Take a Word.... Chalk: Etymology, Definitions, Idioms and Story of a Hike Along the South Downs Way
Etymology of 'chalk'
Old English cealc (also denoting lime), related to Dutch kalk and German Kalk, from Latin calx.
Chalk Cliffs of Beachy Head & Map of South Downs Way
chalk - noun:
- a white soft earthy limestone (calcium carbonate) formed from the skeletal remains of sea creatures (shells)
- a chalk-like substance (calcium sulphate) made into sticks used for writing or drawing on a blackboard
- a series of strata consisting mainly of chalk
chalk - verb:
- write or draw with chalk
- draw or write on (a surface) with chalk
- rub the tip of (a snooker cue) with chalk
- (British) charge (drinks bought in a pub or bar) to a person’s account (chalk it up on a board)
I was brought up on chalk.
No, I wasn’t forced to eat a diet of white crumbly stone. I was literally brought up on it. Each step I took as a child, since birth and almost all the time until l was at least 18, was upon chalky soil, a land of luminescent green upon a chalk bed. I lived in Sussex, on or near the South Downs.
My Landscape of Words
Words are a hook to place, object and self. Words feed from those things and in turn nourish them. Without words, neither place nor object nor self have an image, a meaning, a soul.
So that word ‘chalk’ - I hear it and it is mine. It is my childhood, I am it. It gives a particular shade of green; is that why my favourite colour is green? I've been reminded of hopscotch, by Eric; I used any old piece of chalk often, to mark out the impulsive hopscotch game on the pavement.
Throughout my life I’ve been drawn to expansive grassland, wide vistas, woods, fields and trees. I delight in the free access to open downland, walks with views stretched afar. One glance at a childhood photo and I feel the breeze on my face, I smell the woodland floor, I see the swallows on the air and the blackbird in the shrubbery. I see the lofty panoramic, cloud-scudding skies.
I walk through the twitten between flint walls. I smell the English Channel and know it is just over those rolling hills. These specifics, these references, define my existence.
Folding Terrain, Vistas & Open Skies
They are chalk-land, these magnificent South Downs. They fold, wrap around the lanes, are marked by historical cart-ruts making parallel chalk lines through and up pastures, round corners.
They hide soft blankets of delicate bluebell under their trees. Their banks show pockets of pale primrose basking in the sun. Their bases of wide fields yield fodder for the horses neighing and galloping in scattered farms.
An occasional sea-gull peeks over the top form the sea side, just to find out whether the grass is greener on the scarp. It is, but the sea lures him back. Tractors trundle and combine harvesters clatter; those sounds cradle me and I don’t want to stray. I will do one day but I’ll always come back.
There is Devil’s Dyke, a steep cut in the chalk, dug by Lucifer trying to allow access for the sea to flood the Weald, that wonderful stretch of open-floor country between South and North Downs.
It is said that, because the Devil had to complete his attempt in one night, a nun put a candle in her window to trick him into thinking it was dawn and he gave up.
Atop the Dyke, I have a twin treat; sea to the South, countryside to the North. The countryside is where I live, that which breathes within me.
Chalk Challenge - Short Account of a School Hike
Twenty-five miles! I’ve got to walk twenty-five miles in a day?!
My PE teacher confirmed it. It was ok for her, staying at the chalkface, just popping out to welcome us back later.
She knew her faithful students would do it, some of us might even enjoy it, but we protested nonetheless. Miss Burrows had soft, fine curly hair, as white as chalk. Occasionally that chalk turned pale pink or assumed a tinge of purple. We loved her because she was strict but fair and had a twinkle in her eye. We could never pull the wool over her eyes, not by a long chalk.
There were fifteen of us; five teams of three. We had maps, drinks, thick socks and ‘stout’ shoes, the ‘jolly hockey-sticks’ type which didn’t give way to the bend of your foot. Walking over chalk downland at a pace would not be a sinch.
Chalky & Syd
Our leader, Chalky, was a sixth-former. She had a premature white streak in her otherwise shiny jet hair. It was striking but she hated it and so hated her nickname even more. We liked her but she never escaped the name.
Her sister, two years younger, was in my group of walkers. As different as chalk and cheese, they were, Chalky being long-legged and athletic, Syd having been given her father’s genes, short and she got short of breath walking to the dinner queue. In case you’re wondering, ‘Syd’ was named after Sydney, Australia, presumably where she was conceived, we decided.
Off we set, on a fine day; a great view, with a mixture of terrain over open field and through copse and wood, meant that at least we wouldn’t have to cope with slippery, muddy paths.
We chalked up the miles as we progressed. Wolstonbury Hill was left behind to the east and the ridge of the Downs pointed westward to Chanctonbury Hill’s arboreal crown.
Wolstonbury & Chanctonbury
Despite our misgivings, the day went well. A few blisters didn’t go unnoticed but all in all we enjoyed it. Our group arrived first. We swapped stories with the others and chalked the whole thing up to experience. I’d had a great day out in my favourite place so I couldn’t grumble.
Practical & Artistic
To ‘chalk up’ comes from chalking up the bill in public houses (pubs) when a client is well known and has an account. It’s added up at the end of the night, or maybe the week or month for a well-trusted gent, then paid in a lump sum. I’m guessing it was originally done on a small blackboard.
Apart from using 'chalky' as a nickname for someone with white hair, it's also used for anyone with a surname 'White', usually in full, so we get 'Chalky White'.
A seamstress would chalk material, that is she would mark out the patterns. Many a time I’ve watched my mother do so when she was making interior furnishings or adding a beautiful dress to my wardrobe.
Chalk can be used for carving sculptures or pictures. Another famous use of the medium are the chalk figures made by exposing the hillside substance itself; there are ancient and modern, such as the Long Man of Wilmington and the Litlington White Horse in Sussex, as well as the better known White Horse in Wiltshire.
Children love using chalk to draw on their own boards. The large pieces are easy for small hands to use and boards allow them to sweep across in expansive strokes, creating their own art.
The snooker player uses a small round of chalk to 'chalk' his cue, stop it sliding on the ball, for more precision on his strike.
Long Man of Wilmington
Litlington White Horse
It makes me smile to think of the chalkface. I’ve used many a blackboard in the classroom, ending up with dusty fingers and chalk marks on my face where I’ve brushed away my hair or attended to an itch!
One thing makes me cringe, though: the stomach-twisting squeaky edge of chalk scratched down a blackboard - aaggh!
Chalked Hopscotch - Quickly Made, Fun to Play
Rules of Hopscotch
Information: Chalk & Flint
Chalk is a soft, white, porous, sedimentary carbonate rock, a form of limestone composed of the mineral calcite. Calcite is an ionic salt called calcium carbonate or CaCO3. It forms under reasonably deep marine conditions from the gradual accumulation of minute calcite shells shed from micro-organisms called coccolithophores.
Flint is very common as bands parallel to the bedding or as nodules embedded in chalk. It is probably derived from sponge spicules or other siliceous organisms as water is expelled upwards during compaction. Flint is often deposited around larger fossils which may be silicified, meaning replaced molecule by molecule by flint.
Chalk has greater resistance to weathering and slumping than the clays with which it is usually associated (such as the clay in the Sussex Weald), thus forming tall steep cliffs where chalk ridges meet the sea (such as Beachy Head above, near Eastbourne). Chalk hills, known as chalk downland, usually form where bands of chalk reach the surface at an angle, so forming a scarp slope. Because chalk is well jointed it can hold a large volume of ground water, providing a natural reservoir that releases water slowly through dry seasons.
The South Downs Way & National Park
We hiked a part of the South Downs Way which stretches westward from Beachy Head, just west of Eastbourne, to a spot just east of Winchester, traversing East and West Sussex and then into Hampshire.
It is in the area now designated as the South Downs National Park, the newest national park, opened on 1st April 2011.
Using Chalk to Draw or Sculpt
Do you use chalk as an artistic medium?
Chalk & Downland
Do you live on or near Downland?
© 2017 Ann Carr