Day One – Eastbourne to Iford
Frozen rail tracks scuppered any chance of an early start to the South Downs Way. On a cold and bright November morning, a scenic but frustratingly slow bus replacement service eventually got us to the eastern end of the Way at the seaside town of Eastbourne. Having leafed through several guidebooks in preparation for this hike, walking from West to East seemed to be the more established way of doing things. Ending at the coast certainly seemed appealing, but the idea of beginning here, at the sea, on a fresh winters morning and completing the trail in style at England’s first capital city Winchester attracted us more.
A bracing wind greeted us as we began the hike, climbing steeply away from the seafront. The morning’s irritation subsided as after about twenty minutes we had our first glimpse of Beachy Head and the iconic stretch of cliffs that included the Seven Sisters. What the south of England lacks in wilderness it more than makes up for in perfectly picturesque scenery that looks as if it has been taken straight from a postcard.
As it was a glorious day many walkers were on the path taking in the views, with the café at Birling Gap proving to be a very popular spot to shelter from the brisk winds. Due to our late start and the shortness of the day in terms of daylight hours, we had to tackle the rise and fall of the path along the Seven Sisters quicker than we would have liked. Despite the need to maintain a quick pace, the beauty of the day made it irresistible to not turn at regular intervals and survey the rolling hills and majestic coastline we had just passed by. The famous lighthouse Belle Tout provided a wonderful focal point, set against pale blue skies and chalk white cliffs. Roughly an hours walking had elapsed as we neared the boundary edge of Seven Sisters Country Park, and the path began to gradually turn inland at Cuckmere Haven.
Leaving behind the gorgeous coastline was a shame, but with the constant strong winds easing off the further inland we went, the faster our pace became. Crossing a road and gradually working our way up a sloping field, we entered the western side of Friston forest. Wooded areas would be scarce for large swathes of the hike, and entering the cover of the windswept and crooked trees was a rare treat. Out the other side, and passing to the east of the impressive Litlington chalk horse imprinted on the hillside, we stumbled upon every hillwalkers least favourite obstacle. Mud. Following a path that sidled alongside the Cuckmere river, the going was tough due to the slippery and sticky ground, simultaneously sucking you down and slipping you up. After battling for what seemed a long time for a short distance, and with very muddy trousers (and bottoms) we reached the small village of Alfriston. It was getting surprisingly late in the day, and we still had over half the distance of the days walk ahead of us. After a brief rest, we began the gradual climb back on to the downs.
The rest of the days walking was a blur. As we were pushed for time we couldn’t stop too long for sightseeing, and the cold blasts of wind gained in strength the higher we climbed. The scenery was gorgeous, and the slowly lowering sun created an ethereal atmosphere on that cloudless afternoon. All layers of clothing were utilised to keep ourselves warm and a quick pace was maintained. We were in the zone, and few words were spoken, just a silent recognition of great views of the downs stretching ahead. The sight of the elevated ridgeline of the downs cutting through the neat and ordered countryside was supremely satisfying. After several miles dark was nearly upon us, so head torches were hastily brought out from our packs. The falling darkness highlighted a wonderful juxtaposition on either side of the downs. To our right, an occasional flicker of light from nearby hamlets or a passing car could be seen. This was contrasted with the far off light of larger towns to our left. Brighton was clearly visible, as was far off Portsmouth, with Spinnaker Tower piercing the dark night sky like a needle.
We had one final obstacle to pass before we descended the steep path down to our night’s accommodation. We happened upon a large herd of cows blocking a gate we had to pass through. As pointed out by Bill Bryson in Notes from a Small Island, getting trampled by a herd of cows is an uncommon but very real occurrence. We stared at them, and they stared at us. Perhaps startled from the beams from our head torches, the cows shifted edgily from side to side but clearly were not going to budge. Ungracefully we bundled over the wooden fence to bypass them, and after another hour walking and a long trundle down Itford Hill, we had our feet up in the hostel.
Day Two- Iford to Steyning
I have spent many a fantastic night in a hostel or a hut, listening to other travellers stories or having a well-earned sleep after a long day hiking. This night was not one of them. I eventually surrendered my bunk in the all-male dormitory after a sustained assault on my senses from its inhabitants. I made a make-shift den in the hostel common room of left over blankets, cushions and mattress. Feeling a little dishevelled and sleep deprived, we said goodbye to Iford at the break of dawn. A fresh morning greeted us, and after crossing a bridge over the River Ouse, we were climbing again. Startled birds scattered and flew before us as we disturbed their morning routine. This was a wonderful stretch of the downs, and from our vantage point, we were able to see the large slope we had descended in darkness the previous evening. Civilisation reared its head after an hour in the form of small cottages and a windmill down in the valley, and then in the distance Brighton football stadium.
The path gradually meandered down from the hills, and passing a group of runners warming up, we eventually reached a road. After crossing we discovered a fresh water tap that had been installed for those on the path. The hills we had been hiking on were between Brighton and Lewes, and now the route turned north-west as we came further inland. For much of the South Downs Way, a walker can relax into a rhythm, with the tranquil and beautiful countryside lulling you into an almost meditative state, with little or no dramatic views or steep inclines. We were however always subtly working our way up, and after several miles of this, we felt the weight of our packs and the strain in our legs. Today was a long one in terms of miles to cover, over 25, and reaching small milestones such as Ditchling Beacon was a good morale boost. It was another beautiful afternoon, cloudless and bright. Once again daywalkers and families with dogs were out enjoying the downs and the wonderful scenery. A debate throughout the day consisted of trying to identify the large ridge of hills running almost parallel to us to our right. Was it merely the Surrey hills or was it indeed the North Downs? That was an illustration of how expansive the views were, with Ditchling Beacon proving to be the highest point at 248 metres.
Late in the day, we passed Devil’s Dyke, an area surrounded in local folklore. Daywalkers would greet us, no doubt noticing our large packs and muddy trousers. The miles began to slip by and at about 5 o’clock we began the gradual descent down from the hills towards a busy road. A path beside this would take us to Steyning, where we were stopping for the night. With aching feet and shoulders, a luxurious night in our own room and a large roast dinner was the perfect conclusion to a tough day walking.
Day Three – Steyning to Amberley
Awaking once again at dawn with limbs creaking, we peered out of the window and saw our luck with the weather had ended. Low clouds and steady rain looked set in for the day. By pure chance today was our shortest in terms of miles to walk by a considerable distance. It was not magnificent foresight rather a difficulty finding reasonably priced accommodation, which meant we were walking around ten miles to Amberley. We had certainly underestimated the physical toll the South Downs Way would have on us, and I put it down to arrogance and overconfidence after our two years hiking the mountains of New Zealand. Our fitness had certainly diminished since then, and our ability to stay on our feet and walk for most of the day whilst being exposed to the elements was certainly being tested.
However, a large and mostly bacon based breakfast set my mind at ease as we trundled out of Steyning and back towards the downs. We cut back up to the hills via a path sheltered by trees, and after about twenty minutes we left the shelter of the canopy. Seagulls swooped above us, their forlorn cries clearly audible above the rain. After crossing a road and bypassing the small settlement of Washington, I rued my forgetfulness at not making a diversion to have a closer look at Chanctonbury Ring, one of many places of prehistoric interest along the Way. My logic was there would be sunnier days for sightseeing, so on we went with heads bowed and progress slow.
Eventually, the path began to gradually slope, and after what felt an eternity navigating slippery paths, we saw Amberley to our right. Amberley is a fantastic place to start the hike from if you can’t commit to walking the full distance. Surrounded by pristine Sussex countryside, and with a train station served by London, it is a wonderful and accessible snapshot of this part of the country. Many other walks including the West Sussex Literary Trail pass through here too. Our modest but comfortable accommodation was the ideal place to dry our clothes and reapply blister plasters.
Day Four – Amberley to Cocking
What a difference a day makes! Pastel blue skies and bird song greeted us as we strode out of Amberley. Pheasants scattered comically from long grass as we passed. We were beginning what turned out to be one of my favourite stretches of the whole hike. Leaving Amberley with the River Arun on our right, we crossed a bridge and began to climb out of the valley via a steep path. This area of Sussex was notably more wooded compared to what we had encountered previously, and this added a wild element to the scenery we passed through. Regrettably, England is one of the least wooded nations in Europe. The statistics suggest things are certainly on the up since the low point of the nineteenth century, which is encouraging. The significant caveat to these numbers is a lot of tree-cover now is part of plantations. Author Robert Macfarlane evocatively states in his book The Wild Places, ” Woods and forests have been essential to the imagination of these islands…when woods are felled, when they are suppressed by tarmac and concrete and asphalt, it is not only unique species and habitats that disappear, but also unique memories, unique forms of thought”. The preservation of ancient woodland is not only absolutely vital from an ecosystem point of view but also essential in maintaining the heritage and shared cultural memory of the countryside.
My thirst for history along the Way was finally quenched with the appearance of Neolithic burial mounds mere metres from where we walked. This area would have been a sacred and important position for whatever tribe of people inhabited the area. High on the downs and surrounded by forest, this was a well-chosen spot for a group of people unsure of the outside world. At this stage, the path was narrow and flanked by woodland on either side. The constant rise and fall of the path that had slowed progress on the previous days were notably less today. We could relax into a rhythm and enjoy the lush greenery that still surrounded us, a surprise at this late stage in the year. The path was leading directly westwards, and with Winchester beginning to creep into our minds we felt satisfied knowing we were covering a good amount of ground.
Eventually, the path began to broaden out towards Manorfarm Down as we passed between Charlton Forest and Heyshott Down. In the distance was the imposing sight of Cocking Down, with the terrain rising to 248 metres at its highest point. A great feeling at the end of a days walking is not fatigue, but wanting the path to go on and on. This is exactly how I was felt here. The majesty of the downs compelled us to push on with our journey. However, our trusty OS map instructed us to take a track slanting off to the right, just before we reached the farm. Down through woodland we went, the leaves blocking out the watery winter sun. After about 15 minutes we arrived in the charming village of Cocking, where we would be staying for the night.
Day Five – Cocking to Clanfield
A brisk half an hour walk had brought us out of the village, through the trees and back onto the hills. Looking back we saw clearly the route we had walked the previous day. The tops of the trees boasted their rich autumn colours of browns, burgundies and golds. The path gently undulated as we eased into our stride. Our serene progress was interrupted by a group of quad bikers noisily tearing their way along the path. Large amounts of the path is a bridleway, not just for walkers. Cyclists and horses are permitted here. Whether quad bikes fall into that category is another matter. It certainly looked like fun, and an alternative way to spend a chilly Sunday morning. The riders gradually moved out of our eye line and disappeared into a wooded area at the crest of the hill. We entered, and shuffling along the leafy path we came upon the interestingly named Devil’s Jumps. These burial mounds, set back from the path, are considered the best preserved Bronze Age barrows in Sussex. We had briefly turned to a more south-westerly course, but our map now instructed us to turn sharply north-west and into more woodland. We headed steadily down and emerged into a sunlit valley. Bypassing a small farm with began the short, sharp descent up to Beacon Hill. The wind howled as we reached the top to be greeted by expansive views and brave dog walkers battling the elements.
Working our way steeply down and onwards, to the north of us was the village of South Harting. We had previously stayed there at the charming and cosy White Hart Inn. The thought to change course and head there once again was tempting. Consoling myself with a large bar of chocolate, we continued on. During this stretch many different paths branch off from the Way, so we kept our map close to hand. Two hours or so of pleasing countryside passed us by, and with the temperature beginning to drop we reached Queen Elizabeth Country Park. For most of the day, our path had cut through woodland. This was a contrast with the landscape we had encountered previously which had afforded us boundless views of our surroundings whilst on the downs. It was then a surprise that as we reached the end of the limits of the Park, we were high up, overlooking the busy A3. We had certainly heard the road before we saw it, a shame as it what would have otherwise been a tranquil end to the days walking. Our destination was the pleasingly named Hampshire Hog Inn. A path beside the noisy road led us south to the Inn, and the penultimate day of our long journey was at an end.
Day Six – Clanfield to Winchester
Having previously only experienced a steadily drenching drizzle that is so well known to British hillwalkers on the previous days walking, the deluge that greeted us on our final morning was as invigorating as it was surprising. Following a long lane that would lead us back to the Way, we battled an impressive storm that thundered through this quiet corner of Hampshire. Without our waterproof jackets and trousers, this downpour would have brought our walk to a premature end.
By nine o’clock the rain had stopped and the sun emerged from behind the clouds. Whilst gradually drying and subtly climbing, we reached the impressive Iron Age hillfort on Old Winchester Hill. The location for our previous night’s accommodation had meant we, unfortunately, bypassed Butser Hill, the highest point of the whole trail at 270 metres. Old Winchester Hill made up for this perfectly. After surveying the remains of the hill fort, we navigated our way around and down from the hill. We had to take care to ignore the popular Monarchs Way path that tried to divert us northwards. Through narrow paths and a weather-beaten copse of trees we went, and eventually, reached the River Meon, before reaching Exton that straddles the Meon Valley.
We had not purchased a map detailing area, and heading down a narrow path out of Exton, we emerged by an old Saxon church and a busy roundabout. The South Downs Way had gone missing. Undoubtedly seeing my confusion, a kindly motorist stopped and informed us we needed to leave Exton via a path leading north-east, rather than in the southwards direction I had led us. The kind man spared my blushes by saying many walkers find keeping to the route confusing when leaving Exton. Retracing our steps, we were soon back on track.
Leaving the village via a steep hill, we reached another notable high point, also called Beacon Hill. After a late lunch, we saw a signpost that reassuringly promised we were 10 miles from Winchester. At this point, my feet were very sore. Knowing we were nearing the home stretch, I trundled down a gravel path and reached a winding road. If I was being critical, the last 10 miles certainly didn’t capture the imagination as the previous 90 had. Following roads, gravel paths and skirting farmers fields wasn’t an exhilarating end to an epic journey. No doubt our fatigued mindset and stiff joints contributed to this feeling. If we had started at the western end of the Way, we perhaps would have raced up these paths full of vigour and optimism.
Around 5 o’clock we reached the satisfyingly named Cheesefoot Head. As the sun slowly sunk in the sky, we finally saw the distant lights of Winchester emerging from the gloom. It is a rare occasion that one delights in seeing a motorway, but on this occasion, we did as it signified an end to our labour. An hour later we were nestled in a warm pub in the heart of Winchester, peering out at the statue of Alfred the Great. Barring the final stretch of the Way, we reflected on an enjoyable and challenging journey. If I could have done one thing differently it would be to walk the route in Summer. With the nights rapidly drawing in, November isn’t an ideal time to cover very long distances. A great joy of hiking is the release of tensions from everyday life, and to focus on the scenery and the pleasure of exercise. We had often felt pushed for time, which lead to some stages of the walk being anxiously rushed through. However our overriding emotion was one of satisfaction, our first National Trail in England had been completed.