The South Downs Way Trail in Southern England

I travelled off to the South Downs Way recently. I had always promised myself that I would sometime and was not disappointed. It was just for a couple of days.

The South Downs countryside stretches roughly from Winchester to Eastbourne. It forms an arena of rolling, wooded terrain and is associated with the Weald and the North Downs beyond. The South Downs countryside can be considered by many to be spectacular in some parts. I had always been aware of this and came to the same conclusion myself. There is a walking pathway covering just over one hundred miles terminating at the Severn Sisters cliffs and Beachy Head in East Sussex. I did not walk much of it in two days of course but explored it from my car and loved it.

View from trail The walking trail consists of hard road stretches along with earth and chalk- land tracks. It is uninterrupted and can be walked without any obstruction. I followed it from the main ordinary public roads.

I have travelled widely in France over the last thirty years and the South Downs reminded me very much of my adventures there. The geographical culture was similar and so were the people. There was not the eager aggression or sense of urgency found elsewhere in England. The pace of life seemed to have slowed completely down. Road users on the country lanes were polite and understanding. They would all pullover to let others coming the other way pass and return with a friendly smile and brief disarming chat. I have to remember constantly that I have not just returned from a trip to France but only from Britain. I had the benefit too of being able to speak the language with ease. Luxury!

On my first day along the South Downs Way the weather was of bright sunshine and warm temperatures. I stopped to admire much of the countryside and found it very special. The trail ran across the South Downs National Park. It was approved in March 1963 and opened in 1972. Anyone can explore it and there is no charge of course. I came across many keen and sweaty eager hikers pounding away with their wooden sticks and ski irons. They were all smiling and chatting and were able to provide full direction instructions.

Castle Hotel outside Winchester I started from the Winchester end and moved forwards eastwards. The countryside in many places was extraordinary lying within its forested and gently rolling chalk landscape. Tree copses by the roadside seemed to trap the sunshine in such a subtle manner and gave rise to so many optical shadows and effects. There were many, separate grand houses. They all seemed to have extensive gardens often associated with a neighbouring farm. I wondered if the locals just liked the isolation. There were many separated pubs as well. I had lunch in one of them and the service was friendly and welcoming. I have to say that the one I went to, imposed the rules about facemasks and other regulations in a fairly relaxed manner. The public houses were very clean and well run. And the beer was excellent.

Prior to leaving home I had researched principal features that I might find along the trail. I stopped off just south of Midhurst and admired the landscape from the villages of Cocking and Graffham. It was classic English countryside consisting of undulating chalk- land and tree copses as far as the eye could see. I went on to the village of Duncton and admired the pub there from the roadside. I photographed the ancient and I suppose Tudor Yeomans house in nearby Sutton. I moved on to take in the natural beauty of the woodland in Coombes Wood.

The next little village was Bignor. There were the remains of a Roman Villa here usually open to the public. The gate was locked when I arrived and no sign of life. It was a feature on my ‘must see’ list but it was closed off. Coronavirus I assumed. I had an evening meal at another charming, countryside village public house and spent the night sleeping in my car. I trimmed my budget a little bit.

Clergy House in Alfriston The weather changed overnight. It was raining quite a lot when I arose and was very misty and foggy. The alteration of the weather was extensive. I moved on towards Brighton and Hove towards the eastern end of the trail. I was searching for the 100-foot deep trench of the Devils Dyke. I got close to it outside the special little village of Bramber. It was very misty still but I could see it. Legend has it that the Devil dug it for himself so that he could be buried there. I did not find his remains though.

I moved on to find the splendid and enticing village of Alfriston along the trail. I wanted to find the superbly preserved and age-old Clergy House just by the church. It is a fascinating and historic thatched house going back so many centuries. I marvelled at it. I began to travel on again eastwards toward Eastbourne as I climbed higher into the mist and fog. Visibility was reducing to quite dangerous levels and my photographic aspirations were disappearing into the mist. I wanted to get something of the ‘Severn Sisters’ cliffs and ‘Beachy Head’ close to Eastbourne itself but all was invisible. So was the ‘Long Man of Wilmington’, the largest landscaped engraving chalk ground in Europe. I was determined to visualise him on the ground, but he had disappeared into the mists of time as well. Eastbourne was the end of the ride and I headed back towards my house in the murky Fens.

View from trail There are many organised walks along the length of the South Downs Way most taking around nine days. Accommodation is arranged in the numerous hostels along the route. Walkers should check the website.

The South Downs Way is a platform for money raising events as well. The British Heart Foundation holds the annual ‘Randonee’. This is a cycling contest along the whole of the route to promote good health for all. The current record is around eight hours but the average time is close to 14 hours. Oxfam holds the ‘Trackwalker’ annual event. This will always create much funding for their own causes and for the Gurkah welfare trust as well. This a non-stop running event. The record is about 14 hours over the entire length of the trail.

The South Downs Way visit for myself was a terribly satisfying adventure. I felt somehow hat I had visited a separate country but was reminded of good old Britain once more when I left Eastbourne and headed back through the southeast traffic on my way home again.

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Bob Lyons

Retired airline pilot and European explorer

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