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Walks on the South Downs
No one needs an excuse to enjoy the South Downs – be it for the fresh air or a country pub lunch. For academic, author and occasional journalist Louise Schweitzer, the incentive used to be the chance to bunk off games class. She was a student at a boarding school in Seaford and as an 11-year-old joined the Long Distance Walking Society to escape.
“In those days we were allowed out unsupervised, unchecked, in a way I don’t think would be possible today. “We were given three hours on Sunday afternoon, provided it was signed off and you said, ‘I’m going to Seaford Head.’ Well, we could have jumped off the edge of it, but nobody seemed to mind.”
Roaming vast swathes of downland within four or five miles of Seaford – Cuckmere Valley, Alfriston, Hope Gap – bred a love for rambling the area. When she was a little older, she led others through the hills’ nooks and crannies. Her weekends would be spent trying to escape the dogs of The Coakham Bloodhounds. She would be the quarry, lay a trail, give the dogs a T-shirt and scarper off across the country – through mud and water, up trees – as fast as she could.
“It’s absolutely hilarious because you never escape them,” she giggles. “You do anything you can but you never lose them.
“Somebody once said to me, ‘Aren’t they dangerous?’ ‘No,’ I said. ‘They lick you to death.’ You have to put biscuits in your bra to make absolutely certain they lick you to death.”
Now back in Hove, she still runs with Arena 80, part of Brighton and Hove Running Club. “I did a triathlon not so long ago and of course I won my age group, because I was the only one. “The organiser said if I just stayed on the bicycle then I’d win it.”
The incentive of late for Schweitzer to get out to the South Downs was the creation of the national park.
Her new book, Walks On The South Downs – with 26 walks ranging in distance from five to ten miles – takes in the landmarks, viewpoints, monuments and antiquities. Schweitzer, unsurprisingly, is a great companion. There’s always a history lesson but it’s never tiresome. The curios and quirks are set beside details of flora and fauna, and when a route crosses an age-old trail there are new perspectives.
The book began as a series for BBC Southern Counties radio.
“The new park being launched was a wonderful piece of news. “I was writing up my thesis [Victorian nonsense poetry, should you ask] and running about on the Downs a lot. “I thought, here am I writing a bit of academic stuff, which at that point I didn’t know whether it was going to work, and I thought why don’t I write down what I’m doing while I’m thinking about writing something else.
“And why don’t I write these in a form somebody else would enjoy?”
She banged on the door of the BBC Southern Counties Radio offices near Brighton Station.
“Chris Bennett liked the idea a lot. He put six or seven on the website and said, ‘You know, these are fun. They are well received.’ “I suppose I thought if they are nice to see, maybe I’ll publish them.” The first publisher she approached loved the walks – a rare stroke of luck indeed. “We need lots more. Go do another ten, another 15,” was the message from Sigma press in Wales.
Schweitzer says the walks are for people who would like a stroll but don’t want to be absolutely flattened. And most feature something to see. Either an old church or a monument that isn’t well known, such as the obelisk in Lewes, the remains of Balsdean Church near Woodingdean, which nobody knew existed, or a cross which marks a particular family at the back of Rodmell.
“If I walk somewhere, I like to feel I have done something, seen a prospect I haven’t noticed before, learnt something about the landscape or become conscious of something new.”
They are unusual trails, not the familiar long- distance routes on the South Downs Way or Wealden Track. “Although they are trails I know very well, I almost always go with a map and a notebook. I take careful notes, I sit around and I go at different times of the day to listen for different things and to see different things.” Her favourites are the trail around Folkington and The Long Man, and over the Firle Beacon and down through the Old Coach Road. “I love the contrasts – the fact you have a ridge walk for half of it and then you are at sea level. “I find old roads fascinating because of the history they evoke. “You think of the people who have been walking this route for millennia, going to the same places we still go to but not in the same way. “The romance of old roads is not just mine. I share that with a lot of people.”
Walks On The South Downs is published by Sigma Press, priced £8.99. For more information, visit www.sigmapress.co.uk