Eugene Suggett: An 80th anniversary
Kinder Scout? No, the night a couple of thousand Londoners ascended the South Downs to Chanctonbury Ring
A kindly member sends in a well-preserved copy of Southern Rambles for Londoners, published 1948 by British Railways Southern Region, written by S P B Mais. S P B Mais: now there’s a name; broadcaster (‘Britain Calling’, ‘This Unknown Island’, and very much else), journalist, walker, and, above all, the writer of about 200 books, mainly about Britain and the landscape. This former Ramblers vice-president did as much as anyone to promote recreational walking in the 20th century. He spoke at a couple of Ramblers’ old-style rallies, roaring through a megaphone for access to the hills; he walked thirty and forty miles some days, and then told the nation about it on the wireless; and he wrote walks-guides for railway-companies, and led very many walks himself. Churchill said: ‘this man Mais makes me feel tired.’
In 1932 Mais got the idea of organising an excursion for Londoners to see the sunrise from Chanctonbury Ring. 17 July 1932 was the day appointed. Mais expected a few dozen people; but hundreds turned up at Victoria station to catch the suggested Sussex-bound train, far too many to get on it, and Southern Railways obligingly rustled up some extra ones, which wound their way down the Adur Valley in the small hours to discharge their motley cargo at Steyning station (now long-gone, of course; Beeching saw to that). There were so many that one transfixed witness began to wonder if he was not being duped into watching a continuing merry-go-round of the same people over and again. So it came about that at about 3 o’clock a.m., a couple of thousand people, shepherded by Mais with his great booming voice, tramped off into the night and up the Downs, to the astonishment of a handful of locals disturbed by the clatter and voices. By all accounts it was a disappointing sunrise, with clouds in the east, whereupon most made their way back to Steyning, while others headed to Findon or Worthing or Shoreham. The mixed crowd included people of all ages and appearances, from well-accoutred walkers to a bowler-hatted businessman in an overcoat. (Mais himself went oddly-clad on walks: several scarves, and often a heavy overcoat, the pockets stuffed with maps and oranges.)
Eccentric though the stunt may have been, it sparked the series of rail rambles – daylight ones, I mean, of course – put on by the railway companies over the next 30 years. In a sense they continue to this day. At Boxhill and Westhumble station below the North Downs on any Saturday morning, you’ll see walking-kitted Londoners alight from the down-trains in enthusiastic droves, cyclists too, and set out for the hills; the same in Derbyshire’s Hope Valley, where at Hathersage and Edale and Grindleford trains discharge legions of walkers from Manchester and Sheffield, bound for the edges and moors; the same again in dozens of other places.
There’s something especially purposeful about a walk where you can pick up public transport at a different point than from where you started, making the walk less artificial than a circular walk from a parked car. Councillors and others who try to tell us that “what people want is circular walks from car parks” might note that. A letter in The Times lately put down a plea for better rural public transport, on the basis that no-one needs to live in the countryside if they do not want. That may be so, but better public transport is good for the town-dwellers too, who by it can access the countryside and spend their money in it. More buses, please.