I’M not known for taking my time over a drink but even by my standards that pint of cider barely touched the sides.
As with many things, John Steinbeck’s Doc had it best in Cannery Row – the first for thirst, the second for taste. He was talking about beer but I wouldn’t bet against him developing a taste for cider if it had been readily available in hot Monterey.
I’m at a pub called The Smuggler. You might have thought there’d be an Arms or Inn after it but no, just The Smuggler. Is there a song called The Smuggler? There should be. Thin Lizzy, maybe.
Anyway, this is a seaside pub but one that must have suffered from some cruel land ownership mischance because its beer garden is by the side of a road below an embankment that keeps the sea from view.
Agreeably, mournful country and western ballads drift outside from the bar stereo. Across the road is a car park and in it two motorhomes. Just out of sight is a caravan park.
This place is called Pett Level and it’s three-and-a-half hours by foot east along the East Sussex sandstone cliffs from Hastings and halfway, or thereabouts, along the way to Rye.
It’s four o’clock, early July. I left my flat London around half ten, arrived in Hastings a little after midday and I’d got my clothing entirely wrong.
Things seem to be changing fast nowadays. When I’d left home, the forecast was cloudy but fine so a cotton shirt, trousers and cap were all I thought I needed. Pulling into Hastings the view from the train window suggests light showers and a bit of a breeze so I head to the high street and a charity shop, where I buy a sleeveless bodywarmer thing for two quid.
Both forecast and impression prove wrong. Within an hour of setting off for Rye, the clouds are nowhere, the heat is up and I’m soaked to the skin in sweat.
I’d climbed the wonderfully named Tamarisk Steps by The Dolphin pub to the clifftop and soon ignore a sign saying the path is closed because of ‘corrosion’ – someone had kicked it down and crossed it through and written ‘corruption’ – to pass through blue-gold grasses, bracken, hawthorn and flowering blackberry bushes, beneath oak trees framing the view to sea.
Smudged ochre butterflies flutter by, species unknown. Looking at my Collins Complete Guide To British Wildlife later, they could have been any of the following: wall brown, gatekeeper, meadow brown, large or small heath or black or brown hairstreak. I’m pretty sure some of them were painted lady.
Herring and common gull in differing stages of maturity shoot the breeze on the thermals, dunnock and robin dash away as I approach, pipit and lark shrill before fleeing and at one stretch I carefully pick my way along a path littered with bees on the ground.
Through oak to the sea
Through it all the sweat on my shirt under my rucksack gets more sodden. I take it off, protecting shoulders already sunburnt from a day at a London lido with a towel and tie my shirt like a shabby sail to the rucksack in the hope it will dry in the sun.
This set-up doesn’t really work because now my chest – also sunburnt from the lido – is open to the rays and the last thing I want is sore nipples so off goes the towel and on comes the bodywarmer thing. This deals with the nipples but it’s too small to zip up so the pot is still out and I’m back with a hot back. And besides, who wears a bodywarmer with nothing underneath?
Certainly not the fellow walkers I meet, who seem perfectly well-dressed in T-shirts and those trousers that keep out the rain, let out the sweat and have enough pockets to require a system of what gets put where so as not to lose your compass while it being all the time on your own person.
They look like walkers whereas I feel like I should be in a hillbilly bluegrass band or acting a bit-part in a Laurie Lee novel, selling cider to Rosie. But I tell myself I’m in the countryside, where these things matter less. And I like bluegrass and cider so I’m all good. Perfect in fact.
I’m more than ready for a pint when I get to The Smuggler but not knowing the place wonder what the policy is on exposed bellies. My instinct is to cover it up – perhaps more from being self-conscious than respecting the sensibilities of staff and clientele – so attempt to zip up, the shirt still too sodden to swap into. This proves difficult but after transferring what’s in my pockets to my rucksack I manage, with a little breathing in.
With all due respect to the place I need not have worried. There are only two people in there, one of whom is sitting at the bar with two dogs on leads lying on the floor at such a distance and at angles from his stool that they effectively cordon off two-thirds of the bar. The other bloke is by the window puffing away on an e-cigarette.
I get myself a cider, move to the roadside garden, release my pot from the corset of the zip, drain the glass in three and don’t bother zipping up when I go back in for the second, this one for taste.
Leaving, I go up to the promenade, the shingle beach down to my right. I’ve brought my trunks but decide against swimming. No one else is in the water. Had I been with someone else I would have. It’s a question of thresholds. Some people can throw the first brick, some people can throw second, some need to be in a mob to even pick one up. Why am I even here on my own? In the words of Patti Smith, that out there is the sea of possibility. Terror. Abandon. Thrill. Like the eyes of a horse. At my throat.
The route on to Rye via Winchelsea takes in a confusing, changed landscape. For the most part it follows the Royal Military Canal, built between 1804-09 as a defence against French invaders – a means of stopping people from across The Channel trying to get in. Some things don’t change. We’re always trying to keep people out. It’s just then it was an actual army.
The canal sits at the foot of what’s called the Wickham Cliff – a wooded escarpment a good mile or so inland. From what I can gather, this cliff used to be the shoreline before the sea at its base became silted up and changed into land.
Eventually you get to Winchelsea. Or New Wincheslea. Old Winchelsea used to be on the coast but was lost to the sea during the 13th century. The sea giveth, the sea taketh away.
The canal is bordered by rushes and reeds and I see two male reed buntings sitting at their tops. And loads of crows that, against the lowing sun, are so black as to be an absence of colour rather than a darkness on the landscape (I’ve nicked that from somewhere but can’t remember where). The pasture either side is populated by sheep, some of whom fix you with fearful apricot eyes before running away.
The canal kinks at intervals. This was to allow what they call enfilading fire – which is shooting along the length of an approaching column of soldiers, rather than across its width. This means it’s easier to land a hit on them – if it’s along the width, you need to be accurate so as not to under or overshoot. Along the length (enfilading fire) you’ll get them whether you’re short or long.
I get to Rye in time for another cider before the train back to London. I take no chances and stop just outside of town to swap the bodywarmer thingy for the shirt. By now it’s dry. All change again.