by Sara Sherwood
Going on a walking holiday was never one of my aspirations. Neither was writing about, like, the sky which I’ve always believed is the reserve of boring male poets. And what can you really say about the sky? It’s big. It’s blue. Rain falls from it.
But there I was, sat on a train from London to Lewes in my Doc Martens and Petite Anglaise anorak with a map detailing a five-hour circular route from Lewes to Virginia Woolf’s house in Rodmell. I set out on this heroine’s journey prepared with three pairs of socks, an iPhone loaded with podcasts and Instagram filters, Lisa Owen’s novel Not Working and a comforting heft of dread.
You may be wondering what inspired this: a need to emulate Virginia Woolf so that I, too, could write a canonical feminist text? Or perhaps I had just unclenched from a torrid romance and needed to cleanse my heart with fresh daisy air? Or maybe I’d just read a Guardian article which said that walking holidays in Sussex were the new Ibiza?
None of the above. I just like being on my own. I like the privacy of an open bedroom door in an empty flat, a personless kitchen where I can play Carly Rae Jepsen as loud as I like and the indulgence of having a shower for longer than fifteen minutes without a passive aggressive sigh from the other side of the bathroom door. And, yes, I had read a persuasive piece in the Guardian.
London, the home for my adult life, has become a cradle for my unhappiness. In addition to the suffocating rent, the repeating boredom of online dating and the growing exodus of my friends to other cities, I am a host for push notifications from my needy iPhone. At one time, being desired by a digital correspondent made me feel purposeful. Now I just think: I am one sent message closer to death.
“I wondered if this was what infinity felt like: to be able to see nothing but green and blue.”
The weekends don’t provide an escape. Most Saturday mornings, my coupled up friends will bed in for the weekend with their boyfriends. Their Instagrams with Borrow My Doggy subtweeting me back to my sexless bedroom, a blinding white and empty Word document my only company on Sunday afternoon.
I stayed in a B&B in Lewes, which was dreamily quiet and smelled of clean sheets. On my first morning, I ambled through the town, through its pretty, drenched-in-sunshine streets until I reached a brambled walkway that led me to the South Downs Way. As soon as I started away from the main route and into thickening silence my first thought was: This is where I’m going to be murdered.
But instead the brambles yawned open into green hills that bled into sky. As I took an Instagram for posterity I wondered if this was what infinity felt like: to be able to see nothing but green and blue. To breathe in unfiltered air and not think of my rotting black lungs. To feel the spring of freshly cut grass under my Doc Martens and not abandoned crisp packets and scrunched-up cans of Red Stripe.
I walked up steep climbs and careered down chalk valleys thankful that I had a body of energised muscle and a red heart which was pumping, pumping, pumping with every step. I walked for three hours and stopped in the middle of a wheat field at my highest peak and realised the glittering blue on the horizon was the sea because not all water is dead and muddy like the Thames. I stood there delighted to be sweating so much that I could wipe it away from my forehead and to be so out of breath that I had to put my hands on my head like my PE teachers always told me.
I descended from the South Downs Way to Rodmell, a tiny village where Leonard and Virginia Woolf bought a little cottage in 1919. My heart rate slowed back to normal as I walked in the middle of the road through the village, past pretty guest houses and a church with a cosy noticeboard which made me wish I lived somewhere softer than east London.
Monk’s House is a small 18th century cottage with low ceilings, brown tiled floor and a sun-trap conservatory blooming with green plants. It smells like all National Trust properties, a comforting combination of library books and Anais Anais, the signature floral scent of all the women volunteers. Virginia Woolf’s bedroom was an annexe to the main house and decorated with interiors from her sister Vanessa Bell and her artistic partner Duncan Grant. A delightfully eager National Trust volunteer told me that Virginia found it easier to write when she was cut off from everything else, when she could hide in her separate room away from interruptions.
I didn’t stay in Monk’s House for long, it took less than an hour to walk around and daydream that I had a writer’s shed at the bottom of a garden like Virginia did. Before I left Rodmell, I stopped for a packet of salt-and-vinegar crisps and a pint of Sussex bitter at the empty Abergavenny Arms, battling a long held fear that drinking alone in the afternoon somehow was a path to debauchery. I lost my hyper-speed London legs as I walked back to Lewes along the River Ouse and I didn’t look at my iPhone to check the time.
When I got back to Lewes I broke my three-month veganism in a pub named after a male philosopher by ordering a veggie burger with a hefty ooze of cheese. I drank another pint of Sussex bitter and wondered if walking holidays were something which could ease the impatience of uninterrupted 4G: my thrashing anxiety didn’t misinterpret emails or stare at the double blue tick on WhatsApp wondering why my friends weren’t messaging me back.
I returned to the B&B as the light began to fade, I ran a bath and filled it with fruitish smelling bubbles. I lay still in the warm water until the tips of my fingers and toes shrivelled and listened to all of Laura Marling’s new album, delighting at my aching calves.
‘Where were you last weekend?’ A friend asked as we queued for another overpriced brunch recommended by Time Out. ‘Your Instagram looked amazing.’
We drank water with cucumber and both ordered poached eggs with avocado on sourdough toast. We talked about our symbiotic relationship with London, how we daydreamed about living in other cities.
‘But I couldn’t leave.’ She said. ‘I’d hate living in some faceless backwater. What would I do in the evening?’
I thought of the newsletters which landed in my inbox every Thursday detailing innumerable activities which could occupy my mind: a new bar with flowering cocktails; a new exhibition at Tate Modern; a site-specific immersive theatre experience; more, more, more. I thought how I deleted them every time.
‘I think I could leave.’
Sara Sherwood | @sarasherwood
Sara Sherwood spends the majority of her time thinking about pop stars, the Kardashians and former British Prime Ministers. She lives in London.