I was tired of London.
I’m aware of the Samuel Johnson quote. But he also said, “A man’s mind grows narrow in a narrow place.” London may be one of the biggest, most active, and most diverse cities in the world; however, when your passion is to travel, any place can feel too small if you stay for too long. After a long, cold, and rainy winter that was beginning to tread on the toes of summer, I felt trapped. I felt that my mind was growing narrow – London began to feel narrow. I didn’t like it one bit, and in a fit of desperation or wanderlust, I booked a train ticket to the south coast of England.
One of my friends had recently taken a trip to Seven Sisters and I was transported by the pictures they took of the cliffs. The stark, beautiful coastline was something entirely different to the golden, sandy coastlines I was used to from a childhood spent taking trips to the Gulf of Mexico. To me it was something wild and foreign, a new sight to experience; this was exactly what I needed. I needed to be somewhere besides London, somewhere where I could stretch my legs and look for miles and not see a single building.
It was almost too much to hope for that it would also be sunny on the random Thursday that I booked. When we arrived in Eastbourne, it was threatening rain beneath heavy gray clouds and gusting wind intermittently. Though we were breaking free from the city for the day, I am still somewhat a creature of habit. I insisted on finding a place to enjoy a cup of coffee before we struck out across the South Downs towards Seven Sisters.
We made our way to the Barley Sugar, a conjoined dress shop and cafe, randomly selected from a search for “coffee in Eastbourne” online. It was partly because I liked the name, and partly because it was on the way to the beach promenade. We were the only customers for a while, so we enjoyed our frothy lattes in companionable silence, listening to the owner fry up a breakfast in the kitchen.
Just as the cafe began to fill up for lunchtime, we bought some macarons and sandwiches to take with us, wrapped them in napkins, and left. The weather was looking no better, and as we came closer to the beach, the wind only picked up. The sky and sea were a interchangeable shades of gray; the only way you could tell them apart was through the turbulent motion of the water being whipped into whitecaps by the gusts. Despite this grim picture, though, I was happy to smell the scent of salt and hear the sound of waves again. The beach curved away in the distance, the pebbles giving way to tall, white cliffs topped with rolling, velvety green hills. I could already feel myself breathing deeper, taking longer strides, and smiling more.
The edge of town came suddenly, with the South Downs rising steeply up before us. I began to run excitedly at first but after a few metres realized that my enthusiasm was going to be defeated by both the grade of the hill and my lacking fitness. Instead, we clambered up slowly but steadily, settling into a rhythm with our steps. The further we pull away from Eastbourne, the quieter it becomes. Soon we couldn’t even hear the crashing of the waves on the beach anymore – just the blowing wind and the occasional laugh of a seagull.
After about 45 minutes of hiking, we turned back to see how far we had come. The city was fading into the distance, replaced in the foreground by fields and copses criss-crossed with walking paths. We felt like the only people up there. The landscape felt quite wild and foreboding under the densely cloudy sky, with trees permanently bent seaward by the ever-present gales. There was nothing to bring us out of the moment except the occasional passing of a car and one or two other hikers.
After another long bout of hiking, we reached the clifftops at Beachy Head.
It was a bittersweet moment. This was the highest point, and we could see all the way across the South Downs and along the curve of the coast. Way in the distance, even further than we had just come in the last few hours, I could see the Seven Sisters cliffs. It was clear that we would be unable to make it there and back in time to catch the train home. Admitting defeat, we found shelter against the wind in a small stand of trees and ate the macarons we had packed earlier.
On the way back, we figured we had a bit more time to take a different route than the one we had taken on the way there. I was determined to go down onto the rocky beach somewhere and be able to look up at the chalky cliff face. Closer to town, we found some overgrown paths that must have fallen into disuse over the long, cold months. We picked our way precariously over piles of soft, crumbly white rocks and through thick growths of nettles and tall grass. Finally the slope became a bit less steep and the way down to the edge of the water was relatively clear.
The smell of salt was strongest here and the water filtered up onto the beach between rocks, where the constant pounding had whipped it into a weird sort of bubbly foam. Large, round, smooth stones were interspersed with different sized shards of chalk from the cliffs and made for difficult walking on the beach. After a few hundred metres we took a rickety wooden walkway back up to the path and continued our way back into town.
There was a little bit of time left before our train, so Rob and I opted to end our day in the appropriate way for an English coastal town – with fish and chips. Thoroughly exhausted, we sank into the red leather booths of the shop, ordered a wonderfully massive plate of food for less than £5 each (a sure way to make any Londoner happy), and devoured it all. As we sat there, I could already tell that I was mentally preparing myself for the return to London – a return to hurrying through the Tube, dealing with crowds, higher prices, and so on. Though we had barely just come off the South Downs, it felt like the fresh air and soothing sight of green hills was fading too quickly into the past. One thing was for sure – I would be returning to the coast again, hopefully sooner than later.