Where: Hassocks to Brighton
With who: James Burt
Who is James: James is a writer and computer programmer who has lived in Brighton for over 15 years. He has written several short fiction titles, many of which focus on walking and hiking, such as ‘Thatcher in the Rye: Hiking and Brexit’. He is currently in the process of writing a series of short fictions about the South Downs. (And has a seemingly unlimited stash of South Downs trivia, history and facts stored in his brain). He also teaches at, and runs a number of creative writing workshops in Brighton and beyond. He is currently in the process of relocating from Hove to Hebden Bridge in West Yorkshire.
Why did you invite James: I love James’ South Downs fictions series, and knew from the very start that he would be the perfect person to invite on this section of the route. He knows a huge amount of South Downs related trivia and history, including facts about the railway route which runs through it, and he has incorporated these ideas into his stories. I am also interested in exploring storytelling as a methodology in my research, and felt that James would be the perfect person to bounce around these ideas with, and maybe collaborate. He is particularly interested in very short fiction, and is a regular contributor to Fifty Word Stories. I think this approach is interesting given the small scale I am working at.
Ideas shared en route
As we set off from Hassocks, we started talking about hiking, the countryside, and land access. It’s interesting (and positive) to consider how historic rights of way are still legally respected. That said, we encountered more than one footpath on the route that was so overgrown as to be impassible. While this could be straightforward neglect, lack of maintenance can also be intentional blockade. Whose responsibility are footpaths? I believe maintenance falls to the landowner, and while an entity like Gatwick airport will abide by the letter of the law (no more, no less), individual farmers may not be so fastidious. We saw lots of signs for ‘The Monday Club’, who are a local team of voluntary footpath maintainers (whose presence I’ve also seen on other sections).
James has recently been thinking a lot about ley lines. For as long as I’ve known him he’s been fascinated by myth, legend and the occult, viewed from the perspective of a cynical but respectful outsider. He has created an algorithm to create personally significant ley lines, like one which connects his old place of work, house, a couple of favourite pubs, a friend’s house, and more. We talked more about the historic significance of ley lines and their origins (ley lines are lines drawn on a map connecting significant historic landmarks of roughly the same era, which supposedly have power flowing along them). James said he’d thought about creating all sorts of ley lines, like one of public toilets, which I liked the idea of. (A line of powerful public service provision).
James introduced me to the concept of ‘champing’ — church camping. Some open minded churches along popular walking routes (especially those under-provided for in terms of accommodation) have recognised that they could offer a greater welcome (and maybe make a little money) by letting guests stay in their (otherwise vacant) buildings overnight. On our walk we paused in Pyecombe church, which, with funding from the South Downs National Park Authority, left their kitchen and toilet (and church) open during the day for weary hikers to refresh themselves. We certainly appreciated the generosity of their welcome, and it made me wonder more about what it takes for this to be viable.
Again the theme of ‘queering’ spaces came up. I talked about how I’d originally thought that queering spaces had to mean changing them, but actually perhaps one can queer a space simply by being visibly queer within it. We had this discussion once again as we passed by a golf club on the downs. I was considering whether one could queer golf by participating (though all I really want to do is smash the golf-system), and James pointed out that golf is as much about the club as it is about the game. I don’t object to private clubs as long as they keep out of my way, but golf takes up such huge swathes of the countryside, it is kind of grotesque that it carries with it such an exclusive culture. (That depending on the club could make people feel unwelcome for a huge array of reasons, including race, class, gender, sexuality and more)
We talked about the importance of carving out spaces for adventure in mundane day-to-day life (particularly mid pandemic). While some amount of routine is important to most people, having absolutely no escape from routine, even during leisure time, can leave many people feeling empty and deeply unhappy. Walking/hiking have always been a free, mostly accessible way of having an ‘adventure’, but nonetheless, a proper countryside hike is not accessible to all due to the costs and challenges associated with getting out of the city. What this whole experience has shown me is that, with the right mindset, it’s possible to have a mini adventure even within just a few miles of home. How could I help foster this curiosity and passion for urban (and rural) exploration in others?
We talked a big about the Duke of Edinburgh’s award, and how, for some (me!) its pressures and trials put them off hiking and camping for life. The Duke of Edinburgh’s award is supposed to foster resilience and motivation and a drive to succeed, but in me it merely fostered an even deeper loathing of the countryside, and a firm goal to absolutely never camp again in my life. I have absolutely no sense that a desire to camp is something we need to foster in anyone, BUT, wouldn’t it be nice to teach our kids that a walk in the countryside can just be a fun, chill, social, interesting experience, rather than some bleak test of endurance and team building?
As we reached the A23, we discussed hostile spaces — or specifically, spaces and places which are hostile to pedestrians. As we struggled to find a route across the dual carriageway, I was struck by the largeness and inhuman scale of everything, from the width of the roads to the huge signage. These are spaces designed for speed, for machines, and they do not offer a welcome to humans outside of these machines. Of course, the same could be said of the railways, but roads have always felt like a bigger affront because of their proliferation and the feeling of individualism, rather than that of collectivism that trains offer.
We talked about leaving Brighton. I lived there for nearly a decade, and James has lived there for over 20 years. I left in late 2016, James left just a couple of years ago. Unlike me (I left to please a partner), James is ready to go on his own terms. He feels the need to break out of old habits and social patterns, and forge a new life for himself in a new community as he enters his mid 40s. He suggested that perhaps Brighton doesn’t have anything for you if you’re not young or wealthy. It was food for thought indeed, because (as I also discussed with Jade), it does feel like long term happiness in Brighton could only be possible with wealth. I sometimes think of returning to Brighton, but I have to ask what kind of life I could actually lead there on unstable income.
James mentioned that returning to Brighton after a couple of months away he felt nothing — he had expected to feel big emotions. I said I’d had the same experience when I first moved to Hebden Bridge and returned within a few months. It felt like I hadn’t even been away. But when I was gone for over 18 months during the pandemic (the longest time I’d been away since I moved there in 2007), I missed the place like a physical ache. The first time I returned in June this year I wept with emotion as I arrived. What breeds affection? Familiarity? Positive memory? A visceral combination of the two? Either way, Brighton is etched onto me for the rest of my life. James has an even longer history there than me, and we wonder whether, given a similar amount of time away, he will experience the same emotions and weight of memory on his return.
We talked about how much harder it is to get lost now than it was when we were growing up. Of course this is mostly a good thing — our devices keep us safe and situated at all times, and though of course we still lose our bearings or make errors at times, these are quickly understood and rectified. I recall an exercise I undertook in the summer holiday before my undergraduate degree started (2007), before I had a smart phone, where I was prompted to ‘get lost’ by a pre-uni brief, and I had my dad drop me and a friend at a random spot in the countryside as didn’t know, having had our eyes closed the entire journey. He came to pick us up once we managed to find a village. It was a fascinating and fun exercise and I slightly resent my own personal inability to switch off.
We talked a bit more about the history if wayfinding in travel, and James told me how the earliest lonely planet guide was only 96 pages long and advised on how to get from London to Australia. It was less about sights to see, and more about places en-route to find community and get the most up to date advice on border crossings, local food and other information that we would now use the internet for. I like this analogue approach to finding community and structure while travelling. About learning how to travel rather than where to travel. We also touched on psychogeograohy and how capitalist cities and capitalist city planning conventions give us an ‘instinctive’ sense of which routes we should follow to remain safe and not get lost — and these are often ‘the main drag’ where all the shops are situated.
On the subject of trains, James referred to ‘the east Croydon shuffle’ (his name for the strategy) where if the trains are in any way ‘fucked’ and you’re in London wanting to get to Brighton, you just want to try and get to east Croydon, because you have more options from there. East Croydon is another of the places along the route (like three bridges) that most brightonians rarely want to be and have often never left the train station, but are nonetheless intimately aquatinted with. James heartily agreed with Alex’s observations about how draining the commute is, and spoke with disdain about ‘well-meaning artists and placemakers staging interventions to try and make commuters talk to one another’.
And with that… My London to Brighton odyssey is (nearly) over (I still need to go back and do walk 9, which was postponed for COVID related reasons!)
Now, to figure out what’s next… More soon I hope!