Mark continues his attempt to make sense of the world for his grandson – and for himself. Theo has recently celebrated his first birthday.
There’s a particular walk, a favourite, that leads high across the chalky rise and fall of the Sussex Downs, following a trail carved long ago by the footsteps of the wives of local fishermen.
It was along this track that they would lead a small train of plodding, swaying donkeys on a journey from the struggling fishing port of Brighthelmstone to the grand neighbouring market town of Lewes. On the backs of those donkeys were strapped baskets – known as jugs – heavy with herring and mackerel, glistening from the sea.
Whenever the sun rose on a warm summer morning, it was a walk that will have had the women bustling and hurrying; urging the complaining donkeys on, desperate to keep their loads fresh for market.
On winter days when the cold drilled into them, they will have wrapped their shawls more tightly around, wiped the stinging rain from their faces and pushed on, heads bowed, into the bite of the east wind.
Where we now walk for pleasure, three hundred years they toiled. Eight laboured miles there; eight lighter homeward miles back, the fish delivered, the jugs empty.
It was a hard life in hard times – made worse by the Great Storm of 1703 that devastated the town of Brighthelmstone.
Daniel Defoe wrote at the time that the storm ‘stript a great many houses, turn’d up the lead of the church, overthrew two wind-mills, and laid them flat on the ground, the town in general (at the approach of daylight) looking as though it had been bombarded.’
Two years later, a second storm struck, destroying the lower town and dumping shingle high on the wreckage of the houses.
But somehow – as people do – the good folk of Brighthelmstone came through: the fishermen went to sea again and their wives resumed their journeys across the Downs.
Season followed season, year followed year, and they continued to live largely unaltered lives, to live much as they had for a century or more.
But then suddenly everything began to change around them.
And, absurd as it may now sound, it was all thanks to a man who thought it was a good idea to swallow sea water.
After Dr Richard Russell, life was never the same again for the people of Brighthelmstone.
Dr Russell was a Lewes man and, in 1750, he wrote an unlikely tract that advocated the health benefits of sea water – both of drinking it and, much more sensibly, bathing in it.
Word got around, the idea caught on as health fads do, and soon people were starting to come to visit the practice he set up in what was no longer Brighthelmstone but had quickly became Brighton.
The most important regular visitor a few years later was, of course, the famously spendthrift young Prince of Wales – who later became the Prince Regent and then George IV.
He spent much of his leisure time over the next forty years in the town – and it was here that he established a not very discreet residence for his long-term mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert.
Brighton owes him a great debt. In particular, of course, we have him to thank for the astonishing, exotic confection that is the Royal Pavilion.
But it’s much more than that. It’s thanks to him that the town grew as quickly as it did, became what it is – because where the outrageous, profligate young George went, the fashionable world came quickly after.
They built great houses, amusements, places of entertainment. And they brought a spirit to the town that has endured as it has grown over two hundred years to become a thriving city. It’s a place that knows how to party; that’s always open-minded, forgiving, occasionally outrageous; that extends a welcome to all.
And it didn’t stop with George. The world kept coming to Brighton long after he’d departed; the arrival of the railway, heralding a great Victorian age of piers and pleasure grounds.
Since then, of course, much like the landscape that surrounds it, Brighton has had its ups and downs. The town grew, prospered; declined, was down on its luck; became shabby, down at heel. But now it’s flourishing and confident again.
Walking through it today, those wives of fishermen would struggle to recognise any part of it
One day, Theo, you will make this walk with us. And you will see for yourself so much of the long history of the place – and more.
We’ll set off high on our hill, amidst the white stucco houses built for those that followed the money that followed the Prince Regent.
We’ll then wind down and past the Pavilion – our own iconic Taj Mahal, looking every inch the home of a dissolute Mughal emperor, with its mad extravagance of turrets, domes and towers.
On we’ll go again through the narrow twisting lanes that now house designer shops but were once the humble cottage homes of those long-ago fishermen and their wives.
Reaching the sea, we’ll come across the Victorian pier, still reaching jauntily out to sea.
We’ll then go east along the beach – where bathing machines once stood for those that flocked to practice what Dr Russell preached. Here we’ll walk alongside the track of the Volk’s electric railway; still proudly running after one hundred and thirty two years.
At a place called Black Rock, at the end of the Volk’s line, we’ll climb quickly away from the sea to Whitehawk Hill, where sheep graze, larks chatter above, robins and sparrows argue in hedgerows and where views open up that stretch back over the city, back over the sea.
On we’ll go again, following the gallops where race horses have trained for two hundred years or more. For this is the home of Brighton Racecourse, where the Prince Regent and his cronies would come and gamble away the day.
From the edge of the racecourse, we’ll pick up that trail that the wives of the fishermen made their own. And we’ll climb, up and across Newmarket Hill, where great mock battles were held in Regency times to entertain vast crowds; where a ceremonial Neolithic axe head was once found; where a hoard of Roman coins was uncovered; where a radio mast now stands.
Then keeping to the trail, we’ll pause amidst the sweeping roll of the green and golden downs, wondering at each new unfolding view – picture after picture that Eric Ravilious could have painted; that Kipling called ‘blunt, bow-headed whale-backed’; that Swinburne described as ‘green smooth-swelling, unending’.
And then finally we’ll pick up Juggs Lane – named in memory, in honour, of our indomitable fishwives – and descend steeply down towards our destination.
Arriving in Lewes, feeling the miles in our legs, we’ll sit and eat a picnic on the grass amidst the flowering abundance of the gardens of Southover Grange.
And there, Theo, as we eat, you’ll tell us about your day. About how the butterfly danced along the hedgerow and how the horses ran in the field; and how the shadow of a single cloud swooped dark like a crow across the hill; and how the path went so steeply down, it made your legs just want to run and run; and how the sky was wide and blue; and how the sea was still.
And you’ll tell us something important that we, thankfully, have long known.
That at every step along the way there was so much to see, so much that was new, so much to learn.
That walking is not just exercise – it’s history, geography, geology, archaeology, botany, art, literature and more.
And then – when we’re finally done, picnic over and all talked out – we’ll do what those fishwives could never do.
We’ll cheat and catch a train back home.
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