LOOKING BACK: Childhood memories of camping high above the Cuckmere

Former Eastbourne man David Patterson standing at the front with his family outside their home before he emigrated to America
Former Eastbourne man David Patterson standing at the front with his family outside their home before he emigrated to America

This week sees the start of the memoirs of former Eastbournian David Patterson, who lived in the town before emigrating to America many years ago.

He writes, “When I was a boy we camped on High-and-Over above the Cuckmere River that took its own sweet time to flow to the nearby English Channel.

The horse carved into the chalk in the Cuckmere Valley

The horse carved into the chalk in the Cuckmere Valley

“A boy could see for miles from that ancient vantage point clear across the valley so very far below. The hillside slope was steep and bore a big white horse cut from turf on chalk-white rock by folks of long ago.

“That hilltop site was quiet and really rather lonely but that was fine with us. We made it good and homely. The best time was at nightfall when camp fire flames flickered. We cooked our beans and bacon and smoked jackwood harsh and bitter.

“The other kid was Dyson. His first name was Ron. He was a good companion, real laid back and fun. Camp was rough and ready with that other lad. We never minded that. It wasn’t all that bad. One time we stole some magpie eggs from a tree above the summit, cracked them in the frying pan and made a tasty omelette. I wonder if he ever thinks of us camping on that hill. It sure meant a lot to me and I know it always will.

“I sometimes wonder where he is but like me, he was a rover. Ron Dyson was my hiking, camping, youth hosteling, scouting, wrestling pal. Other friends fulfilled various roles in my other areas of interest with some overlap: the late Geoff Dyson (no relation to Ron) for aviation; the late John Clacy for Second World War and mock battles and jazz; the late Ralph Message for all things radio and electronic (with me as the listener mostly); Doug Howe for comic-swapping (Hotspur,Wizard, Rover, Adventure); and Pete Langford and Michael Ayling for mucking about in general.

“Ron Dyson and I made good use of the UK network of sign-posted public footpaths that criss cross the country, snaking across farmland, churchyards, and grand estates etc.

“The UK is a small country but, looking back from where I live now, felt much bigger and wide open due to those footpaths, accessible to anyone with a desire to explore.

“By contrast, when I first arrived in the USA many years ago, I felt oddly confined in this huge country because so much land is fenced off and out of bounds – don’t fence me in, wasn’t that the song? Of course there are vast and beautiful national parks, and good local parks wherein people can roam at will, but in the towns I have lived in the USA, a person has to travel a heck of a long way to get to wide open country.

“Ron lived in Willingdon, close by the old Ratton Woods on the other side of the A22, destroyed, sad to say, in the late 50s/early 60s in order to clear space for residential development. On our hikes either Ron would catch a Southdown bus and come to Eastbourne and then we’d make our way to the foot of Beachy Head and thence to all points west, or I took the bus to Willingdon and we’d go from there, up through the woods and beyond.

“As I write this I refer now and then, for geographical orientation, to my time-worn old one-inch-to-the-mile, cloth-bound Ordnance Survey map of Eastbourne and surrounds. That map is one of my dearest possessions.

“We slept in a barn near Exceat on one occasion, in a stall next to snorting horses. The owner had just returned from a horse show and was agreeable to hosting us because, like us, he’d been a boy Scout in his younger days.

“There were lights inside the barn and, after we’d sort of washed up at an outside faucet, we got settled down on our sleeping bags on a pile of clean hay, kindly spread by the owner, eating food out of cans, and chatting about our exertions and achievements of the day I suppose. As that was going on, we were visited by a couple of girls, one of whom was the owner’s daughter.

“At that age (13), and being boys, we weren’t quite sure about girls, even though both of us had sisters. They brought us biscuits however, which was nice. The ‘jackwood’ referred to above (don’t know the real name) comes from the slim, flexible branches of a bushy growth that one finds scattered here and there about the South Downs hillsides of England.

“The wood is porous along its length and, when lit to the point of smouldering, allows smoke to be drawn through by suction, as with cigarettes.

“We would cut a few five-inch lengths of the stuff, trim the bark off, and those became our cowboy-style ‘cheroots’. Jackwood is, I am sure, highly carcinogenic, and probably toxic to boot but, just as former US President Bill Clinton told an interviewer (to the accompaniment of considerable ribald laughter) when discussing college life and marijuana, we never inhaled – I probably would not be writing this today if I had.

“High-And-Over is a north-south flank of the South Downs overlooking the River Cuckmere from the west, about 250 feet above sea level and a few miles north of the English Channel.

“ It has a good stand of trees on top and spread over the flanks, but our actual camping site was in the clear, in a small hollow near the east side of the hill, offering a wind break for the camp fire and the tent, which was an old army bivouac, open at one end.

“If we had been old enough to have camped there ten years earlier (circa 1940), we would perhaps have seen now and then formations of German bombers and fighter-bombers roaring over the valley, flying low in the attempt to avoid radar detection as they made their way north to London and other target-rich locations. Or British and German fighter aircraft silently forming vapour trails high up in the sky as they fought it out during the Battle of Britain.

“Actually, there was another reason for camping in that hollow, which was not a practice recommended by the Scouting for Boys handbook (danger of flooding).

“On an earlier occasion we pitched a tent alongside the gouged-out gash of Cow Gap (no convenient steps down to the beach in those days).

“Just as we got tea brewing, a park ranger on horseback came along and, kindly enough, informed us that camping on the Downs was illegal.

“So we started packing up but, as soon as the ranger disappeared over the hill, we moved the tent to a fold in the ground about 10 yards away, left out the lower tent poles in order to lower the profile of the tent, and continued camping, hoping the peak of the tent would not show above the depression.

“It’s hard to convey just how quiet the countryside was back then.”

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