As a child, I roamed a landscape I realise now I very much took for granted. Nestled in a village on the Kent/Sussex border, we had little money but an immense amount of physical freedom; fields and forests stretched for miles, and the uniquely invigorating breathlessness found in the wind atop the crumbling cliffs of Birling Gap was only a short drive away.
Saturdays became ritualistic; afternoons featured visits to a genial grandmother in Newhaven surrounded by a small army of knitted scarecrows, and evenings were rounded off with salt-and-vinegar drenched thick cut chips in greasy paper as we sat, my parents, my little brother, and I, warm and serene in our little VW and watched the sunset in “our spot”, a very specific little nook on the South Downs. As the seasons turned, meandering weekend drives past the snaking majesty of the Cuckmere went from sun-drenched to bathed in a damp mist, the joyful summery sneezes of hayfever turning to pink-nosed snuffles as the fog seeped into the car.
the winding geniality of Lewes with its hills rising sensually in the near distance, the majestic dread of the sweeping headland at Beachy Head
As far as formative landscapes go, it was something of a paradise. The quaintly ramshackle roads of Alfriston are indelibly imprinted on my mind, the texture of the stone and the violent red of the gargoyle-like creature standing guard outside the Star Inn oddly comforting even in their roughness and slightly witchy menace. The sobering surrealism of Newhaven Fort, the winding geniality of Lewes with its hills rising sensually in the near distance, the majestic dread of the sweeping headland at Beachy Head – all of these I took for granted as a solemn little tyke with sea grey eyes and a penchant for the ponderous.
Later, as university and the inevitable pull of adulthood wrapped itself around me, I left this Eden behind; the landscape that lures the imagination in childhood is not, it turns out, particularly affordable for the struggling young graduate.
For various reasons, I ended up in a part of the West Midlands so inextricably linked with grime, soot, smoke, and toil that it is said Tolkien found here his inspiration for Mordor. It was a conscious choice, carefully weighed up with considerations like jobs and stability and prospects, and the people I met here have been immensely welcoming. Besides, I contented myself with the knowledge I could always go back every few months and sate my thirst for Sussex and her expansive green offerings, her crashing seas, her blinding cliffs. I tolerated this stark change in landscape, but I did not relish it.
The lambs would dot the Downs once more with their fluffy white bodies and the sea would welcome me with three shades of blue and a haze merging into the horizon.
Christmas 2019 marked the first time I did not return to the parental homestead for the festivities; work was impossible to escape in time for convenient travel, and besides, I wanted a Christmas with my boyfriend, wanted to make new traditions and cement my adulthood outside the nest. It was fine, I told myself, I would go back in Spring. The lambs would dot the Downs once more with their fluffy white bodies and the sea would welcome me with three shades of blue and a haze merging into the horizon.
And then, lockdown hit. March found me not only confined to the Midlands but to my very small, very unpretty flat. I was fortunate to have a spare bedroom which quickly became my home office, but less fortunate that the views from the back of the property covered a dual carriageway rumbling in the distance, while those from the front offered me nothing but a looming tower block and a gentleman who, without fail, emerged several times daily from the house across the car park clad in his mouldy dressing gown, cigarette dangling from unshaven lip, to critically inspect his vehicle. “Car Man Electra”, as my boyfriend immediately christened him, was no match for the lushly serene views and gentle quirks of home. Skype calls home, meanwhile, merely made things worse; the sight of my beloved parents, sunkissed and squinting against a backdrop of willow trees and buddleia 200 miles away, made me want to curl up and cry.
March became April became Summer in full force. I poured myself into writing, into cooking, into friend phone calls and long distance chitchat. Life went on: I got a new job and turned 25. But in my dreams, I returned to the cliffs at Eastbourne where the old war planes used to swoop every summer for the Airborne show, the engines shaking the ground and the colourful trails of the Red Arrows streaking like bloodstains against the azure sky, indistinguishable from the sea below. I could almost feel the grass under my fingertips, the wind on my cheek, and when I woke up, I wished I was seven again. I got up, drank coffee, and tried not to look at the tower block, bleakly realising as each day blurred into the next that I had never felt so stuck.
Solace came, unexpectedly, in the form of Twitter. By chance, I followed a handful of accounts based in and around the South East, and my homesick whingings attracted kindness from people who sent me photos from their daily walks across my beloved Sussex.
Almost overnight, I found myself welcomed virtually home, living vicariously through the breezy strolls of kind strangers as they rambled across Seven Sisters, around the local woods and forests.
It dawned on me that, given that such a high percentage of my life is experienced online anyway, I was missing a trick with the digital options for reconnecting with these landscapes. If I told the Twitter algorithm what I wanted to see, no doubt it would oblige – a rare benefit of my every whim and piece of data being listened to by the internet! So that’s exactly what I did. The more photos I liked from rangers patrolling the Downs, the more accounts I followed tweeting out wildlife and rambling information for the area, the more rewarding my digital landscape became. The algorithm fed me hill after hill, valley after valley, and my recommendations began to extend beyond mere photography, including weather updates off the Newhaven coast – which set off a slight and unexpected nostalgic yearning for the dulcet tones of the shipping forecast, another feature of my childhood – and the gentle curls and curves of Eric Ravilious’ watercolour depictions of chalk paths and clifftops.
Crucially, though, a new version of this much-missed landscape is opening up before me
It has been almost 15 months since I hugged my parents or breathed the Sussex air. That’s longer than my first serious relationship, and certainly longer than I ever expected to be away. It’s still tough; there are times when I dream so vividly I almost feel the sea breeze whipping my breath away, and last week a girl I barely knew posted a selfie on Instagram and my heart lurched with jealousy and yearning as I recognised the bright white chalk face of Birling Gap in the background. Crucially, though, a new version of this much-missed landscape is opening up before me. It may only be pixels and the good intentions of online strangers, but in the face of lockdown and limited travel for the foreseeable, this digital reconnection with the South Downs has been, and continues to be, an unexpected blessing from the wilds of the internet.