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Clive has fun on a long-distance walk

PUBLISHED: 15:34 02 January 2014 | UPDATED: 15:34 02 January 2014

Hiking boots

Hiking boots

Archant

Clive Agran joins a 20-mile trek - on one of the wettest days of the year

Walking came more or less naturally to me very early in life. Although my recollection of those first tentative steps is somewhat hazy, I gather from my older siblings that, unlike the foxtrot many years later, walking was never really a problem for me. Something of a natural, I have confidently been putting one foot in front of the other for more than six decades without having to think much about it and now consider myself, somewhat immodestly perhaps, a rather expert pedestrian.

But walking for me is more than just a way of getting from A to B when there are no easier alternatives. And even when there are, such as lifts and escalators, I scornfully eschew them in favour of exercising my feet and legs. Because it might give the erroneous impression of a sad and unfulfilled life, I’m reluctant to describe walking as a hobby, but genuinely enjoy it and believe it to be sorely underrated as a pastime.

Although they literally won’t go quite as far as me, my family fortunately share my fondness for walking, and so we frequently take to the footpaths at weekends and have over the years developed a sincere appreciation of the beautiful Sussex countryside. Only somewhere around the four-mile mark does their enthusiasm and energy start to wain dramatically. “How much b****y further is it?” is not an uncommon utterance as I grapple with a map in a desperate attempt to establish precisely where we are. Ever conscious of the paramount need to maintain morale, I normally respond encouragingly, “Not much,” and hope they don’t detect any panic in my voice.

Lovely though my family undoubtedly is, how wonderful it would be, I have often thought, to go walking with people for whom distance was not such an overwhelmingly negative issue. Well, I think I may have found them in a car park in Burwash and my principal concern as I approach is my footwear. You see, these people are serious athletes who can not only happily walk for ever but also appreciate the enormous importance of proper boots. My painful predicament at not having any is further aggravated by the fact that half of my favourite, go-to pair of Wellingtons recently developed a serious leak and I’ve therefore switched to a new pair, which are probably waterproof but not terribly comfortable. Will they and I together survive 20 miles?

Boots may be my main preoccupation, but a secondary concern is the weather. It’s raining gently now but the forecast is beyond miserable. In contrast, the well-booted group of about a dozen humans and two dogs that greets me appears irrepressibly cheerful considering it’s 8.30 on Sunday morning. Not only are they all, apart from the dogs, sporting suitable footwear, they also have proper rucksacks, doubtless containing everything from navigational aids to distress flares. Thank goodness I declined my wife’s generous offer of sandwiches in a Waitrose bag otherwise I would have looked even naffer than I already do. Still, my Barbour-like green jacket and black waterproof over-trousers neatly tucked into aforementioned Wellies bestow a modicum of off-street credibility on me, I hope.

We set off through Burwash and I stride alongside Trevor, who is Walks Organiser of the Sussex section of the Long Distance Walkers Association. He explains that they get together twice a month, except in December and January when they meet just once. All the walks, which individual members research and lead, are approximately 20 miles. Today’s walk is down to Chris, who occasionally darts to the front to show the way or shouts, “Left a bit” to the enthusiastic pace-setters. The turnout, Trevor explains, is about average and not bad considering the dreadful forecast. “Are these the keen ones?” I ask. “No, these are the truly mad ones,” a voice behind interjects to highlight a refreshingly high level of self-awareness that what we are about is indisputably daft. However, it proudly belongs in the rich British tradition of eccentricity.

As the gentle rain escalates into a full-blown downpour, the mud deepens and my notepad disintegrates into a soggy mess , I abandon taking notes and worry about photos instead. What little can be perceived of the scenery through the falling rain and rising mist is, I think, rather nice, but visibility is severely restricted and if my camera is as non-waterproof as everything else on my person appears to be, then it will surely fail.

Despite the horrific conditions, morale is high and our little group battles on bravely north-west in the direction of Maresfield.

Just as important as the valuable exercise is the social aspect of the walk and I gradually become aware of the subtle etiquette. After chatting to someone for a while and having established where they live, what they do for a living and the longest walk they’ve ever completed, it becomes apparent to both parties that it’s time to move on and chat to someone else. Not wishing to give offence or appear rude, the separating manoeuvre has to be executed sensitively. Although stiles present opportunities of sorts, the very best thing to do is hold a gate open for those behind allowing your erstwhile companion to move on literally and metaphorically. In this way, instead of seeming rude you appear extremely polite. All this works well until you reach the back where you can no longer hold the gate open for anyone. Fortunately for me, Rob and Alyson, the couple alongside me at the rear, are particularly good company. Whether they would say the same of me is open to doubt.

After another five miles, we eventually reach Maresfield to indulge in three-quarters of an hour of blessed respite and relief in the thoroughly warm and wonderfully dry Carpenters Arms. Despite our dripping and dishevelled appearance, we are welcomed by Jason, the hugely hospitable landlord. Removing my soggy Wellingtons, I realise what a dreadful mistake I made when tucking my over-trousers into them as each boot contains at least as much frothy liquid as my welcome pint of Harveys. And removing my jacket, I reveal an interesting pattern of bluey-green, tie-dye-like stains on my previously white, roll-neck sweater.

Never in my life has 45-minutes passed so rapidly, nor have I ever been so reluctant to resume a journey. After just one pint I’m hardly in need of a sobering thought but, if I did, the fact we’re only halfway would certainly meet the criteria.

Adversity has bonded us together and there is a real collective determination to succeed as we head back. There’s one last break in a derelict barn at 15 miles where ‘softies’ who brought a Thermos flask smugly enjoy a hot drink.

We finally arrive back in Burwash at four. Oh yes, I should perhaps mention that if 20 miles isn’t enough for you, occasionally there are much longer walks such as the South Downs Marathon and what is known as the Sussex Stride. Enjoy!

Long Distance Walkers Association (Sussex Group); ldwasussex.org.uk; sussex@ldwa.org.uk

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