Yesterday, I spent several hours in Lewes. It is the town I lived in between the ages of 6 and 16. I wandered about, exploring places I hadn’t visited for, in some cases, over 50 years. I walked up Chapel Hill onto the downs (my favourite boyhood playground) for the view over the town. Strong memories of many years of adventures up here with friends, with my dog, on my own.
This is an account of one particular memory, a recurring dream that I remember vividly from my childhood.
This was the origin of the dream: once, or perhaps a few times, when I was about 8 years old, I think, I crawled with a couple of friends under the fence that was supposed to keep you away from the edge of the chalk pit whose sheer face hangs over South Street. We dared each other to edge as close as possible to the drop to look over into the abyss. The photo below was taken from about the same spot on Cliffe Hill. I didn’t crawl under the fence this time though.
After the panic, after the sick sweat, after the feet-first frantic slide towards the edge with heels that would not grip, fingers useless in the grass, the wide air opens.
And there you are. Against all hope, against all expectation. Not falling, but floating.
Looking down, all fear dissolves. In the sudden, silent calm you drift out, away from the white cliff, cushioned on an eiderdown of air.
In your eyes there is a hawk’s vision.
Here is the river between its muddy banks. The tide is ebbing past the rotting hulk at the old cement works quay, past water meadows hemmed with irises, past the whale-back downs beyond.
There, across the river, the town climbs its hill – a map of roofs and gardens. There is the humped bridge, the streets and twittens, the castle keep. And you are gliding, descending slowly, over all these rooftops to where, in the railway yard, steam rises straight up in silent, boiling pillars.
Waking suddenly, you rise from bed and stand in pyjamas at the tall window at the top of the house. Beyond the garden wall, shunting engines clank and hiss.
Far off, in moonlight, you see the chalk pit’s white wall and the sheep-cropped downland dark above.