The landscape of southern England was dressed in its late spring best as our band of walkers set out from Salisbury on a three-day ramble to Winchester. Hedgerows of fresh green foliage fringed yellow fields of oilseed rape; bluebells carpeted the woodland floor; and swathes of white garlic flowers lined the footpaths.
It’s hard to imagine a more quintessentially English landscape than this unspoilt part of Wiltshire and Hampshire, dotted with pretty villages, ancient churches and thatched cottages. And there’s no better way to enjoy it than on foot.
I’m a keen weekend walker and have done independent walking trips to France and Spain, but this was to be my first experience of a guided group holiday, so I chose a short UK break as a taster. An old school friend and I had signed up with Ramblers Walking Holidays to walk The Clarendon Way, an ancient route that links the cathedral cities of Salisbury and Winchester, a distance of just 24 miles.
Our base for the four nights was the Milford Hall Hotel just five minutes’ walk from the centre of Salisbury and one of the friendliest hotels I’ve stayed in. Each day we would walk 8.5-10.5 miles along the trail, to be met by a minibus at the end of the afternoon and brought back for dinner. Next day, we’d be taken back to the point where we left off.
As independent walkers, we weren’t sure what to expect but we always enjoy meeting new people and reckoned that three days on the trail would be perfectly bearable, even if some of the people weren’t! So we were keen to meet the group at the briefing session before dinner. First impressions were promising – a mix of single travellers, couples, and pairs of friends like us, all enthusiastic walkers, of varying ages and levels of experience.
Ramblers Walking Holidays run guided groups across the world, including a wide choice of UK options of which The Clarendon Way is the shortest continuous trail. So if, like us, you are testing the water, or want to step down a gear from more challenging terrain (one of our older ladies had done Nepal in her youth!), this is a great way to start. And if you really don’t want to walk on a particular day, the delights of Salisbury await.
There was time to buy a lunchtime snack in Salisbury each day but we found that apples and cereal bars brought from home were enough to sustain us between a copious breakfast and dinner. And a steady pace along the undulating trails meant we had time to stop for coffee or something stronger at some of the picturesque pubs along the way.
The scenery was glorious, the trail dotted with reminders of kings and courtiers who once trod this well-used trail. After a short walk round Salisbury’s historic highlights, we struck off up a long gentle slope into open countryside where we soon came across the ruins of Clarendon Palace, a favourite hunting palace of Plantagenet Kings. There was more history further along the trail at King’s Somborne, site of a palace once owned by John of Gaunt, father of King Henry IV, and all the time, a close-up view of the rolling agricultural landscape. We ate our picnic by the tranquil waters of the river Test, watched cygnets on the river, and spotted herds of fallow deer sneaking an illicit snack in a field of young corn.
Along the way we chatted to our fellow walkers, moving seamlessly among members of the group, every one of whom proved interesting in their own way. With our walk leader doing all the navigating and keeping a quiet eye on the clock and pick-up time, we were free to enjoy both countryside and companionship.
After an early dinner, the evenings were free too, so we took advantage of the light May evenings to walk another two or three miles through Salisbury’s glorious water meadows and cathedral close. I would also recommend arriving early on Day One – or staying after check-out on the final morning – to tour the town and climb the cathedral tower (pre-bookable on line).
On the final day, the group arrives in Winchester via the water meadows around lunchtime, giving the afternoon to compare cathedrals and see the statue of King Alfred and the Great Hall of the ancient castle. Or you can simple chill out with coffee and well-earned cake in the spacious cathedral refectory, or browse the retail temptations of the pretty high street.
This year, ‘Salisbury to Winchester’ walks take place on May 8, July 21 and Sept 8 2014. No special gear is required apart from walking boots or trainers; a rucksack; and – an English necessity – lightweight waterproofs. But do take a camera – we had two beautiful late spring days when the countryside was at its beautiful British best. And even though we had showers on the third, it couldn’t spoil the enjoyment of getting to know an unfamiliar part of the country barely two hours’ drive from home – and all in very good company!
‘From Salisbury to Winchester’ costs £449 for four nights, en-suite accommodation in Salisbury, guided walks and transfers en route. Travel to and from Salisbury is not included. For more information visit www.ramblersholidays.co.uk.
To book the tower tour of Salisbury Cathedral, visit www.salisburycathedral.org.uk
Silver Travel Advisor recommends Ramblers Walking Holidays
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