The South Downs Way National Trail in winter
Lesley Williams shares the highs and lows of walking the South Downs Way, a national trail between Winchester and Eastbourne, in the dank and dreary depths of February and with a dog – albeit one experienced in UK long-distance walking and one that sports her own saddlebags!
You certainly can’t bank on good weather when you choose February in the UK for your week off – and it matters rather more when you’re going to be spending your time on a long-distance walk. So I decided to go for the southernmost National Trail that could be completed in a week – the South Downs Way – in the hope of catching the milder end of whatever winter might throw at us. The South Downs Way runs for exactly 100 miles between Winchester, just to the north of Southampton in Hampshire, to Eastbourne in East Sussex, near Beachy Head. It passes through West Sussex and East Sussex all within the South Downs National Park (only so-designated in 2011).
For me, the choice of which direction to walk was easy – eastwards from Winchester to Eastbourne to keep the wind and weather behind me, and also because walking over the Seven Sisters would make a great finale to look forward to.
I began my planning by researching accommodation along the route. Our eight-year old labrador, Cassie, who has earned her place at my side on similar trips – the Cotswold Way, the Cumbria Way and the Coast to Coast – was coming with me. When you’re trekking with your dog, you have to stop at dog-friendly B&Bs which restricts the options for your overnight stops. For us that meant that our daily mileage ranged from 9 to 20 miles. Accommodation is reasonably plentiful, although it’s all in the small villages off to the side of the trail, so you have to be prepared to add an extra mile or two to each day. In many cases your hosts will offer you a lift to and from the nearest pub in the evening, and pub meals were generally very good, and in some cases pretty fantastic.
We began at the cathedral in Winchester. After a helpful tourist had taken our photograph we wandered through the main street, over the River Itchen, then happily uphill out of the city. Our final escape was punctuated by the roar of the M3 beneath us as we crossed a footbridge, heading for the first tiny village on the route, Chilcomb. A steep climb up on a narrow track lead up to the first of what would be many muddy sections. With the exception of two sections, the route follows bridleways and tracks, shared with mountain bikers and horses as well as forest and farm vehicles.
At our first high point, Cheesefoot Head (176m), Eisenhower is said to have addressed Allied troops in 1944 before the D-Day landings. After a mixture of lightly wooded sections and mud, we eventually entered one of many nature reserves along the trail, and arrived at Beacon Hill, high above the village of Exton, with far-reaching views towards the Solent and Isle of Wight. The village of Exton is a delight, with a great pub complete with riverside garden – clearly a favoured spot in the summer, but equally snug with open fires and great food during the winter.
My B&B hostess Suzanne offered to give me a lift from Corhampton Lane Farm to a ‘less muddy’ starting point to climb Old Winchester Hill, and we jumped at the offer. Kev Reynolds’ guide warns that after wet weather ‘a stream runs through this [narrow woodland] shaw’ on the official route out of Exton. But on that day Suzanne assured me that it was a raging torrent, and more or less impassable! The frozen mud crunched beneath us, and for a while we managed well on the alternative route, until the mud thawed and became a lethal slippery swamp. Old Winchester Hill has extensive Iron Age earthworks and a surprise vineyard on the southern slopes. Further on a trout farm at Whitewool Farm offered DIY tea and coffee, and as I sipped my tea on the terrace, I soaked up the peaceful scene of fishermen casting their lines in the hope of catching something.
The rest of the day was punctuated by semi-frozen muddy tracks and paths, one of the highlights being Butser Hill (270m), the highest point on the entire walk, with a wonderful long grassy descent to cross the A3 before entering Queen Elizabeth Country Park, a maze of forest paths and tracks, but clearly signed, all the way to Buriton.
The next day – from Buriton to Cocking – was our shortest. In spring and summer this would be a pretty section through woods and some open downland, but in February it was just damp and forlorn, although we met a surprising number of other walkers making the most of the day. By the afternoon torrential rain started, so I was thankful to be safely in the dry.
Mud dominated the following day. As we rejoined the SDW at Hill Farm above the village of Cocking, a sign advertising ice cream seemed remarkably uninviting. Layers of cloud shrouded part of our view, and drifted apart revealing sunlit hillsides. We had mud through woodland, and then – joy, oh joy! – a muddy field of stubble downhill, followed by ‘mud soup’ which came up to the top of my boots. Emerging from some more woods we joined a short section of Stane Street, a Roman road which once linked Chichester with London, leading towards a ‘Roman’ signpost to Noviomagnus (Chichester) and Bignor village. A Roman Villa at Bignor was once at the heart of a 1900-acre farm. We waited a while to cross the busy A29 safely, then continued downhill to flooded meadows and the final approach to Amberley – a quintessential southern English village and a delight to behold, its assortment of cottages and houses a feast for eyes weary of winter landscapes.
Our 20-mile day was special, and for the most part blessed with good weather. It was Saturday, and there were loads of people out on the trail, all of them curious to know what Cassie was carrying in her dog panniers, and where I’d got them from. The day was divided into three fair-sized drops and climbs; the first down to the village of Washington (there are two alternatives to the route here – see sidebar), then up onto Chanctonbury Ring, site of an Iron Age hill fort. The trees crowning the hilltop were planted back in 1760, but were badly damaged in the great storm of October 1987. One of my earliest memories is of the views from Chanctonbury Ring, on an excursion as a small child from my grandparents’ house at Goring-by-Sea.
Wonderful open downland sections followed, and we delighted in striding out and eating up the miles. Cassie was similarly delighted to discover the first of the dew ponds in the area, saucer-shaped depressions lined with clay to store water in an area otherwise devoid of surface water.
We approached Devil’s Dyke late in the day, watching hang gliders and microlites, like giant butterflies, as they caught the last of the evening thermals above this huge dry valley, England’s largest coombe of chalk karst. Sadly, The Hiker’s Rest café at Saddlescombe Farm was shut, but it was late, sleet-cum-hail was falling, and the light was beginning to fade. One more hill to climb, and then we could see Pyecombe nestling below us. It had been quite a long day, but full of the very essence of the downs, with wonderful views, and broad grassy open downs scenery. And, best of all, no mud!
A bright and frosty day dawned in Pyecombe, and we met my friend Catherine from Páramo, with her husband John and their elderly chocolate labrador Oscar. We had a fine morning walking high on the open downs once again, but by the afternoon the wind really got up, and our final few miles into Rodmell was quite a challenge, as we leaned at 20 degrees into the gale-force wind and rain. Catherine and I were proud to see that, of all the walkers on the route who assembled in the pub later, we Páramo-wearers were the driest. Bone dry in fact!
Rodmell to Alfriston was another delight. The morning started bright and sunny, although the wind was still fierce. We walked down the road to Southease, then across the flat valley, crossing first the river in full spate, then the railway level crossing, and finally the road. Approaching the top of Itford hill a huge black cloud enveloped us, and I just had enough time to get my waterproof trousers on before a sleet cloudburst hit us. But it was all over in minutes, bright blue sky returning as we continued on lovely high grassy stretches to Firle Beacon to admire yet another view. On the way down I spotted two figures making their way down from the next hill towards me. As we drew near I could make out that it was Kev Reynolds and his wife Min, who had promised to meet us. With a brief exchange of greeting, almost lost in the howling wind, we continued together to Alfriston, another gem of a village, where we all sat in Kev’s car to eat our sandwiches just as another squall of rain and sleet pummelled the roof. The riverside route from Alfriston to Exeat was completely submerged under floodwater, so we continued on the road through woods then up and down 200 steps to reach the Seven Sisters Country Park visitor centre for a welcome cup of tea.
The long-anticipated finale of our South Downs Way was the cliff-top walk along the Seven Sisters, the steep roller coaster grassy hills abruptly truncated by the crashing waves below.
After a quick snack at Birling Gap, we continued on up to Belle Tout lighthouse, with Beachy Head lighthouse below, before the last long final climb to Beachy Head itself, a staggering 163m above the sea. It was ridiculously windy but we were elated to have reached the last great landmark on our walk. All that remained was to follow the path gently downhill to Eastbourne, having finished our winter walk in style.
On reflection, taking on any long-distance walk in Britain during February is going to be a relatively challenging experience. There are no flowers to brighten the paths and woodland and no leaves on the hedges and trees to add colour to the landscape. You see the land in its rawness, but it has a certain beauty, too, and the unexpected views through the bare trees are a bonus. But then there’s the mud. Chalk doesn’t stick to your boots but some sections can be pretty horrible, and while we all know that you can get wet weather at any time of year in Britain, there’s a much better chance of dry, firm, even dusty conditions in the summer. On the plus side, with the exception of the weekend, we had the paths and tracks mostly to ourselves, and accommodation was generally easy to find – it’s apparently a very different story in the summer months, when the limited facilities near the trail quickly reach capacity.
Cassie and I have ticked off another National Trail. The South Downs Way was fun (for the most part), and now we just need to decide where to go on our next long walk.
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