The World Transformed

We spent much time touring the countryside, in sun, rain, or snow, following footprints, comparing samples of mud, noting how the type of soil affected the quality and longevity of a footprint or hoofmark.

Laurie R. King, The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

I wasn’t quite sure what to expect from the weather today. I am staying with my cousin Maurice for three nights, being transported to and from the walks each day, and we both pored over the various slightly contradictory weather forecasts, trying to work out whether Wednesday or Thursday would be the better weather day to walk, and which would be the better day to rest. There looked to be more precipitation on the Thursday, so today it was for the walk.

There was scattering of snow first thing in Petersfield, so we left a little early for the village of Cocking where yesterday I had photographed the daffodils in the single gleam of sun which shone on me as I waited on the bench by the bus stop. Today was a different picture entirely.

Ordinarily at this time of year and in the dreary weather of the last couple of days this uphill track would frankly be rather dull, with mass-produced field gates, brambles, bare hedges and a stony concrete surface to provide good traction for muddy tyres. Yesterday the colour palette here would have been a range of browns and dirty greens, but today the uninspiring landscape was absolutely transformed — transfigured, almost.

I set off up the South Downs track, following in the footsteps of an earlier walker.

The snow was that extremely wet, sticky kind where the flakes clump together and then slump slightly to resemble blown foam.

Each stalk in the verges was elevated to a artwork,

the snow casting form and structure into sharp relief.

I was riveted as much by the transformation of the track on the ground as by the hedgerows. The snow held the story of the last hour or so in the prints and tracks and whilst I was on my own I felt some kind of interested connection with the person who had preceded me. Vehicle tracks had obscured footsteps, but it soon became apparent that there had been two walkers, with a dog, and that birds had also cross-crossed the tracks before or afterwards, looking for food.

The snow also provided me insight into the lives of creatures that I do not ordinarily see. There was something which recalled musical notation in the way the bird tracks arabesqued and curled.

Later on I came across the record of some small furious drama that had taken place on the ground, preserved by the snow.

I met a countryside ranger — one of only three people out on the path today whose walk intersected with mine — a young woman glowing with exertion after slogging up a track from Bepton about 2km into my path from Cocking. She hadn’t been able to get into work because the road was closed, so she’d come out on a walk to see the Downs in the snow. I asked her whether the the tracks I was seeing were hares or rabbits and she said that the rabbits locally were ‘magnificent’.

The hedges came to an end and fields opened out on either side of the track. Where normally there would be a view there was an eerie looming quality to the world.

Shadows of sheep and trees faded in and out of view, until I came across an entire flock standing or lying stock still, absolutely and disconcertingly motionless. It was as though they had just enough energy to exist but nothing more.

I on the other hand was keeping extremely warm. I stopped by a gate to remove some layers, eventually spending the day in just a thin long-sleeved top and a waterproof. Hat and gloves were in the pack.

I had been walking in the tracks of those West Sussex Kings Wenceslas for some time before the track bifurcated and their tracks went right. The dog sniffed down the left hand track for a while then followed its people; the vehicle tracks disappeared along with them.

It was a good thing the track was a direct straight line because following the waymarks could have become problematic.

I was now completely on my own, in time and space.

If it hadn’t been for the hedges I wouldn’t have known where I was going. I would have had to have walked on a compass bearing if the path had taken me across a field. The phrase ‘trackless waste’ crept into mind.

I realised how comforting the other human footprints had been – even the animal tracks. Evidence that other bright souls had existed here, if not alongside me in space, then accompanying me a little ahead in time.

The world seemed simultaneously sharply, definedly inhospitable

and disorientingly formless, inscrutably blank.

The act of walking forwards into that featureless nothingness gave me tiny flutterings of disquiet or the stirrings of anxiety. The world was unheimlich, uncanny, and I felt my sense of myself start to slip.

Looking back, the sight of my own footprints was reassuring: proof of two feet walking at a steady pace, supported by sturdy poles.

At last the track across open land ended and the path passed into a wood. Regaining a sense of scale and a context through which I might move and orient myself served to dispel the disquieting limbo through which I had been walking.

Immediately there was evidence once more of human life — a quite ordinary steel gate made fascinating by its covering of snow.

On the map, there were two patches of sizeable mixed woodland, linked with a long thread of a wooded corridor. Westdean Woods is a nature reserve, a working woodland on a private estate. Coppicing has been practiced here since the sixteenth century, and the ancient names of the parcels of woodland recall (sometimes indecipherably) something of their history: Venus Wood, Several Beeches, Slipper Row, Ruin.

The wood was extraordinary. The idea of Narnia doesn’t even do it justice. I walked through in disbelief, with a bubbling and irrepressible sense of joy and exhilaration.

The whiteness of the snow seemed to create the forms of trees and branches out of negative space by drawing sweeping lines of wet, black bark.

Yew trees were covered in the thickest of layers, so that I almost lost any sense there was a tree underneath.

Black and white was the uniform palette to which the last season’s beech leaves were an extraordinary exception.

The whole experience of being in the transfigured wood was other-worldly, made more so by the knowledge that I was the only person to have seen it so far today. A totally different sense of being solo in the landscape to the eerie track such a short while earlier. The tunnel through the trees was mine and mine alone.

It doesn’t pay to be spellbound, however, because signposts as well as yew branches can be obscured by snow. In deciding to forgo a detour to see the Devil’s Leap barrows, I missed the point at which the South Downs Way turned off the track, and I blithely carried on until I exited the wood completely and checked the map at a meeting of paths.


Rather than schlep back uphill I decided just to slog the 4km up the B-road, missing out an interesting section of the route — but rationalising to myself that Harting Downs would probably best be visited on a drier day in a different season.

The error coincided with a meteorological change. A thaw had set in and (more rationalisation) I was glad to be walking on a road.

The roads were pretty free of traffic for the hour it took me to regain the South Downs Way at the top of the long hill, and I could move at pace on the tarmac. There were good verges to hop up onto when cars appeared, to keep well clear of the sometimes spectacular sprays of slush.

There was a brief section of slippery woodland, well-visited by walkers before me and quite unenchanting and mundane in comparison to Westdean Woods.

‘The few early travellers had already turned the snow to mire.’ — The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

And then I was back out into farmland. Two hours and a few tens of metres of altitude had brought the world back into the plane of the ordinary. This time with slush and muck and a succession of swamps of freezing brown water. Where the track was stony the water had run freely down the slopes and filled the ruts to overflowing.

I had been surprised not to have seen any deer tracks up to this point. I now saw some, just visible in the pock-marked snow and slowly losing their identity — and that was just after I’d come across the lower leg of a deer, small neat hoof included, on the slushy track.

Farm vehicles had churned up meltwater into huge puddles on the surface of which slush floated sluggishly in a dirty layer.

Sometimes the track changed in character and there were short sections where the long lakes of slush gave way to drier conditions underfoot.

Here, the rain-filled, leaden sky billowed above the snowy sweeps of Downland fields, sometimes throwing individual skeletons of plants into sharp relief,

And sometimes opening up to view wide landscapes studded with frozen sheep in the far distance.

About an hour from the end of the walk where my path intersected with the Staunton Way and the improbably but beautifully named Milky Way, I passed a young Asian man walking the South Downs Way in the other direction wearing only trainers. They must have been completely sodden — if it wasn’t lakes of snowmelt on the ground it was thick slush. If it wasn’t slush it was mud. If it wasn’t mud it was snow; trainers weren’t suitable for any of those conditions. Mind you, I’m not sure my boots were that much better. Walking through thick slush is the same as walking through deep puddles, and I wouldn’t ordinarily choose to do that in walking boots.

‘I was dressed for the weather, but even so my high hiking boots […] had let in a miserable amount of weather’ — The Beekeeper’s Apprentice

My feet were warm but soaking wet when I arrived at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park Visitor Centre to wait for my lift from Maurice. I holed up in the warm café with a (poor but welcomely hot) coffee and a pasty, and reviewed the stats for the walk. I’d done 20km in five hours which I didn’t think was too bad considering the amount of time I had spent stopping to take photographs of the stunning snowscapes.

It was home to a hot shower, a convivial meal with my cousin and uncle, and a rest day to spend curled up with a cat.

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