Following a chalk ridge from Eastbourne to Winchester, this ancient path is like a low-level flight across the south coast of England. The sense of open space is unbelievable, considering its location in a highly populated area. As much used by cyclists as walkers, you will spend many wonderful hours with superb downland views, descending each night to your accommodation in beautiful flint built villages.
Time of year
Anytime really. It doesn’t get particularly muddy as the downlands are well drained. At the height of summer, it will be very hot unless there is a cooling breeze and there are few water sources or facilities on the trail. Usual advice regarding accommodation booking in the peak season, but there are a few good campsites and wild camping possibilities.
Length of walk
100 miles of easy walking, save for a few ascents/descents onto the downs where the rivers bisect the downs. I travel light to complete the walk during the week in 4 days. There are long stretches with no facilities, and few which are actually on the downs, so careful planning is needed. I say easy walking, but my first experience using walking shoes led to painful feet.
There is a very good accommodation guide available from the South Downs National Park organisation. As such I made good use of the campsites and a bothy, stocking up with food and taking meals in the villages. The accommodation often requires you to leave the downs to descend into local villages, but these I am sure are worthwhile, saving the ascent required the next day.
I had originally planned to connect the North Downs and South Downs Way walks. If I had done so, I would have gotten wet and possibly electrocuted (heavy thunderstorms). Fortuitously, I then discovered that the start of the walk coincided with the Eastbourne Airshow, which I always wanted to visit. This year was a special occasion as a Lancaster Bomber from Canada joined the Battle of Britain Memorial flight Lancaster to put on a display not seen for 50 years. After watching a very evocative display, I started out on the walk to ascend the downs, to see the finale – The Red Arrows. Seeing this display from above was truly spectacular and a great start to the walk. Wearing lightweight shoes and using two walking poles for a change, I marched over the downs along the cliffs toward Cuckmere Haven and then inland to Alfriston to camp. For this trip, I carried a tarp only.
Overnight I had a visit from a curious fox, which startled me, but I slept well and stocked up with food at the local village store. Along the ridge again, I would say the views are almost as dramatic as last day on the Pennine Way crossing The Cheviots but much busier with walkers, cyclists and horse riders. It is easy to keep a safe distance from the other path users, and I would definitely consider using a mountain bike next time (if I had one). Many cyclists sported club jerseys, so it is quite a popular thing to do. I camped at a National Trust Farm at Saddlescombe, very interesting and only a £5 in the honesty box, plus some evening entertainment for a local family get together, where I was made welcome.
My feet are starting to hurt a bit. I’m not sure about walking shoes, but I’ll persevere. Maybe I am walking faster and the flintstones are bruising my feet. Passing Devil’s Dyke I ascend to Chanctonbury Ring, a clump of trees planted around a hill fort. Robert Macfarlane (see reading list) suggested that an overnight bivouac after walking around the clump 7 times was not advisable, so I moved on leaving a group of Duke of Edinburgh campers to pitch their tents. I say nothing about the superstitions. I meet quite a few families walking that day, with ambitions to walk the path, including a menagerie of Dutch walkers, with kids hanging out of trailers and backpacks of all ages. All of them are clearly happy and smiling broadly. What a lovely bunch of walkers. I wish them the best of luck and give some advice for the next stopping point. It is their main holiday taking 2 weeks. After a fish and chips meal in Amberley, I fall into Gumber Farm Bothy (another National Trust site) to find it empty. Nice place to stay – it has showers!
I am awoken by crows, tapping and cawing at the window. Bit scary. As I leave I am pounced upon by three psychotic sheepdogs, fortunately, the owner is close by. This is a farm, so it is not unexpected. The visitor book indicates many people have had a great time here. My left foot is hurting a bit now until I have put a few miles in until I reach the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. After a meal, I ascend Butser Hill towards the Sustainability Centre Hostel for a good rest. That evening a very cheerful bunch of young cyclists arrive en route to Barcelona, full of spirits. I wonder if they made it.
The last day much of the path seems designed for cyclists, but I make good progress despite the pain in my left foot. I meet a few 1st-day starters, walking the other way and wish them luck. They must have been very disheartened to have started from Winchester, as the first site they came across was acres of rubbish and detritus following the huge Boomtown Festival. If you wanted a cheap festival tent, this was a good place to be. Finally, I reach Alfred the Great overlooking the town centre and pop in to see some friends before taking the train home. I nurse what turns out to be plantar fasciitis for a month. Must work out why that happened.
- Day 1 – 10m – Train to Eastbourne, Airshow, walk to Alfriston – campsite
- Day 2 – 24m – Saddlescombe Farm – campsite
- Day 3 – 24m – Gumber Farm Bothy – bothy
- Day 4 – 24m – HMS Mercury – hostel
- Day 5 – 18m – Winchester, train home