I was excited and dreading these few days away on the South Downs in equal measures. Excited as it was going to be my first long distance walk totally self sufficient and carrying my gear for all eventualities and sleeping out wild as I walked west to east.
The dreading part, I guess, was because there was going to be absolutely no possibility of pulling out - I had a place to be. A place to navigate to and I had to be there for a certain time.
I had made a pact. For the last twelve months I had known I would be here as it was arranged, agreed on, hands shaken, embraced and promise made. If you do that you can't go back. Especially if it's your closest friend and as the plan is made he looks at you, deep into your eyes and says "promise me you will be there son, I will be and you will know that I am there too" - I agreed. My dearest friend passed away in the dark days of January and it has been difficult for everyone - hard to move on and shake the sadness. I found a note that had been written to me, again it pressed the point in the loveliest manner that I had to be at our meeting point. It closed with see you there.
For the first time in months my mood had lightened as I climbed the first killer incline of the day - it was as if every weight had been lifted from me and I was soaring like the skylarks around me. I cried, screamed and laughed at the same time - it was as if I had found something, found the activity that helps me to move on. Not only in walking terms but in my life. The lines you carve walking are good for you. You hear, notice, plan and think - you also remember and that was what this pilgrimage was all about.
My destination was nearly two days walk away, so I had plenty of time to think and remember times past - I was not alone as I know I had a shadow, a presence alongside me which was not only keeping me company but gently motivating me to keep going, keep plodding - you will understand it told me, you will see what all this is about and it will make your life better both now and in the future.
A magical night under the stars is something I am used to at remote ancient pools whilst fishing, but up here looking to the North Downs it sparkled. At times it felt like I was the only man alive.......the last man standing.
I reached Chanctonbury Ring knowing little of its history. My friend had camped here in 2007 and we talked often about the power this place seems to have. Also, the vista is special, you can see it from some way away and it sort of pounces on you as you get close.
This was indeed our meeting place.
I arrived early, for it was here where I was to camp, but carried on and decided to come back later in the day. It was busy and even with many day walkers about when I walked up onto and into the ring it felt like a veil came down over the place - I didn't feel uneasy but there was a feeling I was being watched. I noticed straight away that no birds sang here, they did in the neighbouring trees, but not here. I continued to the River Adur and thought no more of it.
I returned later in the day, water replenished and feeling weary as now the wind had got much colder and the rain was heavy at times. As I returned to Chanctonbury I was pleased to see it virtually deserted. I walked around and found the place which I thought would not only give me the best view of sunrise but also give me the clearest view of the path ahead as it curled eastwards. A slight dip on the ring was adequate for my back-packers tent and offered slight comfort from the ever increasing wind.
As the day shortened to evening I brewed some tea, said some words to the trees and decided to see what the night would bring. The evening reminded me very much of my worst weather experience fishing at the Wizard's Cauldron a deeply haunted place that I have written about here before.
The noise of the wind was incredible with driving rain of such force I was glad of my shelter, sleeping bag and hip flask. At 2am the wind and rain suddenly stopped - a Tawny Owl hooted in the tree just behind my tent - this was followed by a shriek heading from the trees out of the ring into open land and away from the ring. The wind and rain started up again, I sipped from my flask, looked at pictures of my friend and I knew he was here - I felt I was being protected.
They say the veil is at its thinnest on this night as it is on all hallows' eve and midsummer's eve, but not once did I feel concerned, just aware that I was not alone - being watched and now possibly protected.
Dawn came and the weather departed. Still alone I walked the ring, spoke to my friend, the trees and welcomed in the first day of May. I felt all was well and getting better - a promise kept, a meeting had taken place and a journey of discovery was ahead of me.
The Chancontbury Morris Men arrived as they have always done on this morning. A quite delightful and moving experience to welcome this most special day. As they departed I lifted my pack to my back and left this place..........knowing in some ways that I may not ever return for I have my memories and I had kept my promise.
My good friend Demus picked me up and took me for breakfast which was a most pleasurable end to my trip - he then told me a story I had not known. I have the book by Robert Macfarlane (The Old Ways), but it is still some way down in my reading pile. Demus told me if I had read his chapter on Chanctonbury Ring I may not have seen my journey through to its end. I'll let you discover that story for yourself, but my friend was both shocked and amazed to see what I had found at sunrise on May Day.
The stone you see below, complete with perfect hole, was left just outside my tent. It was not there as I arrived, it appeared during the night. Such a stone is known to bring you luck and protection. In Sussex they are known as Hag Stones, Witches Amulets, Fairy Stones or Odin Stones. The stone is exactly the sort as found at the ring, but rare with natural hole.
I was glad I had made my journey to this place and whatever happened that night I know it was meant to be.