65 million years ago and more, microscopic creatures lived and died in the warm waters where our island came to be. The traces of their skeletons fell in drifts to the sea bed where, layer upon layer, they formed the mineral which became our most iconic coastline. The white cliffs of our Southern shore are really nothing more than a crush of tiny bones.
Chalk, to me, will always mean Sussex – especially the stretch of coast along the undercliff walk, east of Brighton, where I used to spend my lazy Sunday afternoons battling the wind for the papers at Ovingdean gap. The rock is so soft that a defence system of groynes and walkways has been built to separate the sea from its natural shore. Banked in by glaring chalk and concrete, the undercliff is a strange place to walk, but people love to be beside the seaside. On quiet days (in old clothes) you can lean against the cliff and feel the whole landmass of Britain at your back.
The pebble beach beneath these cliffs, just past the Marina, is an excellent hunting-ground for hagstones: nodules of flint which work their way free of the chalk as the cliffs erode, with their softer minerals smoothed away by the sea to leave a perfect hole. British folklore credits these stones will all kinds of powers – though a true hagstone, it is said, will float on water, something none of my flint specimens have ever done.
Two years ago I tried to walk this whole landscape, along the South Downs way to the Seven Sisters cliffs, where the white chalk plunges dramatically into the sea. The walk was a promise, of sorts, to the sea, made one lunchtime while standing up to my ankles in cold brine. I hated my job (not the people, or even the organisation; just the job) and I often walked down to the beach at lunchtime, easing my feet into the sea and letting the waters carry my worries away, before heading back to the office and another round of worries. I decided, that lunchtime, to learn all I could about this coastline, the better to appreciate the sea that was such a big part of my life at the time.
In the end, I made it all the way to Alfriston – the last leg! – before turning back with a fever. Over the next three days of convalescence I found myself shunning music and television, unwilling to relinquish the silence of the high Downs. There was no lingering sense of unfinished business; only a lasting impression of a quiet, open landscape, older and wilder than we know. The cry of the lapwing and the song of the lark, the unceasing challenge of the wind, all kept coming back to me in daydreams.
This Easter, I am going back – not to finish the walk (I hope I never finish walking on those Downs) but to drink in as much as I can of this sea-formed, wind-washed landscape.
[postscript: almost everything I know about geology I owe to Ian Vince’s brilliantly readable book, ‘The Lie of the Land‘]