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Home / Mint-lounge / Valley trails | Up the hill and down the mountain

Practicalities aside, the activity helps discover an important layer of the place—one that lies hidden from the superficial tours we subject ourselves to. London, Oxford and Cambridge are great destinations in their own right, but only a small part of a country that also has outstanding natural beauty.

On the trail: Paragliders ride the air currents over Sussex.

Our walk starts in a village called Hassocks. To get there, I take a train from London. The journey is a nice appetizer before the walk, with the train chugging away in a reassuring manner. All its passengers conduct conversations in hushed tones—a curious behaviour trait that I haven’t seen anywhere else. Even the children are quiet. My thoughts flow in a happy and silent hum, following the mysterious lives of people who seem to thrive in the middle of nowhere. I have no concern for the adventure, or lack of it, that the day might have in store for me.

In Hassocks, I meet the rest of the group and, for a few minutes, while the walk leader tells us about the path and the weather forecast for the day (clouds with some sun), we eye each other’s gear, an exercise that divides the experienced from new walkers.

Legend has it that the devil dug this valley. Photographs by Sneha Nagesh

Following this necessary ritual, we set off, and a few minutes from the main road, we are surrounded by trees. The sun offers us patches of light from time to time but the trees catch them with more ease than us. Some of us are with this particular group for the first time (the group is specifically for people in their 20s and 30s) and the air is thick with introductory conversations. After some stories of different professions, lifestyles and varying fitness levels, initial conversations establish one thing in common—everyone in the group has an insatiable love for the outdoors.

We arrive at the foot of the first hill on our route and conversation stops, giving way to silent, brisk, long steps as we try to climb up in a dignified fashion. At the end of our climb, we stop, again without discussion, for a reward—a snack and a drink from our respective knapsacks, while we savour the view around us. There are some cows grazing nearby and they don’t make any movement or show any signs of being disturbed by our arrival.

The story seems too gloomy to fit the place somehow, as we pass some other walkers, and an amusing little dog. He makes a big ceremony about walking— going a few metres, sitting down and refusing to go any further till his owners reward him with a pat, and carry him for a few moments; he then jumps out of their arms to repeat the process all over again.

When we reach the end of Devil’s Dyke, we find a pub named after the place. The wind is howling and people are sitting outside, gazing at the sky as it turns blue for the first time today. In addition to this, the blueness is marked with pastel shades. We realize then that we have walked into the territory of paragliders; nameless and faceless to us, they seem to be catching air currents like they own them.

The sun is now out in all its splendour and we find a place to stop for lunch, arranging ourselves in different degrees of comfort. As we munch on our sandwiches, one of the gliders moves around. As he carries out a series of manoeuvres forming infinity shapes in the sky, I am convinced of his ownership of the wind.

We find it difficult to free ourselves from the enchanting scenes, but we do in the end. Our path goes along a large farm and for the next leg of the journey, we are accompanied by gigantic tractors that throw mounds of dust up into the air. The dust clouds stay contained around the tractors and don’t reach us, as though respecting our transience.

It happens in a slow, calculated manner, but the path eventually begins to curve and then we see it in the distance—a view of the English Channel.

As we descend the hill, we are in a lighter mood and the tone of our conversation changes—becoming more easy-going and leaning towards favourite beach holidays. After passing some more farms and a large motorway, we arrive in Shoreham-by-Sea, a small port town.

The walk leader tells us that the town’s beach, our destination, is around 5km away. We quicken our pace, till we come to a group of houseboats on the Adur river, each looking more unusual than the one next to it. One of them even has a microwave turned into a postbox. It’s a surprising scene and people stop to take photographs as wind chimes on the houseboat produce a musical sound.

When we arrive at the beach, it has become considerably colder. A few people brave the water for a moment. A few minutes later, everyone heads to a pub. After a quick drink, I decide to go back to the beach. The tide is low and I walk closer to the sea as the setting sun makes strange reflections on the silted sand.

After the sun disappears, I sit cross-legged on the pebbles, feeling a kind of peace in the solitude and anonymity that I have come to associate with travelling on foot through the glorious British countryside.

Write to lounge@livemint.com

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