A Trio of English Walks Part 3: The South Downs Way
Headed South in Autumn
My last planned hike of 2020 was the South Downs Way. I was back in the swing of walking so knew that I could enjoy this trip along a beautiful trail. I planned this hike for early October, so knew I would need to wrap warmer for the cooler nights, adding my sleeping bag liner to the rest of my kit, hiking in a pair of trousers I had from a few years back. (Unfortunately, I’m not Dad enough to have a knee zip-off pair that fit me right now….)
The South Downs Way: A History
The South Downs Way was opened as a Nation Scenic Trail in 1972, with an extension at the Western terminus in the 1980s. Its use dates back several thousand years for travelers avoiding the wetter lowlands, as well as sites of settlements from the Neolithic Era. The Trail spans from Winchester, Hampshire in the West of the South Downs, all the way to Eastbourne, East Sussex – a distance of 100 miles.
I chose to hike from West to East so that I could spend my last day enjoying the chalk cliffs at the Seven Sisters. My father drove me the hour south from home to Winchester, and I set out on my hike, whilst the residents were still sleeping off their Friday nights. As I meandered through the town, passing medieval city walls (and an exposed section of the previous Roman Walls), I nodded to the early dog walkers and thought about the trail ahead.
Distance – 100 miles
Total Ascent: 8,721ft
Total Descent: 8,662ft
Trip Total Duration: 6 days
Mileage Breakdown: 16.2 – 18.8 – 18.0 – 16.4 – 19.4 – 11.2
For this hike, I decided not to plan specific destinations for each day, but to see how I felt each day. Generally, this trail has smaller inclines than those I had already undertaken in 2020 so it felt good to walk for longer on several days. Furthermore, the South Downs Way has a lot of chalk terrain, providing great drainage for the topsoil. Even though it rained several times on this trip, the ground was not at all ‘swampy’.
The final day was shorter as I also had to walk several miles into the town center of Eastbourne to take a train home. This involved a nice stroll along the oceanfront, though doesn’t count as trail miles.
A Gentle Stroll Through the Country
Once you have passed through Winchester, and reach the outskirts you are greeted with a description of the types of National Footpaths in the UK. As a pedestrian, you are able to use all the paths, though at times they can be shared with Bicycles, Horses, and even some vehicles. This also means there are diversions for cyclists and horse riders on sections of the trail.
To fully leave Winchester you cross over the motorway, where you find yourself on farmland. The next several miles alternate between skirting around fields, and walking on maintained farm tracks. The Sun was shining and I enjoyed the peacefulness of the cool autumn morning. I reached Exton Beacon and enjoyed the view as I descended into the town of Exton.
Though my food bag was full, I felt the need to take a break at the Shoe Inn, and have a tea in the garden. This of course led to a rather large sandwich and a side of chips (i.e fries). I’d walked 12 miles already and it was only noon. A couple of other hikers who I had been yoyo-ing with in the morning walked into the garden. I noticed an Appalachian Trail 2020 hiker tag and went over. We spoke for a while about the hiker’s experience on the trail and how it felt getting off due to Covid.
Harder to Stealth Camp
After a while, the other hikers pushed on, and I rearranged my pack and set off myself. I crossed the River Meon – a chalk stream where the water rises out of the porous ground and passed a beautifully built bridge nestled amongst the trees.
After ascending 500ft, enjoying the views, and heading down 300ft I entered Meon Springs – a fishery and campsite. As a lot of the land along the South Downs Way is farmland, it can be difficult to stealth camp. 16.4 miles into the day, I decided £10 to camp, with access to bathrooms, and HOT WATER for Ramen was too good to pass up. I set my tent up on the soft grass, and whiled away the hours stretching, and reading.
I awoke the next morning and took my time to wake up and get ready. With Autumn well and truly underway, I enjoy my slower starts, where I can hike as the sun rises in the sky. This fits well with a lower mileage day. Leaving Meon Springs, I walked along paved farm roads, as I slowly began to ascend onto the hillside.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park
After five miles or so, including more farmland, I was 550ft higher at Buster Hill Nature Reserve. The Sun was high in the sky, and you could see far down below. I descended 400ft in under a half-mile, thankful I wasn’t slogging up the hill like the several out of breath families that I passed.
Crossing the A3 takes you into Queen Elizabeth Country Park. With around 1,400 acres of forest and downland, this is a popular destination for walkers, families, and mountain bikers. Another set of bathrooms and a café saw me taking a vegan sausage roll break, with another cup of tea. This walk was clearly turning out to be a food tour of the South Downs, and I can’t say I’m too mad about that. I finally pushed on and climbed into the park. In the park, I took in all of the trees and winding paths with glee. Even in early autumn, the trees cooled the air and mesmerized the eyes with hues of yellow and orange foliage.
With the park left behind, I pushed on passing several groups of school students on hiking trips. The path varies here between farmland, road, and woodland, which keeps your mind engaged. Next, I entered Harting Down – National Trust land – and enjoyed the more open grassland. A short, sharp climb takes you up and over a hilltop, that navigates around the nearby Trig Point. I greeted lots of walkers and had a conversation with a man about the landscape around us. Walkers on trails are much friendlier than those you see out and about in local towns!
Chalk Art, and Views to Myself
More varied farmland, intersected with woodland, led towards the town of Cocking (hahaha). As I walked between the fields of sheep, I took a moment to enjoy a large Chalk Ball on the side of the trail. The artist, Andy Goldsworthy, installed five balls in 2002, as a study on weathering. Feeling very cultured I pushed on.
I arrived at the water stop – a memorial to a local who loved to hike, and drank my fill. I noticed a sign for camping at the neighboring farm, so I went to enquire. Another £10 for a camping spot saved me the mile or so off trail to town. I also got several bags of crisps and coke to supplement my dinner. The view was stunning, and I had the whole spot to myself (if you don’t count the sheep). There was even a propane-powered shower. If anyone in the valley looked my way, they may have seen more moons than they were expecting.
I enjoyed the morning sunrise with my sheep neighbours and then continued East. Hiking past the farmhouse of the previous night’s hosts, I walked along the farm track for several miles. An hour or so later I nodded to the farmer who covered the distance on an ATV – although a tempting way to travel this is not what I am here for. The fields began to slope down on either side, opening up to views of the surrounding countryside. There were sections with autumnal flowers shining brighter than overcast skies, seemingly moodier by the minute.
A Spot Of Tea and A Downpour of Rain
Following the trail, you pass on by the village of Amberley. Of course, I couldn’t miss the opportunity for snacks, so took a detour past Amberley Castle and into the heart of the village. I stopped in at the village store where I bought crisps and more fizzy drink, noting this was not the healthiest hiking trip I have had to date. The stone cottages line the streets, with a variety of old slate and thatched roofs. It was the Amberley Village Tearoom where I took off my pack and took some time to read. Of course, things were helped along with a pot of tea and a delicious vegan flapjack.
The conspiring dark skies of the morning decided to unleash their rains as I headed back to the trail. I had a short climb that I powered through with the help of all the sugar consumed, whilst making sure to take in the views of the village from above. The showers came and went, which meant a constant rotation of layers to keep dry, then warm, then cool. I stopped off for a break at a hay barn on the edge of the trail, and watched the rains come down.
From here the rains steadily increased so I put my music on and focused on getting to the end of the day. At the half way point exactly of the SDW, a few hikers headed West shared their information about the local town and any stealth spots ahead. They spoke of open farmland between here and the town of Washington. I decided to head there for the local campground. This involved a 1.5 mile detour from the trail. I persevered with the result of a sheltered spot at the campground. Combine this with a warm shower, and the local pub’s delicious chunky chips, I was content to spend the evening reading, and talking to my partner on the phone.
Windy Devil’s Dyke, and More Rain
Day 4 started with sunshine and a gentle breeze. I shook out my tent and placed it in the sunshine whilst I prepared for the day. My legs warmed up on the 1.5-mile trip back to the trail, where the tarmac roads returned to gravel paths, and dirt woodland. More views of greenery kept me company as I headed over the River Adur, and onwards. The path itself is easy to navigate, though there are short, sharp hills that keep the body engaged.
The trail undulates, sticking to the boundaries of farmland, though there was an overall incline leading to Devil’s Dyke. This is another National Trust landmark, which celebrates a large dry chalk valley. The views are enjoyable, though the real entertainment comes in the form of Paragliders. A rainbow of multiple parachutes filled the sky, where adventure enthusiasts flew on the thermals generated by the valley topography.
My lunch stop entertainment ended as the rains began once again. I walked with a full belly and continued the game of changing layers as the weather saw fit. I passed New Timber Hill, the road to Brighton (opting out of a day at the seaside), and over more farmland. The cows didn’t seem to mind the rain, nor the sheep, though I was getting a little bogged down. I was looking for a spot to stop, but options were non-existent when trying to follow Leave No Trace principles. Finally, I made it to Ditchling Beacon, a local viewpoint that many enjoy in finer weather. My view was somewhat obstructed.
At this point the rain became very heavy, and with poor visibility, I didn’t want to walk to the local town along the road. Instead I set my tent up on the raised level roundabout of the National Trust Carpark. I slowly got warm and dry, whilst the skies howled around me. I went to sleep, hoping that nobody would tell me to move.
A New Perspective
The inclement weather of the previous days had got me down a little, though this was not to last. I woke up to a morning wind, but the rain was gone. A stunning sunrise greeted me as I stepped out of my tent to stretch and pee. I managed to slightly dry things out, and the morning dog walkers and cyclists got to see the spectacle of a hiker with their gear exploded everywhere. The mist cleared and the sun took hold of the day.
I meandered through the countryside, glimpsing the ocean as I walked parallel with Brighton. As the sun shined, I sang along to various songs before filling my water at a farm and crossing the busy road. For the next 30 minutes or so the trail climbed steadily in a horseshoe shape. The trail follows land boundaries but also avoids the very steep-sided hill that the trail approaches gradually. After a 400ft ascent (it felt big at the time) the trail joined with large concrete slabs, used as a road for the farmers who must have some of the best views in the South!
I had tried previously to get some food at a local Youth Hostel, but it was closed due to the time of year. Today was my lucky day, as I was overjoyed to see the YHA South Downs café was open. Several cups of tea, bags of crisps, and a dry spot to air out my tent were exactly what I needed. Two local women who have hiked around the Downs for most of their adult lives were enjoying a coffee after a brisk walk. We chatted about the village of Alfriston, which was my destination for the day, before heading off to more farmland and another Trig Point.
Alfriston and Beyond The South Downs Way
Passing through panoramic landscapes, I came up close with telecom masts standing in harsh contrast to their surrounds. Though beyond these was the highest point of the day at 700ft. With aching feet (and thinning shoe soles) I laid down in Bo Peep carpark to elevate my legs. The original plan involved finding a stealth spot in the upcoming woodland, though it soon became clear this woodland was more scrubland. Listening to murder podcasts about rural murders is also a great detractor from setting your tent up in the middle of nowhere.
As the sun was getting low, I arrived in Alfriston. After a stop at St Andrews Church – the first national trust property, and a 2-mile detour to the non-operational campground, I made a reservation at ‘Ye Olde Smugglers Inn’. This is a former smuggler’s post that dates back to 1358. It is now a quaint village pub and inn, and the perfect place to spend my last night on trail. I filled my belly with bread, soup, and a vegan burger with chunky chips, a vegan ice cream, a couple of cokes, and some sweets from the next-door shop. In my defense, I earned it with the days walking.
As I turned my back to Alfriston, walking in the morning dew-filled meadows to the nearby village of Litlington my excitement grew. I’ve been to Brighton plenty of times, though I’ve never walked along the famous chalk cliffs to its East, nor into the equally beautiful seaside town of Eastbourne. Woodlands and country homes surrounded the path, followed by a short, steep staircase that finally led to the ocean.
The Seven Sisters
The River Cuckmere meanders into the English Channel and makes for a beautiful scene. The trail skirts the edge and enters the Seven Sisters Country Park. Remnants of dry valleys, these chalk cliffs are calved to their current shape by years of seawater erosion. The trail meanders up and down the hills, and one has to remind themselves not to get lost in the beauty – lest you get too close to the edge.
The vegan curry pasty enjoyed at Birling Gap fuelled me on beyond Belle Tout Lighthouse, to Beachy Head. I stopped to enjoy the views one more time before heading to the endpoint of this trail.
I reached the trail marker denoting the end of the 100-mile trail, feeling elated, and of course, hungry.
The trail terminus is at the edge of Eastbourne, where I would need to go to catch a train home. The seafront promenade led me to the pier. Here I changed into my warm clothes, read on the pebble beach, and thought of the previous several days on the trail. I thoroughly enjoyed this trip along the South Downs Way and it is the catalyst for future trips for the next season. Until then, I headed into town, ate my fill at a vegan chicken shop (will I ever stop eating), and began the 3-hour train journey home.
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