A version of this piece first appeared on Trampset
In April, the reality of the pandemic fades into the background as my family deals with our own internal crisis. The house is in Kemsing, a southern English village in the Kent countryside. It is nestled on the slopes of the North Downs, a range of rolling chalk hills that stretch through the counties of Surrey and Kent to the coast at Dover.
All the expected accoutrements of this idyllic location are in place, from red brick cottages festooned with roses bushes to an historic church and, of course, a local pub. Its population, however, belies its traditional rural aesthetic. Nearing 5000 inhabitants, it is really an extension of the nearby commuter town Sevenoaks. Still, it’s the kind of place where everybody seems to know each other, where people say hello to complete strangers who they pass on the street.
The locals being mostly a mix of young families and retirees, it’s odd to find myself back here, a thirty-something professional dislodged unexpectedly from London. Life in Kemsing doesn’t just move at a slower pace, it is also less convenient as everyone here relies on cars for doing groceries and generally getting around. But you can also walk out of your front door and be in the middle of open country within a 5-minute stroll.
The cultural pull of London is potent, especially for those of us who’ve grown up, so close yet so far, in the innocuously suburban home counties. But a love-hate relationship with the city feels inevitable. Brilliant as a gemstone, it is a cold and unforgiving place, even when you’re doing well. It was normally whilst enduring the Northern Line on my morning commute that I would wearily consider whether living there was worth the effort.
Nevertheless, my return to the family home was hardly something I had wanted. It was an emergency measure, a safety net triggered in the aftermath of redundancy. When I got off the train in the village a crushing sense of failure trundled along in my wake with my suitcase, my recent losses haunting every prodigal step back to mum’s front door. I consoled myself with the determination that it was only temporary – I would be back ‘home’ in London before I knew it.
Whiteleaf Down, Kemsing
A hike is required daily, to exercise mum’s dog Barnie, a two-year-old black Schnoodle who enjoys chasing balls, bouncing and waking me up at 6am. As Barnie has a lot of energy we spend most mornings on a circuit that takes the edge off. We start on Pilgrims Way, a busy road that runs through the village, leaving it to climb a steep wooded path, known locally as ‘chalky lane’, before emerging into open fields. From here we cross the North Downs Way trail from the neighbouring village Otford, which heads further east towards Canterbury.
Barnie can now be let off the lead while we play his favourite game. This requires two balls that I throw in quick succession and he refuses to bring back. Confined to one walk a day in lockdown, this game has meant that Barnie gets the full benefit of the chase despite the frequent problem of balls falling unseen and irretrievable into the undergrowth. I must have lost at least 30 balls by now, so the system is deeply flawed, but Barnie enjoys it.
We normally circle back on the chalk ridge at this point, to the summit of White Leaf Down in Kemsing Nature Reserve, which provides panoramic views of the surrounding area. Growing up here I am familiar with these views and yet I still find them awe-inspiring on a daily basis. Preoccupied by life in London as I have been over the last decade, I had forgotten how much they meant to me.
I find her on the decking. Don’t move, I yell. I call the ambulance. I can hardly speak. I cover her with a blanket. I sit with her, supporting her back as they had told me to do on the phone. I stroke her hair tell her everything is going to be okay. I keep telling her not to move. Crying and shaking, waiting for them to arrive.
My daily walks with Barnie provide respite from the strain of our situation. Caring for someone else I need, more than ever, to be mindful of my own mental health. I am struggling to come to terms with what has happened with my mum, where her suicide attempt brought on by bipolar disorder has left her with injuries that will take time to heal. Mental illness is insidious, the boundary line between where it ends, and the person begins, ever shifting. I am struggling with the fact that my mum made a choice that wasn’t really a choice at all.
More than anything, I want my mother to be well. I focus on practical tasks. I cook, I clean, I walk the dog. I call the doctor, arrange hospital visits, pick up meds. My aunt, her sister, comes around each afternoon and we take turns doing physio exercises with my mum and playing dominoes. Mum is very diligent at doing her exercises. I take this as a good sign. I cling on to it. She wants to get better.
Weeks pass like this. I have many moments of despair. Mainly Mum sleeps. The doctors say this is normal, her body needs to heal. I worry I’m not doing enough to help her want to engage with the world. I try a puzzle book. She says she can’t focus on the words. I try colouring. She does it for ten minutes, says she’ll try again later. The constant refrain in my head: you could do more.
The edges of my future become weaker with every day of lockdown. For a while it is entirely irrelevant. There is no longer any definition of the schedule needed to put things right. For now, I walk, making up for lost time on the North Downs. The walks with Barnie, fresh dewy morning strolls through the woods and fields at the top of the hill above the village, are often the only good part of my day. There is no guilt in the hills.
A Cornfield, Somewhere in Surrey.
In the field underneath Whiteleaf Down there is a plaque commemorating Don Eley who led the creation of the Kemsing Down Nature Reserve. It simply says, ‘His Memorial is all around you’. The British landscape is filled with such messages to those who came before, celebrating their lifelong enjoyment of particular views or memorialising those like Don who have been instrumental in establishing protections. Often engraved on benches these notes are easily missed but they serve to deepen the meaning of your own experience as a walker by connecting you to peoples’ shared joy in the natural world. They also highlight the vulnerability of these cherished spots, the need for locals to become custodians of the places they love.
The North Downs Way itself opened in the seventies, one of 15 national trails, official English walking routes reliant upon public rights of way across private land. This route roughly follows two ancient tracks for almost 153 miles from Farnham to Dover. I learn that the route is easy to take up in day-sized chunks because you can hop on and off easily via the trainlines that connect the suburban towns and villages it passes through. I decide to give myself the North Downs Way as a project, an adventure that sits somewhere between self-care and therapy, an escape from boredom and a lifeline. It’s taken me seven days to walk 89 miles along it, often accompanied by Barnie, completing the Surrey portion from Farnham to Oxted and starting into Kent.
The beginning of the route is no beauty spot, a claustrophobic and litter strewn dirt path running beside the A31. But the noise of the road subsides as Barnie and I walk, the path curving away and out across fields. It is overcast and muggy, the mizzle settling like dew on flat farmland that soon starts to rise, the hulking grey green ridge that marks the start of the North Downs, The Hog’s Back, visibly loping east across Surrey.
As I walk, revelling in the solitude and tranquillity, I decompress. At home I get so frustrated. I’m bored. Like a petulant teenager I keep thinking, it’s not fair, why should I have to? Each morning I walk the dog before breakfast. When I get home, I’m suddenly anxious; the to-do list hovers. I snap at my mum over something petty. Guilt descends, tightening my throat. You should be doing more. I cook. I show my love through food. I pour it into scone mixture, bake it into quiche. My mum eats a mouthful or two. I tick her off. You’re not even trying. I chat to my aunt. She gets it. We’re in this together.
Even on her worst days. Even just after she did what she did, when she is still in hospital, my mum asks about the dog. She worries about him constantly. Has he been fed? Who’s going to walk him today? Has he had his flea treatment? We need to book in his booster jabs. He needs a haircut. When mum first comes home from hospital Barnie sits on her bed for much of the day. Her love for Barnie gives me hope. She cares about him; she wants to live.
We’re pulled together as a family. My sister is finally able to get home from South Africa. She starts doing the weekend shift so I can have break. She reads to my mum. She gets her to write a food diary. When businesses start to reopen my mum insists on reinstating the dog’s monthly groomer visits. My sister and I roll our eyes at the price. She won’t budge. Barnie comes back from the groomers neatly shorn, black fur gleaming with a blue bow on his collar.
As I walk, I reach a cornfield in full flower, filled with long rows of stalks, their wide green leaves shimmering with moisture, pieces of corn packed like mosaics on cylindrical cobs, yellow flesh ripe and juicy. Barnie pads along happily beside me on the soft sandy ground, the moody farmland stretching out before us. A pretty white cottage is nestled in a copse, chimney poking out from the dark green canopy. I think about Tottenham Court Road, the grubby stretch between Warren Street and my offices that I used to hurry down each morning, past the same dull chain stores. I remember how eventually I started getting off at Oxford Street, trying new routes just to add a touch of variety to my daily routine.
Despite everything with my mum, on top of redundancy and the soul-destroying experience of being unemployed right now, this time feels like a gift. I have so often resented giving the best of myself to the office. Walking is a respite from a difficult situation, but it is also a revelation. I have discovered that adventure doesn’t have to mean getting on a plane to New York or Thailand. It can simply mean a few hours walking the dog in the Surrey Hills.
As I continue my weekly North Downs Way hikes, I begin to notice changes in my environment more keenly. I learn to look out for nature reserves which can be clearly identified by their vastly increased biodiversity. At the other end of the scale are the manicured spaces of all too frequent golf courses in Surrey but even the wheat fields and woodland trails are less hospitable to delicate flora and fauna. I am acutely aware of the climate crisis when tuning into the environment on this micro-level. Kent Wildlife Trust say they are committed to safeguarding their small nature reserves, like Kemsing Down, because they are often the last refuge for declining species.
On the next section, Guildford to Dorking West, the ground turns from sandstone to chalk, the start of the Downs proper. It includes another such reserve, Hackhurst Down, designated a site of special scientific interest due to the richness of its chalk grassland habitat. Here wild basil, marjoram and juniper grow. Sun warming my back and tummy grumbling, I make my way through an overgrown path bursting with this abundance of flowering species. I brush past hordes of delicate brown and green stems, plants crested by a plethora of petals in pastel shades, rare butterflies bobbing around, the mingling fragrances of herbs potent in the hot summer air.
I find a bench and stop for lunch. The view looks out over the top of the Downs, the sharp dip of the chalk slope giving way below me, opening up to a spectacularly wide vista of the Surrey escarpment; undulating fields intersected by clumps of woodland, trees waving royally in the summer breeze, light green grassland and the burnt goldish umber of harvest-ripe wheat kissed by the shadows of passing clouds in the cerulean sky.
As I sit here, a tiny dot on my bench in the midst of the hilly scenery, I think – what it is it about a view? From a window, out across the sea or from the top of a hill, there is something indefinable and yet enduringly hopeful about the experience of looking out at the world. There is a freeze frame inherent to that act of looking, of stopping to acknowledge the beauty of the landscape before you. It is as if life has stopped for a moment too, that whatever has happened or comes next, the experience of being there is something that can’t be taken away. The North Downs Way has a habit of surprising me with views like the one at Hackhurst Down. Every so often, emerging from a steep climb up the scarp through a woodland path, the landscape suddenly opens up to a magnificent vista, the countryside no static canvas but ever changing in colour and text depending on the conditions.
That evening I look at old pictures of my mum. She is younger than me, tight curls, sparkling eyes, trim waist. She laughs with a wide-open mouth and bats her lashes. She’s stunning. I get close to tears. I pull myself together. Why can’t she just pull herself together? She was ill when she was young too. My aunt reminds me, she has had years of good health between then and now. She was a good mum to you girls. I remember a morning not long before I got made redundant. She rings me when I’m on the bus on the way to work, crying. Saying she wants to die; I just want someone to take the pain away. I try to help, tell her I love her, that everything will be alright. When we hang up, I cry too. Belly aching with the weight of it.
I reach one of Surrey’s most well-known beauty spots, Box Hill, at sunrise on what turns out to be one of the hottest days of the summer. I have previously only ever visited it at the weekend when the experience is spoiled by the presence of too many Londoners on a day trip, leaving huge piles of rubbish behind. This time, however, it is 6am on a Monday morning and I am completely alone. I start at Denbies Vineyard just outside Dorking. From here I can see a view of the hill’s sharp chalk peak serenely haloed by the rising sun, the verdant Surrey Hills laid out before me like some kind of ancient Arcadian paradise, pale blue sky shot with butter yellow, a shimmering heat haze blanching the horizon. It reaches 33 degrees that day. Physically the walk is hard, climbing Box Hill’s 224m summit in the heat. But it is worth the huge effort because the light intensifies the colour of everything, the chalk paths, precipices and old quarries on today’s route transformed to a brilliantine white.
I notice a routine on these walks where I ascend up a wooded ‘chalky lane’, similar to the one I use frequently up to Whiteleaf Down, and then traverse the ridge on a narrow path cut into this hillside before descending down again at regular intervals to walk on the scarp next to open fields. Sadly, this is necessary because there are some parts of the route where the ridge is inaccessible due to the inevitable presence of suburban A roads and motorways carving up the landscape. On the day I complete the Surrey section of the North Downs Way the M25, which has become a persistent noisy feature of the landscape, finally disappears out of sight as Barnie and I walk into Kent and back home to Kemsing.
We round the crest of a hill which brings Sevenoaks into view, the sight connecting up my internal map of where the town sits in the landscape. Its boxy new developments look oddly pastoral from this angle, hugged as they are by the bushy, bottle green tops of trees like broccoli florets. I have often associated London as the place where my roots are, as it was where I was born and spent a lot of my childhood until my Mum moved to Kent when I was 14. But now I understand that my internal narrative of where home is, is illusory. Bored by the quiet surroundings as a teenager, I constructed a foundational myth for myself about the city and my place in it, the tendrils of which have followed me into adulthood. This year I’ve realised that not only is there life beyond London but that I feel naturally at home in the countryside. In a year full of heartache, I have found a sense of belonging here.
At some point I begin to understand. She can’t just pull herself together. She isn’t weak. She would do it if she could. It is so draining. She is a constant drag on everyone’s energy. But it isn’t her, it’s the illness. The inability to cope. The emotional manipulation. The despair. That is what the illness is. If she was well, she wouldn’t have jumped.
At first the paramedics say she is probably okay: it wasn’t a huge height from our first-floor window. But when she gets to hospital, we learn Mum has broken her heel and pelvis. She has two operations. A psychiatrist assesses her. Changes her medication. Connects us with the local mental health crisis service. When she gets home, she has daily psychiatric nurse visits, occupational health advice, equipment, carers. She’s on the waiting list for Cognitive Behavioural Therapy. It didn’t have to come to this. The local mental health services are under too much strain. We got missed. She has everything she needs to get better now, but it took a suicide attempt to get it, to even get seen by a psychiatrist.
Kingsdown Meadow, Kemsing
Mum is getting stronger. She’s walking, she’s taking better care of herself, she’s more independent. She’s watching TV again. She starts doing little things for me around the house, folding my laundry, washing out my coffee pot. She feeds Barnie his slice of ham every morning. Even if she doesn’t know it herself yet, my mum is already proving that she can learn to stand on her own two feet again. Somewhere at the edges of the illness is the mummy I remember. I know that she is still there, just beneath the surface. We’re all here: my sister, my aunt and me, holding our breath, reaching out our hands.
All summer I feel myself grow stronger too, both mentally and physically. The long days spent alone on woodland trails and chalk paths through the hills enable me to find a calmer place in my mind, building resilience one walk at a time. Somehow, these walks hearten me, lightening the burdens I’m carrying.
When I got made redundant, I imagined a glass curtain coming down like a wall around me, shutting me out of the life I had been living. All year I’ve been tapping hopefully on the glass at the blank faced employers on the other side, willing somebody to let me back in. In September, depression at my lack of progress threatens to engulf me. So, late one afternoon I escape writing applications in my bedroom and walk through the fields above Kemsing to Kingsdown Meadow, a sweeping valley from where London is just about visible on a clear day. I sit on a stile and stare out at the landscape, trying to find meaning.
The City skyscrapers can be glimpsed hovering on the horizon in the hazy sunshine, their angular silhouettes so indistinct they could easily be a mirage. The contrast is dramatic, the gold-soaked country view intersected by the glinting presence of the metropolis – a city sprawl made beautiful by distance, enticingly vast. The view from here gives me the courage I need to keep going, walking with purpose into the unknown.
Lettie Mckie is based in the UK, a museum educator turned postgraduate student in Architectural History. She is a previously unpublished poet and essayist.