Gardening Magazine

The South Downs Way: Winchester to Eastbourne

By David Marsden @anxiousgardener

Of all England’s long-distance footpaths, I know the South Downs Way best.  For twenty years I’ve lived almost within sight of it; walked many stretches countless times and all of it at least twice.  But I had never completed the entire 100 mile trek from Winchester to Eastbourne in one continuous, sweaty effort.  Until now.

South Downs Way (1)

On the 18th April 2016, I caught an early train to King Alfred’s capital, Winchester, in order, curiously, to walk all the way back home again; and then on to the finish at Eastbourne.

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

At 9am on that sunny morning, I stood at the path’s start beside the Cathedral, pawing the ground and snorting,

King Alfred, Winchester

Hamo Thornycroft’s statue of King Alfred the Great, Winchester

before, to an imagined fanfare of trumpets, I scurried off in a puff of dust – raising my hat politely to His Greatness in passing.

Thatched Cottage, Chilcomb

Thatched cottage, Chilcomb

You might think that a path across the rolling Downland of southern England is a relaxing saunter.   And initially it is pretty easy: mostly on the flat past small villages,

South Downs Way (17)

along quiet country lanes;

South Downs Way (11)

farm tracks and footpaths;

Rape Field, South Downs Way (2)

across fields of flowering rape;

Wheat Field, South Downs Way

and emerging wheat;

South Downs Way (14)

through beech hangers

South Downs Way (5)

and into woodland.  Early on, there is little sense of the magnificent Downland for which the path is famous.

Bluebells, South Downs Way

I was setting off on my annual long walk a month or two later than usual, guiltily leaving the gardens during the busy season.  But with bluebells at their peak,

Daffodils (2)

late daffodils;

Wood anemone
Wood anemone
Greater stitchwort
Greater stitchwort
Garden primroses
Garden primroses
Cowslips
Cowslips
Red Campion
Red Campion
Common dog-violet
Common dog-violet

and all manner of spring flowers, any guilt quickly evaporated.

Horse-chestnut leaves

Especially as I was remarkably lucky with the weather.  For April.  For England.

Rape Field, South Downs WAy

It didn’t rain at all and the sun shone on five of my six days.

South Downs Way (6)

One of a handful of irresistible benches

On the third day, I reached the chalk escarpment with panoramic views to the north across Hampshire and Sussex

Isle of Wight on the horizon

Isle of Wight on the horizon

and, away southwards, a strip of English Channel.

South Downs Way (2)

But often, the route dropped from the scarp edge to cross a river valley or a crease in the hills;

South Downs Way (9)

and time and time again I’d be at the foot of another hill, flexing my back and squinting ahead at a ribbon of white wending away, up and over a distant horizon.

South Downs Way (3)

One could almost take the frequency of dips and climbs personally: no sooner had I regained the tops then another long descent unwound before me.  The easy start to the Way was over.

South Downs Way (12)

I like solitude on my annual treks but with fine weather the SDW was busy: far busier than any other long-distance path I’ve done.  Even mid-week, I nodded, smiled and said hello many, many times to other distance walkers; to strollers and dog-owners;

South Downs Way (23)

horse-riders

South Downs Way (15)

and cyclists galore.  It was a rare hour if I had the Downs to myself.

South Gardens Cottage South Harting

South Gardens Cottage B&B, South Harting

With extra miles added for reaching an off-route B&B

Ye Olde George Inn, East Meon

Ye Olde George Inn, East Meon

or my room at the Inn,

Ewe and lamb, South Downs Way

the total mileage crept up to 110 and, pressed for time, I squeezed four twenty-mile days into my itinerary.  It was a tight schedule.

Lambs, South Downs Way

Made tighter by frequently stopping simply to, you know, look.

Ram, South Downs Way

There was much to gawk at;

Goose, South Downs Way

The fattest, noisiest, nosiest goose

to meet and greet;

Cows, South Downs Way (1)

and time whizzed by

Cows, South Downs Way (2)

in a flurry of shutter clicks.

South Downs Ponies (2)

There’s a lot to see in the South Downs National Park.

DSM_0359

Including plenty of wildlife: distant herds of fallow deer;

Red-legged partridge

a red-legged partridge leading me on;

Goldfinch

pretty goldfinches;

Pied wagtail

cocky pied wagtails;

Swallow

the first swallows of 2016;

Yellowhammer

and singing yellowhammers;

Skylark

if not as incessantly as skylarks (who frankly wouldn’t shut up).

Kestrel

I saw birds of prey: kestrels doing that clever, showy-off hovering thing;

Buzzards

buzzards letting me believe I could get really, really close (but then flying off before I could)

Red Kite

and my first red kite on the Downs.  I’ve been waiting for these birds to reach my part of Sussex in their ongoing recolonisation of England.  This one was a few miles east of Winchester and soon, no doubt, they will be soaring over the Priory – when I might get a better shot.

South Downs Way (24)

“As God is my witness – I’ll never be hungry again!”

So, yes.  My pace was slow and the days long, spent happily snapping away at whatnot:

South Downs Way (20)

silvered twigs;

South Downs Way (27)

pleasing hues;

River Arun

shimmering reeds;

South Downs Way (13)

vibrant colour;

DSM_0409

detail in an enormous bonfire;

Amberley Castle

Amberley Castle

far-off subjects (brought close by zoom lens);

DSM_1147

simple compositions;

South Downs Way (29)

A few hours in, a helluva long way to go

or the odd selfie.  (N.B. The frequency of the selfie is odd, not the subject).

South Downs Way (8)

When I was actually walking, those ups and downs of the SDW were ongoing, with no let-up on the final day.   From the railway halt at Southease, the Way climbs back to the escarpment and on to my home turf.  (My partner, Jim joined me for these last 20 miles.  He’s all right.  You’d like him).

Lewes, South Downs Way

This is Downland walking at its very best, on springy turf with views over to Lewes and Mount Caburn,

Newhaven, East Sussex

and, to our right, Newhaven and the sea,

Alfriston

before dropping to Alfriston for coffee and marvelous sausage rolls,

Alfriston, South Downs Way

and then pulling away towards the coast.

Cuckmere

At Exceat near Cuckmere Haven, we met friend Annie and, after a friends-reunited chat,

South Downs Way (25)

and another attempt by Jim to master his sitting skills (he’s almost got it), we began the walk’s climax: The Seven Sisters.

Seven Sisters (2)

The Seven Sisters are best viewed off the path from the far-side of the Cuckmere Valley.  Photo – September 2015

These are a stately, procession of blinding cliffs between Cuckmere Haven and Beachy Head.  After 100 miles and five and a half days, the South Downs Way doesn’t wind down meekly – like many trails.  It ends with a bang.

Birling Gap

Birling Gap

Decisively conquering the first clutch of cliffs, we fell on tea and cake at Birling Gap,

Belle Tout lighthouse

Belle Tout Lighthouse

rejoined the Saturday afternoon throng and climbed up to and past Belle Tout Lighthouse

Beachy Head Lighthouse

Beachy Head Lighthouse

until there it was. The very last climb of the South Downs Way: Beachy Head.

Beachy Head (2)

It’s not a bad ending

Beachy Head

and though I’m undoubtedly biased, I can’t think of a finer finish to any path.

South Downs Way End

Satisfied, tired and thirsty, I followed Jim and Annie down to Eastbourne for the bus back home and a celebratory glass of sparkling mineral water.   Or something.   After first attempting the South Downs Way in 1985, I had finally walked all of it in one hit.

South Downs Way (10)

Have I convinced you?  To walk the South Downs Way?  I hope so.  It is a superb path: varied; beautiful; ancient and increasingly dramatic (if walked west to east).  The start and finish are easily reached by public transport; it is easily chopped into day or half-day sections and, if some bits aren’t exactly gentle, it is all easily do-able by most.

South Harting

South Harting – one of the spring-line settlements below the Downs

But a word of warning from horrid experience.  If the weather turns foul, the Downs can be downright hostile.  They are bleak and miserable in driving rain or icy wind, with little or no shelter.  And the nearest pie-shop is often either miles away or else a long detour to the foot of the hills followed by a long, achy climb back up again.

Mud, South Downs Way

This during a dry April, imagine a wet January

Clay paths in woods and on lower ground quickly turn to grim mush in heavy rain and often remain so for months.  Whilst, during hotter weather, the high chalk tracks are baked hard into flinty ruts and ridges which butcher ill-clad feet.

Chanctonbury Ring

Chanctonbury Ring

In good weather however, the SDW is possibly the perfect long-distance footpath

Southease Church

Southease Church

and I haven’t even mentioned the iron-age hill-forts, the bronze-age burial mounds, C12th churches, ghostly remains of abandoned medieval settlements,

South Downs Way (26)
South Downs Way (18)
South Downs Way (21)

good, solid English place-names and, crucially, decent pubs.  What more inducement could you need?

Devil's Jumps, West Sussex

The Devil’s Jumps, West Sussex

One morning, I stopped at The Devil’s Jumps – a 3000 year old barrow cemetery.  Perhaps predictably, it was an eerily atmospheric spot – underlined by the freshly severed deer-foot lying nearby. There was no-one about and, except for birdsong, the Downs were empty and silent.  At my feet, discreet and easily overlooked, I noticed a small, weathered plaque.

Mark's Memorial, South Downs Way

It is inscribed only with the dates 23 July 1960 – 20 April 1998 and the words, “Mark liked it here.”  If you visit the South Downs or walk the Way, I expect you’ll agree with Mark.  I do.

oooOOOooo

I plan to publish a more detailed account of this walk – with loads more photos – on my other blog – ‘The Walking Gardener.’  


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