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.
On the 18th April, 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.
At 9am on that sunny morning, I stood at the path’s start beside the Cathedral, pawing the ground and snorting,
before, to an imagined fanfare of trumpets, I scurried off in a puff of dust – raising my hat politely to His Greatness in passing.
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,
along quiet country lanes;
farm tracks and footpaths;
across fields of flowering rape;
and emerging wheat;
through beech hangers
and into woodland. Early on, there is little sense of the magnificent Downland for which the path is famous.
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,
and all manner of spring flowers, any guilt quickly evaporated.
Especially as I was remarkably lucky with the weather. For April. For England.
It didn’t rain at all and the sun shone on five of my six days.
On the third day, I reached the chalk escarpment with panoramic views to the north across Hampshire and Sussex
and, away southwards, a strip of English Channel.
But often, the route dropped from the scarp edge to cross a river valley or a crease in the Downs;
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.
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.
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;
and cyclists galore. It was a rare hour if I had the Downs to myself.
With extra miles added for reaching an off-route B&B
or my room at the Inn,
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.
Made tighter by frequently stopping simply to, you know, look.
There was much to gawk at;
to meet and greet;
and time whizzed by
in a flurry of shutter clicks.
There’s a lot to see in the South Downs National Park.
Including plenty of wildlife: distant herds of fallow deer;
a red-legged partridge leading me on;
cocky pied wagtails;
the first swallows of 2016;
and singing yellowhammers;
if not as incessantly as skylarks (who frankly wouldn’t shut up).
I saw birds of prey: kestrels doing that clever, showy-off hovering thing;
buzzards letting me believe I could get really, really close (but then flying off before I could)
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.
So, yes. My pace was slow and the days long, spent happily snapping away at whatnot:
detail in an enormous bonfire;
far-off subjects (brought close by zoom lens);
or the odd selfie. (N.B. The frequency of the selfie is odd, not the subject).
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).
This is Downland walking at its very best, on springy turf with views over to Lewes and Mount Caburn,
and, to our right, Newhaven and the sea,
before dropping to Alfriston for coffee and marvellous sausage rolls,
and then pulling away towards the coast.
At Exceat near Cuckmere Haven, we met friend Annie and, after a friends-reunited chat,
and another attempt by Jim to master his sitting skills (he’s almost got it), we began the walk’s climax: The Seven Sisters.
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.
Decisively conquering the first clutch of cliffs, we fell on tea and cake at Birling Gap,
rejoined the Saturday afternoon throng and climbed up to and past Belle Tout Lighthouse
until there it was. The very last climb of the South Downs Way: Beachy Head.
It’s not a bad ending
and though I’m undoubtedly biased, I can’t think of a finer finish to any path.
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.
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.
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.
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.
In good weather however, the SDW is possibly the perfect long-distance footpath
and I haven’t even mentioned the iron-age hill-forts, the bronze-age burial mounds, C12th churches, ghostly remains of abandoned medieval settlements,
good, solid English place-names and, crucially, decent pubs. What more inducement could you need?
One morning, I stopped at The Devil’s Jumps – a 3000 year old barrow cemetery. Perhaps predictably, it was an eerily atmospheric spot – underlined somewhat 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.
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.