Every Tuesday and for as many years as I can remember, we’ve driven north from Eastbourne, through the village of Hankham to the bridge at Rickney. It’s not far but it’s a very different landscape from the part of Eastbourne in which we live. In those few short miles, we travel from the edge of the South Downs National Park, with its rolling hills and valleys, to the flatlands of the Pevensey Levels. Although just to be clear, we don’t live in the National Park, we live in a rented house in what might once have been called a council estate that lies at the foot of the scarp at the eastern edge of the park. The only thing we could afford to rent in the South Downs National Park, would be a space to pitch a tent. But as I was saying. Every Tuesday, Mikey puts his two cameras in his pocket and we head north so that he can do his work, taking photos at and around the bridge at Rickney.
It’s pretty muddy at this time of year so I help Mikey to put on his Wellington boots before he bounces out of the car to take a photograph of the cow-sign that stands next to the bridge. He’ll have taken thousands of photos of the cow sign at Rickney Bridge and I used to think that the pictures were all the same.
While he’s doing that, I bash my boots together, to shake off the mud that had dried onto them after our last visit, before sitting down onto the back of the car so that I can pull them on. Then I ask him what direction he wants to go and most times he wants to do the walk that’s next to the “river”, that at this part of its course is called Yotham. It’s a strange name for a stretch of river. Apparently, it’s a different spelling of the Hebrew word Jotham that means God is perfect and complete, and you have to wonder how and why it got that name. Maybe once a long time ago somebody stood in a field at that place where three streams come together and, in that moment, for them, god’s work was complete.
And so at least a hundred years later my autistic son and I open the gate and begin to head North across the fields at Yotham. It’s still beautiful, to our left the river and to our right, fields separated by small streams and banks of reeds, but since it was named, they’d have built the weir and the pumping station and probably raised the banks to reduce flooding but as I said it’s still beautiful and I say as much to Mikey and he agrees.
We move on and soon we’ve reached the first gate. It’s always muddier at the gates and Mikey nudges me toward a large puddle, more mud than water, whilst at the same time telling me to be careful and “don’t get stuck in the mud”. Which I often do and laughing he’ll take photographs of my boots calf deep in the stuff.
After the first and then the second gates it’s usually less muddy and we’ll continue on the path next to the river as it curves in a North Easterly direction. In the Summer Mikey will be scouring the surface of the water looking for signs of fish rising. “Sounds like fish” he’ll say and if he’s lucky he’ll be able to photograph them as they feed. But today it’s far too cold for that and anyway much of the surface of the river is covered by Pennywort or “weeves” as Mikey calls it. “Too many weeves,” he says, “we need to call the Virament Agency” and I agree.
For a long time, we would turn back at the third gate, were Yotham meets Hurst Haven, but for a while now we’ve been going further. In fact, one warm day last year he wanted to keep going to see where the path led and we ended up walking the length of Hurst Haven as far as New Bridge before heading back along the road past Horse Eye Level, which, by the way has nothing to do with a horse’s eye. Apparently, eye is an Old English term for island, a reminder that seven or eight hundred years ago much of the Pevensey Levels were saltmarsh and in the first century AD when the Romans landed and began work on the first castle it was a bay and still connected to the sea. At that time small islands would have dotted the shallow bay and the land on which we had walked. But this day we didn’t make it that far, its hard going walking through mud so eventually we turn around and begin to head back toward the car.
It’s on the walk back that Mikey is most apprehensive, and you can see him looking carefully for people walking toward us with dogs. He’s not a fan. It’s why he prefers it if there are sheep in the field because knows that if there are, then the dogs will all be on leads. If they are not, we have to wander away from the path in order to let the dog and their owner pass. Today we go to one our favourite spots for avoiding dogs, next to a field with cows in it. “Daddy and Mikey are hiding by the cows”, he comments, as the cows gaze at us, with that mix of interest and indifference that they have, as if wondering what we are doing, whilst at the same not caring a jot.
Once the man and his black dog have walked past, we return to the path and continue on our walk back. The wind is picking up and Mikey points to the sky, “Dark cloudy’s coming ” he says, “Uh oh” I reply and head down he trudges through the strengthening wind and spitting rain and as the shower hits us, he lengthens his stride and I struggle to keep up.
The shower passes and eventually we get back to the car and I lift up the boot and we sit on the back having a drink. Mikey greets passing strangers as if he’s welcoming them to our home. “Hello you two”, he say’s to a couple as they cycle over the bridge – “It’s Daddy and Mikey”. He does this a lot and sometimes people will look straight ahead and pretend they haven’t heard anything, but more often than not they’ll smile and wave and say hello. And after they’ve gone, we sit there in silence, watching the branches and the birds. And in that moment, there is peace, and I think I understand why they called it that.