A chance meeting with a wistful fellow walker on the South Downs Way gives Kev Reynolds pause for thought about his own future. Illustrations by Clare Crooke.
For the majority of my 100 mile walk from Winchester to Eastbourne, I’d had the Downs to myself; landscapes defined by great open spaces inhabited only by sheep and an occasional rabbit. It was springtime, with cowslips everywhere, the silence of unspoken distance disturbed only by the trilling of a massed choir of larks that rose full of song from the grassland and continued their singing when no more than tiny specks in the sky.
Pacing 20 miles a day gave me time to absorb the views both near and far, but now I was on the final leg with just a dozen or so miles to go, and all this would then be confined to memory. A dozen miles – across the Cuckmere Valley and over the Seven Sisters; what a way to end a long walk!
Although eager with anticipation for that clifftop walk, I was more than content with the present contrast of sea stretching off to my right and the Weald below to my left. On the far horizon a blue hiccup of land told of Ashdown Forest, while just ahead a stubby Iron Age burial mound suggested shelter from the cooling wind. Needing a break, I sank down behind it on the leeward side and took the thermos from my rucksack.
It was then that I was joined by an old man; well, 30 years older than me, which made him seem ancient. He had short bowed legs and a well-worn jacket buttoned against the wind and, as he rested, he put all his weight on a walking stick. His breathing was laboured and rattled in his chest.
‘I love these open spaces,’ he gasped. ‘The views. Yes, the views…’ and his voice trailed to nothing while the wind filled the gap left behind, until he’d gathered enough breath to continue whatever thoughts he wanted to share with whoever might be listening. It just happened that I was the only one around.
‘The wife and me, we’ve walked everywhere up here,’ he continued.’ She’s back at the car, you know, can’t walk so well now. But…’
‘You’re local then?’
‘Local? Lord no, more’s the pity! Bromley’s where we live.’ Turning his head, he nodded to the north and sniffed. ‘It’s okay; only an hour n’arfs drive, so we come here often.’
‘Bromley?’ I said. ‘I live not far from there. Just south of Westerham.’
‘Westram y’say? Greensand country, then! Kent. Lovely county is Kent. Got some fine walks to be sure.’ He began to list them, and as he did, his voice grew younger.
‘North Downs Way, the Greensand Way, Wealdway, Saxon Shore Way – me and the wife, we’ve walked them all. Done the South Downs Way n’all – I ‘spect that’s what you’re doing now, eh? Twice, me and the wife have walked it. Once each way. And the Cotswold Way, and Dales Way, and Wainwright’s Coast to Coast; not in one go, mind, but … wonderful days.’
His voice faded and his eyes watered. I guess from the wind.
The old man hunched his shoulders, sniffed, blew his nose, dabbed at his face. Then he turned to look directly at me for the first time and spoke again. Softly, as though in a dream.
‘What I wouldn’t give to be able to do them all over again.’
I noticed his eyes were watering again (that blessed wind) as he removed his glasses and wiped them with his handkerchief.
‘Ah well, we’ve got our memories, the wife and me. And no-one can take them from us.’
He blew his nose once more.
‘Well, better be getting back to the car. The wife, y’know. She’ll be fretting.’
The old man paused for a moment, as though there was something else he wanted to say, but thought better of it. A nostalgic longing saddened his face as he took in the view one last time, and then he turned to go.
He didn’t say goodbye, but as I watched his hunched shape growing smaller across the Downs, I imagined I could see my own future … limping away beside him.