Saturday 20 December 2014

The long and winding road

Anything Gose: Siren's freestyling has
made light of the darkness
Brought to you by Nick Gilling

My regular journey to the south coast town of Seaford can follow a fair few routes, but none is more visually pleasing than the one I took today.

It's a stop-start affair through Sydenham and Penge before Beckenham beckons and I wend my way through West Wickham. After a swirling descent of Corkscrew Hill, I cross the divide that marks the edge of town and the start of the countryside. Layhams Road begins as a perfectly ordnary suburban lane, but just at the point where the speed limit ups to 40mph, the whole vibe changes.

Suddenly the trees overhang. The road surface mottles. Farmyard animals become more evident. As you cross Sheepbarn Lane onto Skid Hill Road, it's as if you've taken a wrong turn and ended up in the Yorkshire Dales. Hills hug and shape the road and a sharp right reveals a most gorgeous vale scarred only by the grey straggle of Beddlestead Lane.

That's the first pastoral phase of the journey complete. A succession of postcard villages such as Limpsfield and Crockham Hill punctuate the road to Edenbridge, then the tarmac rears up, twists its way through the woods and dips down over the border into East Sussex.

Watery tree-lined hollows abound along the way to Hartfield, one of my favourite spots on this route. It boasts two excellent-looking pubs, both of which offer accommodation ranging from simple bed and breakfast to 'en-suite' rooms. I'd like to stay over in one after a boozy night but have never found the opportunity. I think I prefer the sound of the simpler of the two.

A left out of Hartfield takes you almost two miles upwards through Chuck Hatch and Ashdown Forest, with its carpet of rusting ferns and promise of deer. I saw a stag crossing the road here once. It just bounded casually across the road as I applied the brakes and gazed in genuine awe.

Once atop the hill, the plain affords you many miles of East Sussex views and several times I've stopped in one of the landscaped car parks to survey the scene. It really is quite beautiful. And one day, I swear I'll stop at the Duddleswell Tea Rooms that are tucked behind a well-manicured green, neatly back from the road as it drops towards Maresfield.

The A22 drags on laboriously past Maresfield, Uckfield and through Halland and it's with some relief that I pull off towards Camberlot and Upper Dicker. The highlight of the journey is still to come and I sense it drawing nearer as I rumble over the level crossing at Berwick and strain my eyes for my first sight of the Wilmington Giant.

Plains flooded by the bank-busting Cuckmere River accompany the road to Alfriston, as does my eternal dilemma of whether to sing the village's name to the tune of either Galveston or Anchorage. It's usually Michelle Shocked's number that wins out. Once I'm through and past the Youth Hostel, I spy the white horse carved into Hindover Hill and hope for a clear run.

My poor little car doesn't like hills and struggles up towards High and Over (see what they did there?) car park if there's a slow-moving vehicle in its way. There isn't today and I get to the peak in third gear; an achievement for dear old Cleo.

The view that greets you as you crest the hill is quite breathtaking. To the left, the Cuckmere River meanders its way towards the sea, sheltered on its left by the first of the Seven Sisters. Seaford Head is clearly visible too and often, like today, the sun turns the English Channel into shimmering sequins that twinkle their way towards the horizon. Even Newhaven looks good from up here and that's some achievement.

Allowing for traffic, the whole journey takes just under two hours. It's a delight for the eyes and always gives me enough time to put things into perspective. I arrive at my parents' place soothed, not disturbed, by the ups, downs, twists and turns.

Now, all appears well. I've left the darkness behind me where it belongs: yesterday. Time for something black.

Beer: Siren Black Gose
Strength: A mercifully drinkable 4.2%
Smell: Slightly decaying Christmas cake.
Tasting notes: It pours like a bottle of Coca-Cola, so it's something of a surprise to discover that, instead of an overly syrupy soft drink, your tongue experiences a sensation not unlike that a sour, cynical regular turning on you in your favourite boozer. Completely unexpected. You thought it was your mate, but no. It lets you sit down next to it, then opens up, calling you out for practically anything it can think of and really getting under your skin. You can't leave; you've just bought a pint. Neither can you go and sit elsewhere. You've just got to sit and take it and hope he runs out of insults or gets bored. Just weird.
Session factor: It's one to acquire, this taste. But I'm getting there.
Arbitrary score: 111,074
Sponsor: Nick Gilling

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