ultimate walking challenge. Up to 30 hours to walk 100k from London to Brighton’.

It was either trepidation about rambling across Box Hill in the dark with only a head torch to stave off an 80 foot plunge that finally put Mrs A off; or the prospect of me, Bryn, Ad and Ben talking about cricket averages for a day and a half. Either way, she instead decided to volunteer her services as support crew during our marathon adventure. A grand gesture, the full implications of which only revealed themselves during the event. 

The training went well: first my right knee twinged a bit, then the heel felt sore, finally the left knee began to wobble. The whole house had a faint smell of embrocation.

Still, I’d sorted the sock strategy. A new pair every 10 miles would be the answer. It would keep the feet fresh, apparently, and was the best prevention against blisters. On reading the event guidance, we discovered that there would be masseurs on the course, too. Fantastic, though anyone who wanted to put their fingers anywhere near my feet would require lead-lined gloves and a carefully worded life insurance policy. 

All sorts of help would be available ‘out there’. Ben provided some excellent advice on lubricants, gels and sprays that he found on a website somewhere. I’ll say no more.

How do you really train properly for a 100km walk? Even to get close to halfway (let alone two-thirds as you might do in marathon training) would take over ten hours. The four of us joined up once for a group trial hike before the big day. We rambled from Battersea to Richmond and then through the park and finished with a welcoming plate of sausage and mash in a pub in Norbiton. We suspected pubs serving sausage and mash would not be part of the BHF support package. 

Bryn was Team Leader (the trek was his mad, inspired idea) and he took seriously the task of organising our ramshackle band into a lean and hungry team. Walking past the practising boat crews around Putney and Hammersmith, Bryn was keenly eyeing coxes brandishing megaphones. “Step it up Davoski!” he rehearsed through funnelled fingers. Thankfully, the rest of the team were on the same page about this policy. Brynaldo would be involuntarily breaking wind through a megaphone pretty sharply, should one be produced on the day.

Some sensible ground rules began to emerge about language and motivation. Banned phrases included ‘Are we nearly there yet, Dad?’, ‘I could murder a pint’ and ‘Is there a kebab shop near here?’ No-one was allowed to say ‘Shut the f**k up!’ until at least all the pleasantries about the weather and personal well-being had been exhausted.

One training walk locally rewarded me with wonderful views from the Ridgway escarpment through ancient beech woodland and across the Aylesbury Plain. I had set out deliberately late and Ivinghoe Beacon was deserted as the declining sun lit up a busy canopy of scudding clouds revealing deepening hues of blue.  Maybe this walk idea wasn’t so insane, I thought. I foresaw passing Hardy-esque commentaries as the 100k route took us through some of the finest landscape in southern England.

On the way back over Pitstone Hill, I heard a double crack echo round the otherwise silent, gloaming landscape. Peering up to the ridge I spied a large-set man framed against the sunset with the unmistakeable silhouette of a shotgun crooked over his arm. He was stood on the footpath and had been blasting at rabbits running through the meadow.

Dangerous game this trekking I thought. I shouted and waved to him and then pointed in the direction I was going. He looked at me, said nothing and after a moment simply stalked off down the slope, clearly begrudging my trespassing into his personal shooting gallery. Thank God I wasn’t wearing my lucky bunny-ears baseball hat.

I made a mental note to check the BHF trek guidance about the stewarding of rabbit shooting. The night was closing in by the time I approached Tring station. My phone rang. It was Mrs A who was taking a break in Tenerife with her sister.

“Have you lost the dog then?”

“No”, I said with that rising inflection that turns a denial into a question. “Er, I don’t think so. Maybe… Yes I suppose so then. Oh God, what’s happened?”

“I’ve had a call from a chap in Castle Street who’s got her. He rang the number on her collar.”

Oh. Oh dear. Technically I hadn’t lost Nuca the Tibetan Terrier-cross because she was in the charge of Daughter No 1. But in the scheme of things, there was no question where the ultimate responsibility lay.

In a co-ordinated international family rescue that the Tracy Clan would have been proud of, Mrs A texted me the number of a bloke in Berko who had the dog. I rang him to say I’d collect her in about 20 minutes. He had already called the house to say he would drop the dog off but was worried that she wouldn’t get in his car!

I then rang Daughter No 1 to tell her I’d collect the errant dog. It took me ages to get hold of her. She had been out looking for Nuca and was in pieces when I spoke to her. It seemed that one of her friends let the back gate open and the dog simply strolled out!

I got off the train and quick-stepped into the cul-de-sac where the dog rescuers were patiently waiting with Nuca. “The little scamp!” I said to them. Or words approximating to that general effect. I felt so guilty and thanked them profusely, returning next day with the lead I borrowed and a big box of Quality Street, like on the advert.

So the training was going well. I ordered some pukka walking kit to see if that would make me feel the part. It worked! The postie delivered multiple pairs of grippy merino wool socks, a ‘wick-away’ long sleeved base layer (I think that meant it was a t-shirt) and a breathable half-zip top with holes in the cuffs for my thumbs. Oh, and a nice purple 10l backpack that I soon lost to any of the girls in the house. Sorted. All the gear, no idea…

All the gear, no idea

I began to ramp up the sponsorship, too. "The BHF really do some excellent work. Heart disease is the UK’s biggest killer," I blogged. "It is entirely possible that some of the resources we are aiming to raise money for will be required to carry us over the line. Defibrillators en route, we are hoping.”

The trek itself proved to be a monumental struggle. Crossing the line was an emotional moment. More so than I had anticipated. Mrs A had spotted us traversing the track at Brighton racecourse from some way out and was waving furiously. It was wonderful to have someone there to welcome us home.

At that moment, the flagfall on this epic walk had seemed like a lifetime ago. In fact it was only the morning before when Mrs A had whisked me down to the team rendezvous at Ben’s house. There was time for a nervous cup of tea and conversations about kit and medications that just served to spook us more. Ad and I compared notes on the underwhelming support from our offspring. “It’s just walking”, had said Daughter No 2, “you’re always walking!”

The registration hall at Kempton racecourse was buzzing. Good humoured BHF staff kitted us out with maps, t-shirts, head torches and first aid packs. Mrs A then departed home in order to rest up before meeting us that evening for some intensive moral and practical support.

About 500 walkers left Kempton in three waves. The initial procession through suburbia along narrow pavements soon gave way to an exceedingly pleasant stroll by the river. Ad met his new girlfriend somewhere near Twickenham and she joined us for a few miles.

Some of those departees were seriously determined trekkers. More than 24 hours later, as we were struggling over some testing inclines in deepest Sussex, a steward told us that the first people to complete the course had run most of it to finish at about 11.30pm.

There were some vaguely amusing scenes at Check Point 1, the Anchor pub in Pyrford. Saturday lunchtime diners found their beer garden festooned with hundreds of red-shirted walkers bearing foot spray, sun cream and Lucozade.

The support and advice from stewards, staff and paramedics was absolutely wonderful throughout the event, from logistical information to motivational words and medical interventions. Brilliant.

In the next phase, Ben broke out his stonking eight-round quiz with jokers, wildcards and additional rules made up on the hoof. Fantastic. It sustained us through a lot of miles.

I knew Bryn would win. I just knew. Many years ago he secured a pub quiz victory for us by unearthing obscure facts about the personal habits of Homer Simpson. He has quality form.

I let myself down by confusing Derby winner Ruler Of The World with Master Of The Universe (I was in the right ball park!) and describing everything about the ownership, trainer, colours, price and form (including a Catterick prep victory) of Grand National winner Ballabrigs, without actually recalling his actual name! I blame muscle fatigue.

Ad’s concentration inevitably slipped when he was responding to the stream of text messages from his new girlfriend.

The trek began to feel real after Checkpoint 2 at 32km (20 miles or so). We’d all walked further in training, but not in such hot weather. The distance from the first to the second checkpoint was more than 15km and we had probably made a mistake by not stopping in between. No damage done, but we were already more tired than expected.

Thoughts turned to sustaining our physical durability. I’d nicked a clear plastic Ted Baker medicine bag from Daughter No 2 and considered it to be the finest example in our group. She had used it to house her collection of 20-odd lip balms assembled over many years. Ironically this was the one thing I forgot to pack and I suffered chapped lips deep into the trek.

Hardly a medical emergency I’ll grant you. The aching joints were more of a priority. It was checkpoint 5 before I resorted to a paracetomol/ibuprofen cocktail. Combined with a strong coffee that Mrs A was queuing for before we even emerged into the dark car park of the industrial estate, it provided a temporary boost. I felt much stronger on the subsequent 11km stretch. That checkpoint, 56km in, was the first where we saw real casualties. People obviously packing sweaty kit and broken frames into support vehicles for an early escape.

Apparently the boiler in the solitary drinks van had been on the blink for much of the evening. It had only just started working again before our arrival. The absence of hot drinks may well have been the final straw for many. Apart from the loos and the paramedics, there was nothing else there.

On leaving, the stewards asked if a lone female walker could join us. And so four became five as Cherry accompanied us through the night and early morning stages. Cherry’s opening remark was “You won’t murder me will you?” I do like a woman with realistic benchmarks! Apparently Cherry had been determined to walk alone, but the stewards intervened when she said she didn’t really like the dark! Just another example of how sensibly and responsibly this event was run. No one was put at any unnecessary risk.

One walker from Yorkshire put this to the test when he got smashed by a branch after only 7km. He was avoiding a bike coming the other way and simultaneously unsighted by the sun. The paramedics said the cut needed to be glued and he should end the walk there. We saw him at about the 25km marker when he was telling us this story. “I’m not stopping” he said. “I’m from Donny!” He was allowed to continue as long as he got the all clear from the paramedics at every checkpoint. He finished before us.

There was a foot spa on offer at one of the checkpoints. Tempted, but I didn’t partake. My feet would probably have benefitted immeasurably from such a treat, but I felt I couldn’t inflict them on a paramedic who, though having solid training under their belt, would have not have been equipped for such an ordeal.  In fact I was happy with my foot regime: a good airing and glide blister barrier application at every stop, together with four sock changes. I survived largely contusion and friction free for the duration.

Ad took a different approach. He had a look and a poke at his plates at stop 4 and was so appalled by what he discovered that he kept them wrapped up for the rest of the trip tighter than a Chinese foot-binding ritual.

Talking to Cherry later, she said that the foot spa was a bit of an exaggeration. It was actually a washing up bowl of warm water. There was still an extensive queue for it though!

At about that point, Ben’s partner rang to say that she’d had a great time at a 40th birthday party, had danced all night and that “her feet were killing her”. “Oh really?” seemed to be the collective response.

We lived by checkpoints. Time spent resting and recuperating there grew at the same rate as the kilometres seemed to stretch out exponentially when we were closing in on one. This was a mental battle as much as a physical one. We all seemed to go through good and bad stretches. My worst moments were in three of the four middle sections.

Meeting Mrs A for the first rendezvous at checkpoint 4 was uplifting, but I was in a poor state by then. She said that she had seen people coming in crying and limping. This was not a competitive event in a race sense, but there is no doubting that those little nuggets provide a personal boost.

Tired and emotional, I was concerned that my aching knee would become a massive burden with still a logic-defying 57km to go.  However, Ben’s diversion to M&S for sausage rolls and iced buns was a spirit lifter. The tomato soup that Mrs A queued for was a life saver. The elasticated knee brace that I resorted to was a joint restorer.  We cruised through the 50km marker on that next stretch much restored and invigorated.

My worst moment, however was at dawn. Feeling limp and pathetic outside the Cat and Canary pub checkpoint, my head was spinning and I thought I would pass out. I had a lay down and soon felt recovered.

This wobble may or may not have been the result of the significant toilet stop I had just made. Anyone of a nervous disposition, please avert your eyes from the following graphic description. I do feel that I need to share this.  The porta-cubicles would remind you of Glastonbury – happening on the same weekend – but you don’t get freshly talc-ed loo seats on Worthy Farm. The evacuation I performed here was colossal. It was coiled in the pan like a giant Cumberland sausage and as thick as your wrist. Is there any wonder I felt faint afterwards? That’s what you get if you eat a dozen protein enhanced oat bars in 24 hours. If I never see a flapjack again it will be too soon.

Conversely, others had dodgy moments at other spots. Ad had a woozy spell at our third checkpoint on the disused railway station of Bramley that forms part of the Downs Link walk. The afternoon had been stiflingly hot with little breeze and we had been exposed for a lot of it next to the River Wey. A strong coffee and a huge chocolate muffin seemed to sort him out though. Bryn and I went for the banana muffin option and were rewarded with a calorific sticky toffee gloop in the middle. We both felt enervated after that. Sometimes it’s the simple things.

Bryn struggled with aches a bit later on and developed an amusing rolling gait that John Wayne would have been happy to claim as his own. Ben, like the rest of us, was up and down. Despite having a bag of medicines and treatments that put my plastic envelope to shame, he still begged and borrowed from others. Soothing foot spray from Bryn, slow-release Ibuprofen from me and - after a literal, pretty scary, sleep-walking moment up on the Downs - a caffeine tablet from Cherry. “It’s legal!” she said.

The night time sections were surreal. Walking though the beautiful Sussex countryside but unable to see any of it, guided only by shifting pools of head-torch light about three feet across. It was quiet, except for the shuffle of feet, some murmured conversations and the bing of Ad’s phone bearing more texts from his new girlfriend.

Cherry had no qualms about undertaking this trip alone. I wasn’t sure if she was just a little bit bonkers or stark-staring insane. She said she had practised a bit on her bike. I couldn’t quite see the immediate logic.

“Six hours into London!” she declared.

“That’s excellent. Brighton to London?”

“No, not Brighton!” Even in the dark I could tell she was looking at me like I was from Planet Zog. “I live in Ealing. I got a bit lost along the river…”

Cherry makes it home

Before the walk I had felt sure that I could have done the walk solo, if needed. However, during that long morning, I became far from certain. The drop-out rate for the event approached 50%. It’s hard to explain the unrelenting assault on the body by strains, twists and aches in places you didn’t know existed, compounded by mental and physical fatigue. We were so far out of our comfort zones we needed sat navs.

By checkpoint 8 at 86km, we knew we would complete. We had the South Downs peaks to negotiate, which were tough so late in the walk. But the coast was on the other side and we dared to think about the finish line. Meeting our friends Andy and Sam for breakfast at Checkpoint 9 in Hove was another lift. And then it was just the walk along the seafront and a totally unnecessary, vindictively cruel 1-in-3 gradient ascent up to the racecourse.

After much hugging and back slapping, we went for refreshment in the restaurant. Mrs A, who had been amazing throughout the expedition said “Pints all round then?”

“Sounds good” I replied.

“Not for me.” said Bryn.

“No thanks.” said Ben.

“I’m ok.” said Ad.

“Oh, OK, I’ll just have a coke thanks.” Didn’t want to spoil the team ethic at that late stage.

We all looked reasonably fresh in the team photo taken just before we departed for home. In it, you could just about make out Ad at the back, taking a phone call from his new girlfriend.

That is by far my most eccentric arrival in Brighton. Although it is not the only off-centre experience I have had in that fine, newly created coastal city.

One subsequent trip was unexpectedly solitary arising from a mis-judgement about the pulling power of a rock ‘n’ roll dream ticket.

Joe Bonamassa, one of the few truly inspiring guitarists left on my to-see list had announced an arena tour. Surprisingly all the dates missed out London. Inexplicably, they also bypassed Aylesbury, Watford and even the decent blues pub in Sarrat. Brighton was on the list though. And I knew tickets would sell fast for this blistering fret-meister. So one Monday morning I was to be found crouching over the laptop, credit card in hand, waiting for the tickets to go on sale. Hardly a Glastonbury-scale operation, granted. Nevertheless, I was determined not to miss out again after failing to catch the man on at least three previous visits.

My promptness was rewarded. Two tickets were purchased for the Saturday night, although my eagerness didn't yield anything better than seats up in the south balcony. Some birds were significantly earlier than me.

"Fancy a weekend in Brighton?" I smugly teased Mrs A. "Maybe." she replied. Was that a hint of a wink? "What are you offering?" When I gushed my plan: the finest blues-rock guitarist of our generation live and personal for a 2 ½ aural treat, and all night scrabble (amongst other options) in a bijou little hotel overlooking the front, she seemed a fraction underwhelmed.

"Maybe" became "maybe not". Joe B and the boys were not universally regarded as a hot ticket, it seemed. (It couldn't have been any other part of the offer, surely?) More importantly, I'd also failed to register that the date was Halloween. A big night for the girls in the Atkinson household. It became clear that Mrs A would not/could not join me.

So that wet Hallowe’en evening, I was to be found skulking outside the Brighton Centre, doing my best stubbly-chinned, roll-up smoking, stained-mac wearing ticket tout impression. I'd previously tried to flog the spare voucher on one of those reselling websites that are nothing more than industry-sponsored mark-up outlets. Despite the gig having been sold out for weeks, mine would not shift on the net. I had no joy trying to hawk the ticket outside the gig either. 

I hung around the box office a little while and then simply handed the voucher over to them, asking that they gave it to anyone who turned up last minute. Life really is too short to be flogging tickets on Brighton front in the pissing rain. I'd had enough free gigs over the years. I didn’t begrudge paying double for this one.

Autumn on the pier

The seat next to me in the balcony was empty all night, so I guess no-one claimed the ticket. During some of the many exquisite moments when Bonamassa was writhing over his axe like a dementer, faced screwed up like a pug's, I glanced at the vacant seat and thought it was just as well Mrs A was not there. She would have seen those extended passages of sublime lead guitar as nothing more than overwrought grandstanding. To me, Bonamassa is a genius. His sharp suit, slick hair and shaded eyes belie the passion and feeling he cajoles from his instrument. Nobody chucks such a high-spec ceramic kitchen sink at every solo like this upstate New Yorker. He means every plaintive, guttural, pure, sweet, brutal note he picks out.

All this rarefied emotion and guitar nirvana was despite, rather than because of, the venue. Brighton Centre’s auditorium was a horrific 1980’s concrete box, lidded with a cavernous roof and hosting utilitarian seating blocks that could be wheeled around depending on the event being staged. Very practical I’m sure, but the result created vast areas of empty space that swallowed up the atmosphere like hungry black holes. The sound from the stage was fine, but the audience response at the end of each track wouldn’t have been out of place at a chess convention. Bonamassa could be forgiven for removing his eyewear to check whether anyone had actually turned up.

An apres-gig walk up the prom was a visual treat. The weather had relented to allow the hen party/stag scenario that takes over Brighton at weekends to be seen in full plumage. At the bottom of South Street I was forced into the road by a maelstrom of nurses, tarts, vicars and Elvises, together with attendant taxis and rickshaws. Their number had been swollen by swinging, swaying and shouting Halloween revellers. I later read that Halloween had just become the second most lucrative festival in the calendar, behind Christmas. The sale of pumpkins, costumes, sweets, cakes and decorations had eclipsed Easter, Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day in terms of the revenue it generated. I think at least 75% of those fancy dress sales were collected in a thin strip of the south coast that night. I battled towards the station past zombies, Freddie Krugers even the odd Grim Reaper. More inexplicable were the minion, shark and, er, rubbish bin outfits. Bizarre.

I'd decided to stay in genteel Eastbourne overnight, rather than schlep back to Hertfordshire. Strolling to the hotel along the town’s empty seafront parade was like a timeshift experience. I was surely in a completely different temporal zone to the manic scenes in Brighton just 25 miles down the coast.

The Riviera Hotel was just the job. Cheap but comfortable. Sunlight was streaming though my sea view window and, downstairs, a generous fry up was on offer in the conservatory. The breakfast room was about half full and, as if living up to the resort’s reputation, there was a disproportionate number of pensioners on sneaky weekends away; and couples minding geriatric parents. A vision of the future...

Eastbourne pier is less gaudy than its Brighton neighbour. On a balmy November morning that felt more like August, I watched the building emerge from the mist whilst drinking more cappuccinos than was strictly good for one.

I caught the Number 12A bus from the pier back to Brighton. Rather than the faster A27, the route took the coast road revealing sweeping views back over Eastbourne, across Beachy Head, through the Birling Gap and past Cuckmere Valley. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d taken that road. Absolutely lovely: the double-decker wriggled through classic English landscapes of undulating heaths, managed woodlands, busy valleys and preserved villages. And all for a £4 single. Never lose sight of the value.

Past Newhaven, Seaford and various Deans, and then Brighton pier shimmered onto the horizon from our cliff top tour. Onto the Esplanade and we were plunged back into the glitzy, thronging, cosmopolitan hubbub. The London to Brighton vintage car rally was in full swing. Glorious Autumn sunshine was glinting off carefully polished paintwork and chrome radiator caps. With a final glance over the seafront and Bonamassa’s ‘Oh Beautiful’ appropriately popping in to my brain, I headed for the train home.



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