South Downs Walkabout

What could be a nicer holiday idea - a one-hundred mile stroll on signposted trails across gentle grassy downs?

The Seven Sisters cliffs

The South Downs Way marches from Winchester to Eastbourne across a large swathe of southern England. This countryside was hitherto unknown to us, but we’d been seduced by its charms in a BBC documentary that promised rustic crafts, medieval churches and fireside folk nights in thatched inns.

“Well, OK,” conceded Joy, “but we could always rent a nice cottage and do days instead….”

“But what about the challenge of the journey…..moving through the land….it’s what we’ve always been good at,” I countered, conveniently forgetting that our only journey of comparable commitment, the 270 mile Pennine Way, had been achieved in the winter of 1980-81! We were somewhat older and more arthritic now!

Clockwise from top L: The start at Winchester; Winchester Cathedral; church at Exton; descending Beacon Hill.

Flights were booked for 30 March and 5 April and a six-day schedule was established linking friendly B&B’s, cosy pubs and country house retreats. Then came the dawn of realisation. The daily distance schedule went 12, 16, 19, 19, 23 and 11 miles, not counting detours in search of succour or lodgings. Some training was essential but was a single eight-miler round Glen Carron’s Coulin Circuit really enough?

We lay sleepy and oblivious on the coach from Gatwick to Southampton, glimpsing the grandeur of Arundel Castle and the urban horrors of Portsmouth en-route. A local bus deposited us in Winchester. After stocking up on lunch snacks in the market we were duty-bound to visit the magnificent Cathedral, where choirs were rehearsing for a performance of Mendelssohn’s Elijah that evening. We left blissfully uplifted for the trials ahead.

Come 10am on a lazy Sunday morn we posed briefly under the King Alfred statue in the city centre then commenced the march. The hum of traffic on the M3 became a roar as we strode out through the suburbs. Some 5000 people had their homes within this zone of constant din. Coming from peace of the Scottish Highlands we wouldn’t pay good money to spend a week here never mind a lifetime!

Once over the motorway we branched on to a network of country lanes and upland bridleways, rectories and grain stores. Sunday motor-bikers occasionally shattered the birdsong but tranquillity was largely restored. The whole route is encompassed by the South Downs National Park. The management must face major challenges to reconcile diametrically competing recreational interests. We passed a music festival venue, a military-tank circuit and a nature reserve in the first ten miles.

From Beacon Hill we descended rich grassland slopes into the Meon valley. This is the first of several breaches the chalk barrier of the downs, formed by the release of meltwater as dammed lakes filled and burst through the Ice Ages. The charming village of Exton was to be our first night’s stopover, and Joy was delighted to see the postcard-pretty Shoe Inn directly on our path.

“Sorry, but we’re booked into the Buck’s Head,” I counselled. The drudgery of a half-mile detour brought the first wifely plaints, but we were still finished well before 4pm.

“This is the way to do things,” I mused as we sat in the pub garden over a pot of tea, “an early finish and plenty of recovery time.” The Buck’s Head room even had a bath.

How would we manage the same over the next four days?

A distinct sense of the slog set in half-way though day two. The long metalled straights to Butser Hill jarred the joints. One o’clock, the day was barely half-done and a tiresome descent to cross the A3 was in prospect. Mutual grumblings ceased on encountering a group of a dozen pre-school kids stranded far from their minibus on a day out. They’d walked well beyond the point of no return. The teachers anxiously enquired how they could find some transport to get back, but then couldn’t remember the name of the place from which they’d started! Google Maps were being consulted with some concern. What a great adventure for the tots, we thought, but future job prospects didn’t look too rosy for their minders!

L to R: Buck's Head at Exton; Spring maple leaves; Descending from Butser Hill

The Queen Elizabeth Country Park brought some forested relief from the open down-lands. New-leafed maples flashed with emerald brilliance in the afternoon sun. We’d just broken the back of the day and were trotting side by side down the exit road when Joy suddenly keeled forwards. Her arms were pinned back by her trekking poles, and she crashed to the ground like a falling lamppost. Hips, stomach, chest and face all hit the road.

The fall could not have been more sudden or complete had she suffered a coronary seizure. She quickly rolled back over, revealing a stunned bloodied face. I was shocked and speechless. Never in our 45 years together had I witnessed anything like that.

“Game over,” I thought, “she must have broken something.” I was wrong. She struggled to her feet and pronounced herself unscathed, but a bruised nose and eye quickly swelled and by morning had turned to a ghastly purple hue. For the next 72 miles I would be branded a wife-beater by each and every hotelier and passing rambler.

That evening, the wood-beamed innards of South Harting’s pub seemed as remote and committed as a snowbound Himalayan base camp. Two pints of craft ale and a plate of tempura prawns had had barely allayed my fears. The big days lined up one after the other and the forecast promised rain showers. Joy was resolved to go on, but I feared that her confidence would be shaken on muddy clay paths?

Harting Down, touched by morning mist and drizzle, is a dreamy place of grassy hollows and wooded thickets. We pushed on eastwards, out past ancient dykes, forts and tumuli, over the Cocking road and through the Graffham Down woodland reserves. Joy’s mishap was forgotten. A heavier beating of hail caught us on the climb to Sutton Down, then the sun re-emerged on Bignor Hill. Here was I, supposedly a hard-bitten mountaineer, striding through a giant field of newly-sown rape just 200 metres above sea level, yet viewing the gentle curves of the Arun valley and tomorrow’s distant skyline downs with a sense of joyous absorption into the landscape. These feelings were doubtless enhanced in knowledge that our first 19-miler was close to completion.

We held our evening war council at the George and Dragon in Houghton. Tomorrow’s jaunt featured three significant climbs, 150 metres apiece, and to add extra psychological spice, cold winds and heavy showers were forecast. A large plume of polar air was settling over Britain. No longer could we wish away the time or the effort. Two and a half miles an hour was the best we would manage.

Conversation and positivity generally lasted for ten miles. This is the sensible distance at which all other trekkers seemed to terminate their days. Dog-walker Alan, Swedish tour guide Julia and that nice couple from Norwich – none of them were doing much beyond 12 in a day. We felt superior and stupid in equal measure. After Chanctonbury Ring patience buckled and tempers frayed towards a hail-blasted lunch stop in noxious proximity to a giant pig farm.

A hard climb out of the Adur valley and clearance of the air gained an expansive viewpoint. Pampered village clusters were scattered over the Weald to our north. The sea stretched limitlessly to our south, fringed by a string of coastal towns.

“Four and a half days in and finally we’ve reached Brighton,” I reflected, hardly a rousing soundbite for a once-proud mountaineer. Worse still, the pair from Norwich kept catching us up while Joy had suffered a sense of humour breakdown.

The dry valley cleft of Devil’s Dyke and Poynings village were just three miles distant yet every hundred yards now seemed a mile. The ridge swelled into another slow rising trudge. Joy’s invectives about the nature of this walk and its planner reached new heights. To cap the miseries the Poynings detour was close on a mile and yet the landscape was suffused with gorgeous warm evening light as the day’s squalls died away. In some future time we might fondly remember these scenes.

L to R: Brighton in view; Fulking village; Cream Tea at Rodmell

We encountered our East Anglian rivals at dinner in the Anchor that evening. Scraps of their conversation drifted over.

“I’m already 60,” moaned the husband. “When is it going to be my time?”

Has he learnt nothing from life’s long declivity? Their son had booked the walk for them as a gift. We wondered if he’d be getting much thanks when they returned.

Anyway, they were only going to Lewes next day, a mere 12 miles. We faced our day of reckoning - the 23 miler to Alfriston, and the hotel there was already booked and paid.

“If you pass us tomorrow, then we’re in real trouble,” I bragged to them as we left. Considering my wife sported a black eye and was barely able to stand up this was an astonishing piece of bravado.

Dawn brought gloomy skies and steady rain. The churchyard yews and oaks swayed in the wind. Apprehension reigned at the breakfast table.

“We can always call a taxi,” I repeated for the tenth time, but if this was reverse psychology it worked. Joy refused to countenance any idea of capitulation. The rain petered out as we crossed the A23 at Pyecombe. Yet another 12th century Norman church was ticked off the sightseeing itinerary. The Jack and Jill windmills stood bright against a leaden sky. The wind became persistent, blowing at gale force obliquely across our shoulders. From Ditchling Beacon we spotted a futuristic oval structure in the valley bowl three miles to our south, the new football stadium for Brighton and Hove Albion. Seven miles later, on cresting the Kingston down, we finally completed its encirclement. Looking eastwards, a pair of masts far on the opposite side of the Ouse valley marked the onward route.

“Get there and we’ve only got four miles to do,” I enthused.

Our ten-mile barrier was long-past. Dull aches and the constant beating wind sapped our resolve. The morning love-in was over! I was now the most senseless and callous man alive. As far as I was concerned Joy had become a petulant schoolgirl on a never-ending class outing. At some point in mid-afternoon we encountered a signpost quite unlike any other we had seen so far on this walk. Instead of ‘South Downs Way’ it merely said ‘To the Pub’.

We silently acquiesced and headed down a side-street into Rodmell village where the Abergavenny Inn was spied.

“Nothing cooked, but I can do you a cream tea,” said the brusque owner.

We lapped up tea combined with a creamy, jammy, buttery mess. Even Joy relaxed her usual abstention from the white stuff.

We were saved. Nothing was said until the wind hit us once more up on Itford Hill. We passed the masts at half past five. Newhaven’s grimy shores and pier slunk away to our west. The ridge turned south and, coming off Bostal Hill, I spied the welcome spread of Alfriston’s roofs and spire. The wind subsided. The trail became hedged by gorse and after a final mile a well-groomed suburb emerged from the tangled wilds.

Thank goodness I’d booked the poshest place last. Wingrove House combined a slice of chic with country comfort. I lay out on the bed and switched on the wide-screen. Even ‘The One Show’ was riveting after 10 hours in the wind. Joy plunged into the shower. Two glasses of pinotage, a thai curry and a clam chowder later, we were once more the perfect loving couple, talking sweet nothings by candlelight.

From Alfriston we faced a dilemma – go 8 miles to Eastbourne by the inland cycling route or 11 miles by the classic coast walk to Beachy Head. Come breakfast time Joy was so entranced by our comforts that she ditched all of yesterday’s bitter intent.

“Of course, we’ll do the coast. I know you want to do it…” What a girl!

After three delightful rural miles were reached the coast at Cuckmere Haven and climbed on to the Seven Sisters. Despite the excitement of reaching the sheer white cliffs and turbulent seas, reality struck. Seven Sisters means seven ups and seven downs – a chalky roller-coaster to be followed by another two miles to Beachy Head

The accusations flew thick and fast and we were barely five miles in today.

“But you said it would be flatter on the coast.”

“I think undulating was the word…”

In truth the scenery was spectacular, the weather fresh but no longer tainted with the menace of yesterday’s gale. The café at Birling Gap gave slight respite and replenishment, before the last gruelling miles to the ill-defined crest of Beachy Head.

“I just can’t believe this walk,” sceamed Joy.

To be honest I had long been thinking the same myself. On gaining the top at 164 metres I almost choked with relief and pride. Directly ahead and just a mile away were Eastbourne’s tower blocks and pier. The past days had been so hard but patience pays in the end. Somehow we had pulled it off.

A memorial to World War II’s bomber crews brought a sense of proportion to the scene. 110,000 had signed up, many flying out over Beachy Head, their last sight of England. Only 55,000 made it through the war. In these crazy days of Brexit it was a sobering and timely thought.

We ambled down to the finishing line, better friends than when we had started, and gave humble thanks to slump into the back of a cab!

L: Eastbourne at last! R: The Seven Sisters

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