Social hiking along the Sussex coast
‘For me the joy of walking in a scenic, natural setting is that it induces a serene, reflective – or even ecstatic – state of mind’
‘When invited on a day hike along the Sussex Coast – the famous Seven Sisters white-cliff walk – I think, great. Of course, I’ll do it. I love being outdoors. In all weathers. Then I find out that 22 others will be doing the hike too. Uh-oh. In my mind I envision a giant conga line.
For me the joy of walking (or cycling), or any physical activity that takes place in a scenic, natural setting, is that it induces a serene, reflective – or even ecstatic – state of mind. I like to think that I use nature in the way that a doctor might prescribe medicine: to bring body, mind and spirit into harmony. To ease out the emotional kinks, any small (or big) hurts, and to foster inspiration. But with a big group, wouldn’t all that fly out the window?
Time to check out Hike to Indulge’s literature. Hike to Indulge, it seems is not just about offering hikes of varying length and ability to people in the 20-50 age bracket, but also about socialising. Yes, I like the sound of a leisurely picnic lunch and pub stop but to be honest, it all looks a little bit as if the unspoken subtext is: “Come on a walk and you might meet Mr/Ms Right.”
At least that is my knee-jerk interpretation. Perhaps that says more about me and my ability to jump to conclusions? Not that there’s anything wrong with walking as a vehicle for hooking up with someone, if it happens in impromptu fashion. But contrived encounters have a whiff of desperation about them. The prospect of being surrounded by people exuding a needy vibe, on a hike, is a bit alarming.
On the day, a gloriously sunny and hot one, I travel down from London to meet the group at the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat. At the meeting point, I zero in on Alex Murphy, the experienced personal trainer who runs Hike to Indulge. She is chic, stylish (right down to her manicured nails and blow-dried mane), enthusiastic, kind (not a quality to be underestimated) and has the sort of honed body most women, even fit ones, would die for. Not your average rambler.
Alex is keen to get urbanites who would ordinarily view hiking as hideously geeky, ploddish and uncool (or who would otherwise be glued to the treadmill) to get outdoors and experience not just the joy of a good walk, but also Britain’s staggeringly beautiful landscapes. It’s a laudable goal. And, she says, if you meet someone you like, it’s a bonus. ‘I’ve had guys on my faster, no-frills hikes – fit, interesting men – who have met women on the day who they’ve later got together with.’ So there you go.
To my relief the group, who are on the younger side – most seem to be in their 30s – is blessedly, markedly free of earnest types trying to hit on you. (I say this as a single woman). In fact, most people have come in little groups of twos and threes, and seem quite content to stick to themselves. Is this a good thing? It all depends on your perspective. One girl, one of the few to come alone, tells me this makes it harder for her to interact with the others. But in fairness, most seem to be simply enjoying a day out.
I think the reason Hike to Indulge attracts such a large crowd has a lot to do with the pampering element: Alex provides not just the route, and charming helpers (Rob, a mountaineering instructor who gives me a mini-tutorial in map and compass reading, and Chris, a keen hiker) but also lunch, with goodies sourced from local suppliers. Our picnic comes courtesy of Frith & Little, a café and deli based in the village of East Dean. Before the hike, she’d had asked me about my preferences, right down to a choice of healthy rolls, fillings or quiche alternative.
So personalised picnic and complimentary bottle of water stuffed into rucksack, I set off, (yes, in conga line) on what proves to be a stunning walk. It takes us over the Seven Sisters cliffs – not difficult, just nicely challenging. An hour or so in, we stop for lunch and soak up the magnificent sea views. The food is delicious, and to my delight, in keeping with the ‘Indulge’ theme, Alex gives us a taste of some of the deli’s other fare: local cheeses, pork pies – ‘even if you hate pork pies you’ll love these’ – and olives.
In the afternoon, we turn away from the coast and walk in-land, across beautiful countryside to East Dean. Here we flop on the green outside the Tiger Inn pub, and are treated to ale from the Beachy Head brewery (another Alex treat) or juice. Eventually, we rouse ourselves, for a final long stretch through Friston Forest (blessedly cool after the hot sun) and pause on the way back to Exceat for another treat, this time chocolate brownies.
In total we walked 24 km in about three and a half hours. The verdict? I still prefer to hike alone, in a twosome, or small group – I’ll never be a fan of crowds. But I don’t for a minute regret the outing: now that I know this lovely walk, I plan on tackling it again sometime. My map skills have marginally improved, and Alex and her team are dynamic, fun and inspiring’.
© Queen of Retreats