A year of walking on the South Downs Way
PUBLISHED: 00:00 14 February 2020
Christopher Shoebridge/Love the South Downs
One couple’s New Year’s resolution to walk the length of the South Downs Way proved to be a truly transformative experience
Many of us make New Year's resolutions. Few of us stick to them. Fewer still turn their pledges into a truly transformative experience. Kate Schuler and Christopher Shoebridge went even further. In 2017, they made the bold decision to walk the entire length of the South Downs Way over precisely one calendar year, watching the seasons shift and change, taking in every path, landscape, building and peculiarity that caught their eye.
Better still, they decided to take us with them on their personal odyssey, and have now produced a book blending Kate's lyrical and informative text with Christopher's soaring and uplifting photographs, capturing the Downs in all their moods, mystery and majesty.
The couple's journey begins at dawn, on New Year's Day, at Beachy Head, where they find the landscape solemn and subdued, despite the howling wind. As they climb the steep ascent to the rugged clifftop, they pass the lifeless skeletons of last year's teasel, rosebay willowherb and buddleia.
Kate, well versed in local history and topography, notes the ancient field systems and Bronze Age burial sites of our ancient forbears, easily missed by the casual observer. As they pause for breath, they look back over the groynes on the beach at Eastbourne, and out to Dungeness beyond. Ships float serenely on the horizon while the cries of gulls mingle with "elated whoops" from a paraglider.
While Kate mentally shapes memorable phrases to record the setting, Christopher busily frames the changing sights and scenes through the viewfinder of his Nikon D810, whether it be the ragged silhouette of hawthorn trees outlined against the rising sun, the 'plumage' of a turkeytail fungus clinging to a decaying tree stump or the layers of sediment and history exposed on a cliff edge. The combined effect is so vivid and evocative that you feel as though you're standing there with them, your collar upturned against the wind.
The couple, who live on the edge of the Downs near Uckfield, describe their publication as part gift book, part story book and part natural history book. "We describe it as a journey, which happens to be in the form of a book," says Christopher. It's also a passion project born out of their love for this unique landscape.
"We've always loved the Downs and take every opportunity to be on them," says Kate, a writer and freelance journalist. "After a day at work, we take the dogs and roam their paths. At weekends, we pull on trainers and run up those magnificent hills. We find them mesmerising because there are so many extraordinary aspects to them.
"To pick out one is doing them a disservice. We marvel at the massive visual sweeps you get from the escarpment ridge stretching for 50 or 60 miles. We also love the villages and wildlife you see on the way. Equally, there are glorious houses, castles, churches and gardens to explore.
"On our hikes, we've always spotted things that intrigued us and piqued our interest, so as I write and Chris takes photographs for a living, we thought we'd jump in and see what we could find out. It was really important to us that we started our journey on the first and last days of the year. In between, we enjoyed the best year of our lives."
But it wasn't simply the visual splendour of the Downs that captured their imagination. It was also the history and stories embedded in the landscape.
"It's one of those places where you could spend your entire life exploring and still only scratch the surface," says Christopher. "We're rather partial to a gothic tale, and we were seduced by the ghost stories, murderers' gibbets and folk tales handed down of witches eating their husbands or turning into hares.
"We love that giants are said to dwell on these hills, and the last fairies in England danced on the Downs. And right along the way, you'll find signs and stories of the Devil himself. There's tragedy, too. Shipwrecks and smuggling. Almshouses and workhouses. Isolation hospitals, lunatic asylums and entire villages wiped out by the plague. These dark stories are made all the more striking by the sheer dazzling beauty of the places where they occurred."
Kate spent many hours in libraries researching these legends, myths and horrible histories; they also attended local history talks, sat in pubs conversing with locals, and dropped in at flower shows, fetes and festivals.
"Much has been lost, but we did our best to uncover what we could, and most of it took us by surprise," she says. "We felt we knew the Downs, but we didn't know them at all. And we now associate every step of the way with a tale or legend. We'll say, 'that's where the lunatic asylum used to be, down that track.' And 'this is the footing for a cable car.' Or 'the old isolation hospital is over there, in the undergrowth.' For me, the love of it rests in the social history. I don't care about kings and queens. I want to know about ordinary people: how they carved out their lives and what the Downs meant to them."
Christopher nods. "When you start exploring the Downs, you become a part of that secret, personal history. We felt we'd been inducted into a club."
Many artists and writers have been similarly entranced by the South Downs' mysterious curves and secrets, but it was Leonard Woolf who summed up best how they feel. In the "unending summer" of 1911, as he and his wife Virginia sat in Firle Park or ambled over the hills, they saw the Downs for the first time "from the inside".
"I have lived close to them ever since and have learnt that, in all seasons and circumstances, their physical loveliness and serenity can make one's happiness exquisite and assuage one's misery," he wrote.
And so Kate and Christopher, like the Woolfs, treat the Downs as a tonic; a place to find peace and space in a world that too often feels chaotic and crowded. "We forget how important it is to get away from people, to breathe fresh air and just to look and stop thinking," says Kate. "If you go to Birling Gap or Firle Beacon, you might find yourself among a coach party of people, but there are plenty of places where you can be completely on your own, in quiet reflection.
"We found the Chattri Indian war memorial, near Patcham in Brighton, incredibly peaceful. Deep Dean, near Wilmington, was another surprise. We arrived at sunset and it was beautiful. We're not religious, but it felt like a spiritual place. It's that perfect calm you feel when you see something so breathtaking and unexpected. It touches your soul."
Neither Kate nor Christopher grew up in Sussex, but perhaps the fact that they are settlers has given them an enhanced appreciation of Kipling's "blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed downs". Kate moved to the county in the 1990s, and despite moving away a couple of times, has always been drawn back. Christopher, who hails from Tunbridge Wells, fell in love with the rolling chalk downland as he was falling for Kate.
The couple end their year-long expedition on the approach to Winchester. Climbing the grassy Kings Way, they pass through an avenue of beech trees until they reach the eerily quiet natural amphitheatre of Cheesefoot Head, a flashpoint for crop circle activity in the 1980s.
Just beyond it, they pass the last downland burial ground on their journey, said to be the eye of an ancient dragon that has his nose on St Catherine's Hill and his tail coiled around Old Winchester Hill, before descending into the hamlet of Chilcomb. As magenta clouds burn brightly against a sapphire-blue sky, they look across the fields to the cathedral city bedding down for the night.
This special year marked a pantheistic awakening for Kate and Christopher. "We saw the seasons blend and slowly shift, and it felt like a wonderful reconnection," says Kate. "I really hope that other people will read our book, see the pictures and visit these places for themselves."
A Year in the South Downs: Travelling its pathways, unearthing its secrets, written by Kate Schuler, with photography by Christopher Shoebridge, is out now at £21.99. To obtain a copy, visit lovethesouthdowns.org.uk