On a weekend in March before these lockdown days, I went walking high on the Sussex hills in search of loneliness. I would have no chance again for months.
The South Downs escarpment above Fulking running east to the Devil’s Dyke has the grandeur of mountains. The chalk buckles into steep glacial vales. When the wind blows (always it seems) it cuts cold and sharp straight over the north edge. There is no protection.
I’d come for solitude twice over. Right up here in the keening wind, just a little south of the ridge, off the track and along a scattered line of gorse, there are remains of a deserted medieval hamlet. The folding land creates a shallow coombe but it’s hard to imagine why anyone might choose to make a living in such a location, so far above other settlements snug in the down’s foot-slopes. Perching (Perchinges in Domesday) was once a small but thriving community though, with a well and a mill, toughing it out in downland traditions.
Perhaps this hardship finally made life up here impossible. Or perhaps, like many of England’s 3000 or so ‘lost’ villages, it was left suddenly to the wind when the Great Plague devastated the population in the fourteenth century. The pandemic of an age; a pancosmic pestilence from God for our great ills. For what might God scourge us now?
Back on the escarpment I turned at the right moment to see a lone red kite alongside me soar over the precipice. They are the most exhilarating creatures of freedom, managing economy with such supreme ease, forked tails figuring the air like compass points. I thought of how often and for how long we’ve envied birds this. In the indoor weeks to follow, I thought of kites, knowing intensely the ‘clay that clutches my each step to the ankle’ while the kite ‘Effortlessly at height hangs … steady as a hallucination in the streaming air’ (Ted Hughes, ‘The Hawk in the Rain’).