In Search of Andy Goldsworthy

Yesterday, for the second time, I failed to follow the Andy Goldsworthy sculpture trail around West Dean. The first attempt was a couple of years back, with my friend Sophie. That time we were defeated by mud and unreliable directions, with Sophie announcing  that “I’m not sure who this Andy Goldsworthy fellow is, but I don’t want anything more to do with the man.”

It’s probably a good thing we did turn back on that trip, since I’d not realised that the end of the trail would have left us about 3 miles from where we’d parked. I’m not sure Sophie would have liked that surprise.

My walk yesterday was with another friend, John, part of a day exploring West Sussex. We started with a visit to Kingley Vale and its forest of yew trees, some of them thought to be 2000 years old. Many of the tree’s centres have been rotted out by a fungus called ‘Chicken of the Woods’. And, yes, wikipedia’s entry on this does include a link to the tastes-like-chicken entry.

It’s pretty impressive to be near a living thing that is that old. Apparently the area was a firing range used by British and Canadian troops in the preparations for D-Day, and some of the trees contain bullet-holes. On the hill above the yews are some amazing views down to the sea:

Our first failure of the day was an attempt to visit the Clock Trust Museum, said to be the location of a working time machine. Sadly this is now by appointment only, so we continued on to the not-amusingly-named village of Cocking, the start of the Goldsworthy sculpture trail.

The trail features over a dozen chalk boulders along a five-mile stretch of the south downs. Some accounts say 13, others 14 – which fits in with the folklore about stone monuments being impossible to count. We set off uphill, along a stretch of the South Downs Way. I’d walked this last August but had no memory of the particular path until I turned back and saw the view towards Cocking, which finally sparked some memories.

The leaflet and map for the trail makes it sound straightforward. The first time we turned back because of mud and unsuitable footwear after finding just one of the boulders. This time, because of weather, we also stopped after one stone. While I would never turn back because of rain, John had come out only in light clothes and would have soon been soaked to the skin. We retreated to Uppark, a National Trust property in search of food and history – which we found, although we paid a high price for both.

We ended the day with a climb to see the Vandalian tower, a folly erected in 1774 to celebrate the founding of the American state of Westsylvania. When the colony failed, the site was abandoned and now lies in ruins, protected by fences and dire warnings.

At some point, I need to come back and make a serious attempt to see these stones. Not because I’m that big a fan of Goldsworthy – I like his art, but not three trips worth – rather, I just hate the idea of having failed at such a simple hike.

The weirdest thing about the day was finding myself on sections of the South Downs Way and finding it so hard to recall the landscapes. I’d have expected the scenes to stick in my head. It took a few minutes before I realised that I had also been to Harting Down.

The Lives of Three Wattles, the Life of a Hound;
The Lives of Three Hounds, the Life of a Steed;
The Lives of Three Steeds, the Life of a Man;
The Lives of Three Men, the Life of an Eagle;
The Lives of Three Eagles, the Life of a Yew;
The Lives of Three Yews, the Length of an Age.

—Traditional

Walkerpunk

My approach to walking can probably be summed up by my boots and how inappropriate they are.

My first long walk was in August/September last year. I’d done some epic day walks, but nothing longer. I’d been meaning to walk the South Downs Way for a long time – probably twenty years or more. Finally, I picked a date and committed to it.

I walked the route in my DMs. By the end of the fourth day, standing in bare feet was agony. I hobbled and limped my way through the last two days, aching but undefeated. And a lot of people asked me what I thought I was doing by walking in DMs. I figured it was better to walk in the wrong footwear than not at all.

The thing is, if I’d had to get the right boots, I wouldn’t have gone. Organising the walk, packing, and so on was enough trouble. If I’d had to invest in a expensive footwear, with all the doubt and uncertainty over that… the walk would not have happened. So I set out and dealt with the consequences. It wasn’t a great decision, but it was the right one. And, actually, a lot of people make hiking sound far too difficult.


Many years ago, the punk fanzine Sideburns printed a famous picture (later reprinted in Sniffin’ Glue). It showed three guitar chords and declared: “here’s one chord, here’s another, and another: now form a band”. The great thing about punk was that it made it seem easy to form a band and play music. And while punk spawned hundreds of terrible single-gig bands, it also produced raw and exciting bands that would never have existed otherwise. That punk spirit is an amazing thing.

And that’s the approach I have to hiking. It’s supposed to be simple, something anyone can do. You can make it as difficult as you like, or straightforward. You don’t even need to get to a trail: like Will Self, you can set out from your own door, and walk as far as you can. It doesn’t require exotic expeditions: Alastair Humphreys has written a lot about microadventures. You don’t even need to go anywhere new – the situationists came up with strategies for defamiliarising well-known neighbourhoods.

And I’m not the only person to have taken a slipshod approach to footwear. Even proper walkers like Tristan Gooley get this wrong. In the introduction to his Walker’s Guide to Outdoor Clues and Signs, Gooley describes a walk made in his twenties, from Scotland to London. Three weeks in, crossing the peak district, Gooley encountered some proper walkers, with all the right gear. They warned that he probably didn’t want to continue in his “£19 trainers”, then asked where he came from. Gooley took pride in shocking the walkers by saying he had come from Scotland.

I’ve got the boots now, but I still take pride in looking nothing like a proper walker.  In my heart, I’m not walking because I’m boring or middle-aged. In my heart, walking is subversive and thrilling. I’m not a walker. I’m…