The South Downs Way is an excellent choice for a quick and easy long-distance walk within a short drive from Southampton, Portsmouth, Brighton or London. Here is a quick introduction to the national trail.
Where is it and how far is it?
The South Downs Way runs between Winchester and Eastbourne, completely within the South Downs National Park. The 100 mile (160km) route can be walked in either direction in around 12 days.
Why should you walk the South Downs Way?
The route is surprisingly rural, rarely encountering towns and villages, and provides an excellent retreat from city living. At the same time as giving a sense of the wild, it is a generally easy walk and well-waymarked. None of the stages are more than 12 miles and the complete walk can be done in a leisurely 12 days.
Kev Reynolds, author of the Cicerone guidebook to the South Downs Way, says the following:
"Each time I tread that smooth baize of turf and look north across the empty Weald, I find it hard to believe that this is the ‘overcrowded’ South of England. This South is a surprisingly secret land, though its secrets are there to be unravelled if one only cares to look."
When should you go?
The South Downs Way can be walked at any time of the year although each season will bring its own particular style. The route passes through one of the driest and warmest parts of the country, and for the most part bridlepaths will be firm underfoot, but following rain the bare chalk tracks soon become very slippery, which can cause problems on steep descents. Under ‘normal’ summer conditions there will be little mud, while exposed flints will prove uncomfortable unless you are well shod. For long periods the traveller along the South Downs Way will be fully exposed to the elements with neither shelter nor shade for several miles. This can create problems in summer as in winter – bright sunshine can be as debilitating on a long walk as cold winds and rain. Be prepared for all eventualities.
Where should you stay?
Numerous options exist along or close to the route, including hotels, B&Bs, guest houses, youth hostels, camping barns and campsites, up-to-date details of which are available via the South Downs Way website. Booking in advance is essential because of the popularity of the region in general and the SDW in particular, and as prices vary considerably, do check when making your reservation.
A few campsites will be found close to, or within a mile or two of, the route, and these are listed on the national trail website mentioned above. Wild camping along the South Downs Way is not really an option.
Best bit of the South Downs Way:
Kev Reynolds again has the last word: "The southern counties do not lend themselves to major epics, but minute by minute along the South Downs Way I experience the wonders of the countryside. In that countryside is revealed the remarkable nature of the ordinary common scenes and pleasures that all may witness when out wandering the footpaths. Noting these little snippets that add much to the eventual sum of life’s package of pleasures, it is my hope that those who follow this route will absorb as much of the landscape and the creatures that people it, as possible, and gain as much happiness as I have, each time I’ve walked it."
More Information about the South Downs Way:
The South Downs Way guidebook by Kev Reynolds
The National Trails guidebook by Paddy Dillon
How to pack for a long distance trek - Cicerone Extra article
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