It was with some giddy excitement that I parked the van in Winchester at 6am on a beautiful Saturday morning a few of weeks ago. The weather report promised great things, spring was kicking in as though it had just woken up from a long sleep and suddenly realised there was much work to be done. I was itching to walk the South Downs Way in a decent time and try out some new gear.
Right then, let’s get going.
I walked its 100 miles last year in three days and was eager to skim a little time off that. I don’t say this to boast that I can hike quicker or faster than anyone else but doing precisely that is something I enjoy. I love the buzz, relish hitting the 20 mile mark, smile when I see my average creep over and stay above 3 miles an hour and when I hit thirty miles I feel like a superhero. Anything above that and I start giggling.
It is my local trail in the county where I was born and raised. I can reach it in 30 minutes, know the route without a map, am aware where the best camp spots are, what time the cafes open and it winds its way through classic, rolling down land. It offers the sort of scenery you would see if someone sent you a postcard from England. I absolutely adore it up there.
Winchester, at the western end of the South Downs Way in the county of Hampshire dates back to prehistoric times. It has an important heritage and enviable history. All the trademarks of a classic English city are apparent, the cathedral and city walls to name but two.
I left the cathedral and soon passed the statue of King Alfred, carried on by the cake shop, still unfortunately closed and gently eased myself up Highcliffe, crossed over the M3 motorway and suddenly I was in the fields. A vibrant red and pink sunrise fused with thousands of clouds heralded the new day as I settled down to warm up.
The western end of the Downs for the first half of this route is less populated and sparse than the latter 50 miles. The track bisects the occasional road, a country pub lies here and there and hamlets dot the landscape but essentially it is wonderfully rural. It coaxed me in gently, wound me down from the day job and slowly I warmed up and relaxed. Three days is short to what I am used to but I feel the start of the season is wonderfully heralded by this route. I feel this could be the beginning of a tradition, walk the route every year in spring as a pre-season tester.
Welcome back Fozzie, it seemed to whisper.
Early mornings up on the Downs are wonderfully quiet, you may catch the occasional, local dog walker but essentially it’s deserted, I could have been the only person on the face of the planet for all I cared and began to revel in the solitude. Away from distractions, the mundane events of everyday life, I always feel I have returned home.
Pink skies faded away to blue, the occasional cloud drifted past persuaded by a light breeze and I reached Exton, around the 12 mile mark. Centred around the crystal clear River Meon and home to a few houses I bemoaned my early start as the Shoe Inn pub and beautiful gardens appeared. I watched the river glide by and nodding a greeting to an early fisherman, felt no need to rest so moved on.
Bikers appeared occasionally, some with rucksacks and camping foam strapped on the back, doubtless out either to conquer the Way in a day or more likely, two.
Although I know the route so well, an occasional check on the RouteBuddy app just to confirm my position kept me on track. I was also testing a new app, the Trailblazer South Downs Way Guide. I’ll have a full report coming on this but not only does it have a map with GPS to locate your exact position, it shows campsites, eateries, accommodation, landmarks and all other manner of information. It even provides contact details, phone numbers, web sites and addresses for the facilities, an elevation graph, mileage covered and left to go. It is very, very good.
RouteBuddy screen shot
RouteBuddy – Detailed, tried and tested. OS maps at your finger tips.
TrailBlazer South Downs Way Guide screen shots
Trail Blazer is excellent – Review coming
I knew the exact place where I had camped the previous year. I had hoped for the seclusion of a wild camp in a wood but instead pulled over with tired legs at mile 33 in a field. As I passed the same spot this time I surveyed the scene below me. I was at 800 feet, the way dipped down to the A268 road crossing, a stone’s throw up from the little village of Cocking, then rose back up to a similar height before levelling off. I spotted woods perhaps three miles distant, a perfect place to pitch tent for the night and pull in 37 miles for the day, three miles ahead of my previous effort.
The rise from the road was kinder than I expected and I arrived around 7pm, setting up my Hexamid Solo and associated camp equipment quickly so I could sit down, cook, relax and unwind. I had even managed to find some wild garlic, nettles and dandelion leaves to throw into a meagre Chicken and Mushroom Pot Noodle. Great culinary start, shame about the finale.
The forest was dense but I had managed to find an old clearing affording some light from an imminent full moon which illuminated my surroundings somewhat. A light breeze tickled the tops of the pines and they swayed in recognition. Setting my alarm for 5am, I was fast asleep a few minutes later.
An hour is good for me to get up, put some water on the boil for a coffee, throw some food down my neck, pack up and start walking. It was cloudy and chilly and I found myself longing for the sun so I could peel off my jacket. I passed a solitary hiker packing up under an oak tree in a field but he didn’t see me. Clouds started to slowly drift away leaving a low mist which clung stubbornly to the south flanks of the Downs, illuminated by the sun’s rays splicing through and painting dappled patterns on my surroundings.
Houghton Bridge at mile 47 was my intended rest stop. Arrival time was around 9.30, too early for the excellent Bridge Inn to be plying its trade but the Café was sure to be open and serving a full English. I crossed the busy A29 near Bury Hill, prompting a quick flick of the head from side to side and a mad dash before the Honda or Suzuki brigade come blasting up the crest of the hill. Houghton Bridge was visible as I descended down the chalky track and my gaze followed the South Downs Way over the River Arun and up onto Rackham Hill. I was aiming for halfway before mid-day and the omens were good.
The desent from Bury Hill. Houghton Bridge is just visit visible over to the right
Stomach full I departed the café just before the lunchtime crowd started arriving. It was Sunday and as expected, busier with walkers, dogs and bikers. The first glimpse of the English Channel came into view to the south and patterns of young, green crops, yellow rape fields and the hazy blue of the sea splashed colour everywhere. Over Kithurst Hill where my first attempt of the South Downs Way age 16 came to an abrupt end after a night spent directly under a thunder storm with my school mate Andrew Boyd. We emerged sodden and miserable come first light to return home and I remember thinking that hiking was definitely something I didn’t wish to pursue. How times change.
A solitary Pill Box guards the southern side of the Downs shortly after, one of many defensive structures built and still standing after World War 2.
Another quick dash over the busy A24 just south of Washington and after battling the urge for a quick visit to The Frankland Arms pub I crawled up the other side towards Chanctonbury Ring, a clump of trees at mile 56. Once a hill Fort dating all the way back to the 5th century BC, it commands great views in all directions and is shrouded in folklore. The devil can be summoned here by running around the Ring seven times anti-clockwise. Sure to be hungry after that little jog he will reward you with a bowl of soup for your efforts but be warned, your soul is expected in exchange.
The crowds thinned come late afternoon and again I started to check both RouteBuddy and Trailblazer for suitable camp spots. Finding nothing suitable and noticing some alarming contours plunging down, scuppering the chance for a flat spot, I pulled over after another 37 miler in the side of a field, sheltered from an increasing wind becoming colder by the minute.
I had shaved a good six miles off my effort last year and was confident of a mid-afternoon finish on Monday, the last day. The temperature had plummeted as I decided against my morning coffee in favour of some movement to warm up the bones. I knew the A27 road was just a couple of miles down the hill which promised a Texaco garage. Not the most glamorous of locations but they did have a decent coffee machine and quite possibly something warm to fill my stomach.
Setting up camp on the second night
The climb away from the road heralds one of my favourite sections of the South Downs Way. After the stiff climb up Castle Hill a panorama unfolds which always makes me think I am in another country. To the right the sea has edged closer and north, to my left, the Downs slip away to an area known as The Weald, which is a wide, flatter area of lowland extending up to the North Downs. It is amazingly beautiful and takes my breath away every time I stand and gaze. The Downs open out during those last 20 or so miles with far reaching views in all directions. Most of the wood and forest has vanished and walkers roll along the top, occasionally dipping to the occasional village with flint stone walls and houses, ancient churches and oak beamed pubs.
The views become epic during the last 20 miles
I passed Southease Church, now well over an incredible 1000 years old. There are remains of early 13th century wall paintings peeking through on the walls inside. It is one of those places which just transports you back in time, makes you think who has walked in your same footsteps and what secrets it holds onto.
Over The River Ouse winding its way down to Newhaven and the slow, painful climb up Itford hill always catches me unawares, it seems to get harder every time. I was on the final leg here, just 16 more miles and on target for a mid-afternoon finish at Eastbourne.
Most were back at work now and the hills were quiet once more. Just one more stop at my favourite village beckoned; Alfriston. This is a rare gem, the sort of place I hesitate to reveal the name of because I want to keep it quiet. It can be a little touristy at weekends, most of the shops cater for day trippers but it never seems that busy. The narrow main street forces vehicles down to a sedate pace, centuries old buildings of flint, brick and oak please the eye and it is home to The Singing Kettle, a place I always stop at. Joyce always recognises me as I walk in and sighs because she knows I will always ask for something that is not on the menu.
“What do you want? I suppose you want eggs on toast don’t you?”
I just smile and raise my eyebrows a little.
“Well, I can do you poached, not fried. I don’t want to stink the place out. Black coffee, strong yes?”
I nod again.
She loves a harmless little moan but bless her, she cooks one hell of a decent eggs on toast and she keeps a bottle of Tabasco just in case I show up. Enquiring as to where I’m walking, and where I’ve stayed, I tell her the South Downs Way and I’ve spent two nights in the tent with no shower.
“You tramp! You started on Saturday?! You’re going quick! It’s about 10 miles to the finish from here. You going over the Sisters or past the Long Man?”
She is referring to the Seven Sisters, a set of chalk cliffs that line the English Channel, proving one hell of a tiring finale to the Way or The Long Many of Wilmington, a chalk figure carved into the north side of the Downs. Once thought to have been cut as far back as Neolithic times, recent archaeological evidence suggests it may have been as recent as the 16th or 17th centuries.
“I did the Sisters last year and I’ve never taken the route past the man so I’m going try that.” I say.
“Well, you have a good climb after Jevington but after that you’re up on top ‘till Eastbourne.”
Climbing through the woods after Jevington
It was a stiff climb at that, seeming to go on forever but fuelled by my eggs and toast I made short work of it.
Arriving at the eastern terminus at 3pm, I had taken 5 hours off my time from last year and once again experienced my favourite English trail up close and personal. Eastbourne was bustling as always and a taxi took me to the rail station and I was back in Winchester at my van by 6pm.
I love my local trail, you should come take a look.