Snacked and whiskied, we venture onward. The South Downs, a designated and protected national park, comprise 260 square miles. Undulating gently in all directions, old footpaths carve through the surface to streak our surroundings with white tracks on sage-coloured grasses. The Downs shelve away either side from our meagre elevation, to my left the North Downs are visible, and to the south the English Channel glistens gloriously. The occasional clump of trees funnels us through, birds soar and dive on thermals like boats on choppy waters and sometimes a lingering mist in the lowlands clings on as church spires break through, their bells tolling.
Lunch? Of course! The Downs descend every now and again to charming and historic hamlets and villages. Thatched roofs blend into oak beams whilst wattle and daub still clings in between, and the Abergavenny Arms welcomes us each year with a roaring fire. Food plays second billing – this is fine English ale time and chins are scratched as we peruse the various beers on offer. Menus are scanned and the specials board eyed before deciding on a suitable lunchtime fuel for the afternoon shift.
The strangest tradition of the entire walk is known as ‘The Feeling of the Marble’. During the first walk in 1977, Michael had brought (for whatever reason) a marble. Entering Southease Church, and wondering if it would fit into a hole drilled hundreds of years before in one of the oak beams, he discovered it did – and, subsequently, could not retrieve it. Thirty-nine years later that marble is still nestled in the same spot. Taking it in turns, each of us stands on a small chair, inserting a finger two inches to fondle this small treasure. Never before has such a humble glass ball been held in such high esteem. Fondling the marble has been likened to reaching enlightenment and experiencing nirvana. Those who are invited on the walk for the first time, known as the ‘Marble Virgins’, are forbidden from taking part – it came to light one year that participants were using the walk as a cover, purely to take part in the marble caress. So virgins are barred. If it’s a marvel at the marble you’re after, show your commitment to the cause and wait till your second year.
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A few notes scribbled in the visitor’s book and on we march over a bridge spanning the River Ouse. Our dash between traffic speeding along the A26 is now a much more sedate affair since the installation of a fine wooden bridge. But the climb up Itford Hill gets harder each year and three hours later we descend to our final destination. The name of this charming village dating back many hundreds of years is our secret but I visit regularly during the year and it always welcomes me.
The cafe knows we are coming, often staying open late to solve the immediate hunger crisis before the pub caters for the main feed later that evening. A few of us hardcore hikers splinter off to the village green and erect tents, others retreat to a hotel or bed and breakfast.
And to round off a splendid day, we squeeze in the local pub. Built in 1358, it still hangs on to many a fine feature. The floor is uneven from the original stone slabs, logs blaze in the fire where two seats either side offer a somewhat hot resting place until our limbs are warmed, and I still peer up a soot-scarred chimney to marvel at the height. Blackened timbers bolster a sagging ceiling, dogs seek affection and food scraps whilst many a froth-topped beer lines the bar. Once stomachs are satisfied, carol sheets are handed out. Guided by the music from a small keyboard, very dubious singing fills the room, worsening as the evening moves on and our beer intake increases. Rumour has it that some travel miles just for the experience, and many locals travel miles just to escape.
Come last orders handshakes are offered to those driving back home and the rest of us retreat to our tents on the green as we ponder and delight in another annual day of jollity.