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For more information about the region South Downs Virtual Website
Catherine Redfern's great photo blog on the South Downs
The South Downs Way is one of the closest
National Trails to our home, and certainly the best for
scenery, the South Downs are one of the latest regions in
England to be considered for
National Park status. The trail covers 100 miles between
Winchester and Eastbourne following paths that are mainly high on
the northern escarpment only descending where the downs are cut by
river valleys. With most
places along the route being less than an hour and half's
drive away and the furthest point only about 2 hours away
it is also one of the most accessible but due to the way in
which we completed the trail it probably took us the
longest time to complete as we did it in small sections as part of day walks,
sometimes only covering a small part of the trail and on
others walking one in one direction for 10 miles before
turning around and walking back to the car. This also
means that we have nearly walked it twice!
We started in March 2005 not at either of the recognised start/finishing points Winchester and Eastbourne but at Alfriston with a series of day trips to the attractive Sussex village Alfriston as training for the Dales Way. Alfriston makes a great base for either day or weekend trips as it is possible to walk a variety of distances on easily marked footpaths with a variety of terrain, riverside meadows, coastal cliffs and chalky downland hills. The long term car park is secure and looked after by a really helpful attendant. Added to this the village itself is home to our favourite Cafe, Badgers Tea Shop. The owner, Michael Luttig and his staff are so friendly, when the weather is good you can sit out in the garden with a never ending supply of tea and great cakes. Just the thing after you have walked 15 -20 miles! So after spending a few weekends around Alfriston building up mileages for our Dales Way trip we decided that it might be a good idea to carry on and do all of the South Downs Way.
As we didn't complete the walk in any order or linear from East to West it was difficult to get an impression of what it would be like to do as a continuous Long Distance Path, some sections were better than others but as our journey was fragmented over time and we could chose where and when to go according to the weather it wasn't a case of having consecutive bad or good days.
We were generally covering about 6 miles of trail as part of a 15 - 20 mile circular walk in summer, less mileage in winter, however due to the poor maintenance of paths off the main route, particularly in Hampshire we were frustrated on many of the circular walks we had devised from Ordnance Survey maps we decided to stick to the official path even if it did mean a few 'out and backs' along the same route to fill in gaps between previous points we had reached on our circular walks or where there wasn't a convenient car park. Sadly it proved impossible to do many stages effectively using public transport.
If we had been completing the walk in one go our preference would be to start at Winchester and head east, that way you will be over the M3, pass through Hampshire and still have most of the best parts of the walk to look ahead to.
Chanctonbury Ring with its great views across to the Isle of Wight seemed to be a natural dividing point and I could imagine that if you had walked the route consecutively from the West this would have been quite a fitting spot to contemplate the places you had been through in the previous days and enthuse about what lay ahead, the views on the later parts of the walk through West and East Sussex with the sea and white chalk cliffs to your right appear more invigorating.
We discovered that certain sections are better maintained and signposted than others, with the sections around Winchester and Hampshire being particularly bad. In fact here there appears to be a little conflict and confusion as to the correct route and considerably more road walking.
Hampshire in fact appears to be quite a bad county generally for maintaining public rights of way and we have encountered many instances on circular day walks where footpaths - in particular sections of the Monarch's Way had been ploughed up or blocked and signs removed.
Things improve slightly around The Queen Elizabeth Forest at Buriton but even here it is only the main bridleways and South Downs Way that are really maintained.
Once you move into Sussex the signposting and the scenery improves as does the welcome from local farmers, almost all we passed stopped to say hello or ask if we were having a good walk. Unfortunately though for one this proved rather uncomfortable as he pulled up at a farm gate jumped out of his Land Rover with a big wave and rushing to open the gate slipped into a very large mud bath. we did have an inner glow and smiled to ourselves, he was part of a big shooting party that we had just encountered blasting away at grouse!
Here are a few of our best moments.
Late November, on one of the coldest days of the year so far, and as most of the country shivered and the first snows fell, we braved the cold icy wind and walked over the Downs from Southease to Housedean thereby completing a lengthy section from Eastbourne to Devils Dyke and just leaving a 25 mile section between Devils Dyke and The A28 to complete. Although we walked there and back along the same route it still seemed to be quite varied with great views, particularly on the way back across the sea and towards the Seven Sisters cliffs. A brief storm passed by leaving a nice rainbow in its trail, it wasn't anything more serious than a little bit of sleet, and luckily as it was on our backs we hardly noticed.
With about 18 miles to complete we decided to do this in sections walking between car parks and back. A short 10 mile ( 5 mile there and back ) along Summerdown, Edburton Hill to Castle Town. Great weather big blue skies it was December and almost warm enough to be back in shorts. One advantage of being in the South, the weather is a lot kinder! I ended up carrying my Winter jacket all the way in the rucksack adding more weight along with a set of unused walking sticks that I still hadn't come to terms with! Little surprise considering the extra weight i was carrying that for the first time ever Liz started to overtake me on the hills!
New Years Day 2006 we swapped the snows of Alpine France for the mud of Sussex. With blue skies and very mild almost spring like weather we had hoped to spend a few days completing the final few miles of our South Downs Way, unfortunately due to a bit of miscalculation in distance it took a few more trips!
Thinking that there were only 3 miles from Amberley, the point we had previously reached on the western section of the South Downs Way we set off on News Years Day for what should have been a short 6 mile walk but we ended up walking 11 miles and finishing in the dark. Luckily I had a head torch which proved to be invaluable for the last final few miles back to the car and just goes to prove that you should always be prepared, even if it means packing and carrying things you may not use all the time. This left a small section of the trail left to complete between Amberley and the A24. It was a bit of an odd feeling to have completed a linear walk almost in the middle of the route but there we were by the A24 with the Downs ahead of us to the East and Winchester behind us to the West having finally walked along every mile of the path. A cold day with a bit of frost on the ground but the Downs mud still managed to splash up our legs.
One final scene as two deer just appeared out of the mist out of a field and crossed the path right in front of us, stopping briefly to have a look at us before wandering down to a small wood below just proving that even on a short journey the magic of the South Downs is not far away and a reminder that despite the worst attempts of man the area still has areas of outstanding natural beauty and wildlife
Our favourite sections included
The Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, the area is rich in footpaths and it is possible to devise many pleasant walks that take in some or all of the white cliffs and attractive villages.
Alfriston and The Long Man of Wilmington
Devil's Dyke, so close to cosmopolitan Brighton and a haven for kite flyers.
Beacon Hill, we saw half a dozen Buzzards circling in the warm thermal air performing territorial combat aerobatics with two Red Kites while a herd of deer grazed in the field below
The things we didn't like....
Shooting Parties, very evident throughout the walk
Fox Hunting, thankfully no longer with us but we were caught up amongst a hunt and it was terrifying especially hearing the hounds baying across fields and through woods
Newhaven, not on the South Downs Way but unfortunately included as part of one of our day walks.