29 Mar Lost in Sussex
We call her Cathy. She sounds just like Cathy Clugston on Radio 4. Indeed, she may be that very person, that very voice in the little machine bringing succour to lost motorists on country lanes in Sussex. You feel lost but she soothes; her lilting Northern Irish burr tells me she’s smiling and might, at any moment, say: “Shall I put the kettle on?”.
I could do with a cup of tea! Heck! I was only trying to get to Haywards Heath station to meet up with my rambling friend, Jilly. Of course, I mean rambling in the ambulatory sense – though we can multi-task, so we enjoy a bit of the other rambling too.
I had taken a note of the broad route: Leave the M23 at Junction 10A onto the B2036 towards Balcombe. Fine. We planned to walk from Haywards Heath to Balcombe so it wouldn’t be far to drive and there were bound to be road signs. At Balcombe, I came to a mini-roundabout where all the signs indicated everywhere but Haywards Heath. Well, obviously not Everywhere, but certainly everywhere that’s anywhere in green and pleasant, wellington-booty, duck-pondy, Range-Rovery Sussex. Haywards Heath clearly does not count (a low wellington boot tally, I discovered later)!
I searched for the road map but, incredibly, it wasn’t there. Had somebody been over-zealous in tidying up the car, I wonder? I slipped Cathy out of the glove compartment – don’t worry, she’s very supple – typed in Haywards Heath and took a guess at Station Approach. Miraculous calculation of about 108,239 routes and, quick as a flash, she’d worked it out. A mere 14 minutes away. Off I set. I felt doubtful when she had me turn left into an unmade road, but it was short and soon I was back on tarmac and back to feeling confident. After whizzing around sharp lefts and bearing right so often I felt giddy, finally Cathy announced: “You have reached your destination”, her broad smile seeping irrepressibly behind the words. It felt like the middle of nowhere; it was. I was at the station for the Bluebell Railway that pootles around Sussex in the season bringing wistful, misty-eyed rapture to the nostalgic.
Cathy was having a bad day. I tried Station Road and found myself in another village that also wasn’t Haywards Heath but turned out to be Lindfield – deeply Sussexy – and, to my great relief, a town that recognised Haywards Heath and pointed me on my way.
Our walk to Balcombe was a pastoral delight. It’s a section of the Sussex Hospices Trail which, despite its name, is not a walk joining up lots of hospices, but rather a community fund-raising initiative that has laid a trail all around West and East Sussex. We wandered through woods where paths were muddied by horses but carpeted with last year’s leaves, many of oak, and fringed with delicate wood anemones, their almost white star-shaped heads bent as if in modest prayer; we crossed little streams on wooden plank bridges; shimmied through countless kissing gates; admired the gently rolling countryside bursting into life with green shoots and songbirds; filled our lungs with the fresh air and our heads with a delicious sense of space. We walked the length of Ardingly Reservoir, a gorgeous stretch of water that, yesterday, glistened in milky sunshine. Boats are moored at a small jetty; a trail winds along near the water’s edge; trees, shrubs and reeds litter the shore. The path is quiet; just a couple of anglers casting their lines and the occasional dog walker.
The route turned away from the reservoir but we had missed our turning and never reached Balcombe. We didn’t care. We covered as many miles by the water’s edge and it was so peaceful. We strode or meandered along, lost in thought or deep in conversation, rummaging through the stuff of life: the worries and the joys, aches and pains, the struggles and sadnesses of family and friends, plans for next month or next year, the world around us and our inner worlds.
Getting lost doesn’t matter – maybe it’s the point. Letting go for a while and following where the path takes you. This is what rambling friendship is all about.