From the personal to the public.

The initial idea for this project came about when I found myself on the South Downs walking towards Winchester soon after the end of a relationship. I had left Brighton a day or so before when I looked up at the clear blue sky and rolling green landscape surrounding me and for the first time in a while I recognised that I felt something I hadn’t felt in a while; an inner joy.

As I continued my journey I realised that if I was walking along the ancient pathway beneath my feet in the other direction I would eventually end up at Beachy Head, a spectacular 500 foot chalk cliff-top that looks out across the English channel and also a notorious suicide spot. I began to align my own change in emotions with walking and wondered, as a thought experiment;

‘if I was standing on the edge contemplating jumping and somebody picked me up and put me back at the beginning for the South Downs trail would I still feel the same after walking the 100 miles back to the cliff edge?’

Of course there is no ethical way to find a real answer to my rhetorical question but after talking to my friend and fellow Sussex born artist Louis Buckley we began organising a series of conversations with people who held a number of different perspectives on suicide, mental health and end of life issues.

As we followed the line of the South Downs Way with our finger we overlaid our project narrative and discovered that there were actually many significant locations contained within the landscape for these conversations to take place. For example the Iron Age burial mounds of Old Winchester Hill were we would meet Alex Godden chief archeologist for West Sussex council who brought the landscape to life with stories of sky burials, deviant burials, and antiquarian looting. On a bridge over the M3 we met Chris Gilliam who in the early 1990’s was part of the infamous road protest movement who risked their lives to protect the ancient Twyford downland from being destroyed to make way for the motorway now beneath our feet. And Charles Walker who along with his paranormal investigation team had witnessed levitations, ghostly apparitions and a number of other strange goings on at Chanctonbury Ring since the 1970’s.

From the beginning it was clear to us that we wanted to take a non-judgmental approach to the taboo subjects that we were tackling, similar to the Samaritans model, meaning that we would treat everyones perspective on these difficult subjects equally; whether they be sociological, philosophical or paranormal, because we felt ultimately we are talking about the unknowable. We were simply interested in the stories the people we met had to tell, which we felt when put together would create what indigenous Australians call a Songline along the South Downs Way.

And so, in 2013 we set off from Winchester towards Beachy Head and A 100 Mile Conversation was born.

Since the initial walk, which was both a personal and public journey, A 100 Mile Conversation has continued to organise and run a number of walks that consist of talks from guest speakers, food foraged from along the route of the walk and a screening of our documentary: A 100 Mile Conversation – Across the South Downs Way.

Talking publicly about suicide, mental health and end of life issues is a difficult thing to do and made even harder by the common myth that doing so is morbid and depressing; but we have found the contrary to be true and that in actual fact running head on towards these taboo subjects can be a life affirming experience that brings people closer together. So by telling our own stories and discussing the film our walks open up a space within which these important conversations can take place.

We invite others to continue the conversation by organising their own public walks and downloading the documentary as a tool to help to get people talking.

Nathan

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