Sussex's white cliffs are something else: steep rolling waves of white, seven in a row. I'm with friends, walking straightish route 14 miles along the coast from Seaford to Eastbourne. It’s the first walk back after winter, and the simplest, easiest and least ambitious escape I could make. Whatever it is, though, I need it. The walk grabs all the energy my lazy London arse could muster for a sunny Saturday. I could have been lying in my garden all day, sitting up only to drink another tinny. Instead I struggle four hours in dusty walking boots towards my destination: a cold shandy.
I've been at work all week, fingers tripping the keyboard and feet tucked under the desk. The newspaper’s been an endless churn of stories about the Home Office, and its new assault on the Windrush generation. Objective: getting out of my head. Here are waves of turf. Here is a beach cut in half by a river. Here the sea makes chalky plumes. Walls of green grass ride up and fill my gaze and cliffs of white chalk soar up from short backshores. Out there, the big blue Channel spindles out to the horizon. The view is huge and the walk is satisfying. Within half an hour, my hamstrings ache and the back of my T-shirt is damp with sweat.
In Kent, Dover's cliffs are just outside the sea port. They run white and constant, at a uniform height. (UKIP once ran an anti-immigration poster showing escalators running to their tops). From the sea, the cliffs are a picture of high-walled Britain. Now, even inside Fortress Britain, a dreading vertigo grows. Whenever you came, whatever your standing in the community, the Home Office can still pull the rug from under you. Uneasy residents cloak discrimination with the state-sanctioned term, ‘hostile environment’: in reality this means putting ‘Go Home’ vans on the roads, deporting survivors of abuse and torture, and forcing teachers, doctors and the general public to police one another’s immigration status. It wouldn't take much for us to fling you out, the tactics say. To even third- and fourth-generation Britons, people still ask: no, but, where are you really from…
Between Seaford and Eastbourne stand England’s other 'white cliffs'. The Seven Sisters come in waves. Peaks trade with dips, where shingle beaches and gaps let us down to the sea. The current of chalk swells and dwindles. At times, the cliffs stand unassailable; at others, the land admits a fault. But at every point along the path, whether high or low, you can see the line of the land in flux.
In 'Wanderlust', Rebecca Solnit writes: "When you give yourself to places, they give you yourself back; the more one comes to know them, the more one seeds them with the invisible crop of memories and associations that will be waiting for when you come back, while new places offer up new thoughts, new possibilities. Exploring the world is one the best ways of exploring the mind, and walking travels both terrains.”
What happens when the place you give yourself to, gives nothing back? What happens when someone else harvests 'the invisible crop of memories' you sowed, weeded and watered? I cannot write about these white cliffs without writing about those white cliffs. We read the landscape, and the landscape reads us. The coastline changes and our landscapes retake us.