Trail Diary: A Hike Along the South Downs Way

24/08/18

By Keith Foskett

With giddy excitement, I shouldered my pack on a beautiful Saturday morning. The weather report held much promise; 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, as I do every year.

Untitled-1 (40).jpgIt 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, and what time the cafes open. It winds its way through classic, rolling down land, sporting the kind of scenery you’d expect to see on an English postcard. I adore it up there.

Winchester in Hampshire, at the western end of the South Downs Way, dates back to prehistoric times. With 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 soon passed the statue of King Alfred, carried on by the cake shop – still unfortunately closed – gently eased myself up Highcliffe, crossed over the motorway bridge 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 South Downs is less populated and quieter 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 relaxed.

Welcome back Keith, it whispered.

Early mornings up on the Downs are quiet; you may catch the occasional dog walker but essentially, it’s deserted. I could have been the only person on the face of the planet and revelled in the solitude. Away from distractions, the mundane events of everyday life, I always feel I’ve returned home on the Downs.

Untitled-1 (41).jpgPink skies faded to blue, and a light breeze persuaded the occasional cloud to move on as I reached Exton after 12 miles. Centred around the crystal-clear River Meon, I bemoaned my early start as the Shoe Inn pub and beautiful gardens were shut. I watched the river glide by and nodded a greeting to a fisherman.

Bikers appeared occasionally, some with rucksacks and camping foam strapped on their backs, doubtless out either to conquer the Way in a day or more likely, two. The way dipped down to the A268 – a stone’s throw from the little village of Cocking – then rose back up before levelling off. I spotted woods perhaps three miles distant, a perfect place to pitch tent for the night.

The rise from the road was kinder than expected and I arrived at 7pm. I set up camp and cooked, having found some wild garlic, nettles and dandelion leaves to throw into a meagre Pot Noodle. A bright moon illuminated the woods through breaks in the canopy. 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, eat some breakfast, pack up and start walking. It was cloudy and chilly and I found myself longing for the sun so I could remove my jacket. Clouds drifted away, leaving a low mist which clung stubbornly to the south flanks of the Downs. The sun’s rays spliced through, dappling patterns on the ground.

Untitled-1 (42).jpgHoughton Bridge at mile 47 was my intended rest stop. I arrived at 9.30, too early for the excellent Bridge Inn to be plying its trade, but the Café was sure to be open and serving breakfast. Houghton Bridge was visible as I descended down the chalky track and my gaze followed the route over the River Arun and up to Rackham Hill.

With a full stomach, I departed the café before the lunchtime crowd arrived. It was Sunday and as expected, busy with walkers, dogs and bikers. The first glimpse of the English Channel came into view and patterns of young, green crops, yellow rape fields and the hazy blue of the sea splashed colour everywhere.

A solitary Pill Box guards the southern side of the Downs shortly before crossing the busy A24 just south of Washington. I crawled up towards Chanctonbury Ring, an ancient hill fort dating back to the 5th century BC, which commands great views in all directions and is shrouded in folklore. The devil can be summoned by running around the ring seven times anti-clockwise. He will reward you with a bowl of soup for your efforts but be warned, your soul is expected in exchange.

After the stiff climb up Castle Hill, a panorama unfolds which makes me think I am in another country. To the right the sea edges closer and north, to my left, the Downs slip away to the Weald, a 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 the last 20 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 villages with flint stone walls, ancient churches, oak-beamed pubs and a cup of tea.

I passed Southease Church, now over 1000 years old. There are remains of early 13th century wall paintings peeking through inside. It is one of those places which transports you back in time, makes you think who has walked in your footsteps and what secrets it holds onto.

Untitled-1 (43).jpgOver the River Ouse winding its way down to Newhaven and the slow, painful climb up Itford hill always catches me unawares – it gets harder every year. I was on the final leg here, just 16 more miles and on target for a mid-afternoon finish at Eastbourne.

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 secret. It can be touristy at weekends; most of the shops cater for day trippers but it never seems busy. The narrow main street forces vehicles to slow down, centuries old buildings of flint, brick and oak please the eye and it is home to The Singing Kettle Tearoom, a place I always stop at. I chat to Joy who brings me a coffee and makes me eggs on toast.

“It’s about 10 miles to the finish from here,” she informs me. “You going over the Sisters or past the Long Man?”

She refers to the Seven Sisters, a set of chalk cliffs lining the English Channel, proving a tiring finale to the Way, or The Long Man 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.

Untitled-1 (44).jpg“I did the Sisters last year and I’ve never taken the route past the Long Man, so I’m going to try that.” I reply.

“Well, you have a good hill after Jevington but after that you’re up on top ‘til Eastbourne.”

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, once more I’d enjoyed my favourite English trail up close and personal.

I love my local trail; you should come take a look.