I think the recent blow to my head must have affected the choice of my first outing to get back on track for El Camino since having recuperated. With the benefit of hindsight, deciding to walk along the Beachy Head and Seven Sisters clifftops in gale force winds and driving rain possibly wasn’t one of my most inspired ideas. Particularly as I failed to check the weather forecast before setting out on a deceptively clear, sunny morning in Brighton without so much as a shower-proof jacket. Perhaps there was a hint of karma involved, given that it was a lack of water that caused my accident in the first place?
Beachy Head, where my walk started, is the UK’s highest chalk sea cliff, rising to 530 feet above sea level. High enough, apparently, for Timothy Dalton to parachute to safety from the jeep he managed to drive over edge of it at the beginning of The Living Daylights. And certainly high enough to ensure that Sting’s face wouldn’t be quite so ace when he found out what Phil Daniels had been up to with his Lambretta at end of Quadrophenia.
But the altogether darker side of this landmark is its notoriety for having one of the highest suicide rates in the world, an average 20 or so a year, surpassed only by by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Fransisco and the Aokogahara Woods in Japan, according to Wikipedia. Which also makes for a decidedly sobering start to the walk, with the edge of the cliff being dotted with memorial crosses and remembrance flowers to those who have taken their own lives.
And which is also tragically relevant to any discussion of bipolar disorder. The statistics for bipolar suicides, which I’ve taken from the exhaustively researched and highly informative blog bipolar-lives.com, speak volumes; many studies indicate a 15% rate of suicides amongst people with bipolar disorder – about 30% higher than that of the general population.
Thankfully, the statistics from some of the more recent studies indicate that rates are decreasing, and for two main reasons; firstly, the studies tend to take in a wider range of bipolar people, whereas earlier studies focussed only on those who had been hospitalised; for me, the key implication of this seems to be for those whose symptoms are less severe, the condition is eminently treatable. The second reason is the increase in the use of lithium and other medications that effectively treat biploar disorder. I’d say, a little opportunistically, I’ll admit, that these are also two excellent reasons for supporting my objective to raise as much as possible to advance the understanding and effective treatment of bipolar disorder when I finally set out to walk The Northern Way!
But getting back to this walk, one of its main attractions is being able to see the entirety of the 7 mile route over to Cuckmere Haven stretching out ahead of you. As idyllic English vistas go, it’s pretty hard to beat the South Downs undulating into the horizon on one side and the sea merging with the sky on the other. In theory, anyway. All of five minutes after I took this photo (also all of five minutes into the walk), the sky turned monochrome, a pea souper of a sea mist rolled in over the headland, and things started to become positively pluvial.
Thankfully, the only spot on the whole route that offers any kind of shelter, The National Trust café at Birling Gap, was only a fairly short walk away; you can just see it on the far side of the hill that the lighthouse sits on. But even though it’s closer than it looks, by the time I got there I think it’s fair to say that the relative appeal of walking the coastline in Northern Spain had increased quite considerably.
And even if the weather can be blamed for dampening my spirits a little, I think it’s also fair to say that any incipient unpatriotic feelings weren’t entirely helped by the The National Trust café itself. I would have thought that the demarcation lines between “buildings of historic interest that merit loving restoration” and “architectural carbuncles that ought to be carpet-bombed” were quite well defined, but apparently not.
To be charitable, maybe it was just the Diamond Jubilee decorations that let it down; let’s just say that whoever was responsible for this particular aesthetic triumph had not been fully briefed on the National Trust’s tagline “Time Well Spent”. Or maybe it was the Diamond Jubilee commemorative menu, which seemed to consist predominantly of soggy fish and chips, ossified scones and that glittering star of British cuisine, the Battenburg cake. I think I’ll leave it to that ultimate arbiter of bad taste, Charlie Brooker, to summarise the appeal of this little amuse bouche with his analgous reference to it in his take on the theme tune of Coronation Street: “…the aural equivalent of having half-chewed, week-old Battenburg cake dribbled into your ear canal by a senile grandparent”.
On the upside, the rain had also subsided to a light dribble by the time I left the café. Without the benefit of a guidebook to occupy me with choice anecdotes about the rest of the walk, I had to rely on my limited powers of observation as I traversed the sheer rising and falling gradients of The Seven Sisters cliffs to fill in the gaps writing this; quite how limited is clear from the fact that I almost managed to walk straight past this rare sighting of a Peregrine Falcon up close in the wild, and only just managed to fumble a quick photo a split second before it soared off in search of prey which I hoped, for its own sake, would be slightly more observant than I was.
But one thing that I did notice left me stumped. Clustered together at regular intervals along the top of the cliff face were what I could see no other explanation for than exit points for rabbit burrows that had been dug just the other side of the cliff brow. Was this perhaps evidence of a mass migration of lemmings to the English south coast taking a fancy to the local rabbit population, creating a mutant species with a self-destructive streak? Or proof of the existence of colonies of bob-tailed wannabe Laurence Llewelyn-Bowens competing to create the ultimate warren with a view? Or maybe rabbits are just a bit thick? Whatever the reason, it looks like the local falcon population is quids in.
All of which utterly pointless mental meandering brought this walk to its conclusion, back down onto the beach at the stunningly pretty, and conveniently named, Cuckmere Meanders and the satisfying sight of The Seven Sisters stretching all the way back to where this post began.