It stands erect, ringed in red and white. The dark wilderness of its base set aside from the billowing white up swelling of the chalk cliffs behind it. Thrusting upwards in public warning, its tip glazed and different to its shaft, it stands out by day attracting the attention of thousands who come to gaze down on its magnificence.
The second erection is not as vigorous as the first. More domestic surrounded by lower structures it nonetheless stands proud atop the cliffs rather than in front of them, behind it the soft Downland swells to a distant horizon, dotted with white flecks of sheep and the bent curls of stunted trees.
The ground has been frozen hard for over a week now so although not dressed for rambling (I’m on my way back from yet another medical check) I decide to join the curious on this sunny day rather than just driving past. I park at Birling Gap and walk up the headland with my camera. It is thawing and this should have been enough of a warning, but my mind was busy telling my body I could walk the mile or so back to Beachy Head, and took no notice of the subliminal warnings my feet were transmitting.
The walk is part of my attempt to rebuild my body after the wracking it has had over the last two years, but I need the strength again for working in the studio, and I need to rebuild muscle. The hill is steep towards the lighthouse at the top but I plod on stopping frequently to turn and look back at the sunlit views across the Cuckmere to Seaford Head.
The grassy sward on the Downland above the cliffs is kind to walk on, scattered rabbit scat in the hollows, jackdaws, ravens and crows bursting above the cliff edges in noisy cackling competitions. Tourists hold aloft their mobile phones to capture selfies against the backdrop of the Seven Sisters. The light is superb, brilliantly clear after days of freezing frost and fog.
I tramp around the first erection I get to, the Belle Tout lighthouse, now a lodging house. Moved back from the edge of the cliff to allow for erosion the additional architecture to provide the bedrooms and living accommodation is ugly. The light itself has its handrail picked out in red, glowing its primary contrast with the blue sky above. The road I had earlier driven along cuts a sinuous shapely line along the Downland valley below. Along the horizon strolls a lonely bull.
I stand alone and photograph the red and white of Beachy Head lighthouse, grateful that although there are tourists around they are not here in large enough numbers to spoil my shot. Slipping slightly as I turn downhill, I ignore the second warning of how difficult going down was to become after the warm sun had turned topsoil into mud on top of frozen subsoil.
The tide has gone out whilst I’ve been walking and the light is still clear and brilliant. The views down the coast are superb, as is the contrast of the gold of gorse flowers against the cerulean of the sky. I meander my way across the cliff and then, a bit late in the day, see the muddy state of the final declination to the car park.
I can see no other way to go so cautiously I start down the slope. Whatever happens I must cushion the camera. Inevitably my legs stiffen as I try to keep my balance, the opposite of what I need to do, but the flat-bottomed town shoes I’m wearing are now beginning to act like skis on the mud, and finally the inevitable happens and I fall heavily on my arse. Immediately I am aware of how wet the ground is. I am also aware of how muddy I and the camera both are. I feel a fool, but nobody seems to have seen me, and I am unhurt. I feel as pink as the dog bowl someone has left behind.
I scramble to the bottom of the slope without further tumbles. I put a cloth on the car seat and lower my damp self into the car. I pause to scrape my shoes. The Wrong Shoes. With all the mud, I feel I am also wearing the Wrong Trousers, eh Gromit? Wet through, I know I’ll get a lecture when I get home. The Wrath of Khan awaits. Worth it for the pleasure the walk has given me, the sense of triumph that I did a few miles and just bounced at the end. My love affair with the Seven Sisters continues and I return home to the studio recharged, refreshed – and of course damp, muddy, and in need of a change of clothes….