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Last Man Walking

A journal of my completed walk along the National Trail

Chanctonbury Ring

One hundred miles  -  Eastbourne to Winchester  -  6 to 14 June 2015

A blow by blow account of every single step taken of more than a quarter million

I wandered lonely as a cloud

That floats on high   

                 o’er vales and hills

The man himself eager to take that first small step

Day 1 - Eastbourne to Alfriston

         The first day, we were all bright and early and I have already seen some familiar faces.  It is a good summery day and the journey went smoothly although it was getting a bit warm inside the coach by the time we were driving through the streets to the western side of Eastbourne.  Some of the other coaches had already arrived and a stream of people were making their way towards the toilets - I decide that I will wait until later, no enjoyment in being in a queue for the toilet.

        I make my way to the start point - already there is a line of people heading up that first steep hill.  The final preparations before I set off - hat on (and tied down) and camera (at the ready) and Annual SDW badge (firmly pinned on) - and just a final drink before putting the rucksack back on.  Cathy is kind enough to take a photo of me and then, with no ceremony, away I go like a kite set free in the breeze.

        Slowly up that first hill, it is so steep, just a sign of things to come.  Strangely, it is all seeming to be a little routine with the super views and great company - to be out there after the long wait for this day to come.  Already people are becoming separated into individuals and small knots of people as the line moves relentlessly westwards.  The path divides and the wary are getting their maps out, so soon - just keep going with the sea on your left.  The path is also part of the Wealdway, so many trails now.

       An early comfort break in the public toilets to make up for the one I missed at the start - there are so few bushes (or trees) along the top of the cliffs.  Eastbourne is quickly disappearing behind us and heading onwards, as the breeze begins to pick up, we soon reach the memorial marking the sacrifice made by the crews of Bomber Command.

        After passing the Lloyds Watch Tower Base, formerly used to send news by semaphore to London of incoming ships, and the Prayer Stone, glimpses of the candy-stripe lighthouse far below soon appear.  There are many opportunities for a photo-shoot and wonder at the people who stand right at the edge - now you see them, now you don't - did they lose balance or did they jump.

         Passing over the highpoint of Beachy Head (a corruption of the French beau chef  meaning beautiful headland) there is the spectacular view ahead - Belle Tout, Birling Gap, the Seven Sisters and beyond.  We have barely done two miles, are we there yet?  How many times will that thought enter my head before the King Alfred statue comes into view before my eyes.  There are some yellow concrete markers that are set in the turf and used to measure cliff erosion and then it is downhill into Shooters' Bottom and Hod Combe for a brief stop to enjoy a banana break and rest those weary feet.

The lighthouse at Beachy Head

       Then uphill, against the wind, to Belle Tout - they will have to move that structure again in the near future - the old track up to it is already rubbing shoulders with the cliff edge,  For the moment the former lighthouse holds it's ground.  Over the top we go and down into Birling Gap.  Quickly count the coastguard cottages, still the same number as last year, no more lost during this last winter.  At the beach there are incredible views in both directions, the line of the towering cliffs.  It brings a sense of scale, everything is transient and ourselves no more than passing shadows.  No time to linger, just time to buy a Feast ice-cream on a stick and eat it whilst heading away from the sea shore and up onto the Seven Sisters.

        As we clamber up the first hillside the wind is blowing strongly into our faces.  Up and down as the Sisters relentlessly follow one another - Went Hill Brow, Bailey's Hill, Flagstaff Point, Brass Point, Rough Brow, Short Brow and finally Haven Brow - the ever freshening wind is making the ascents harder than necessary and each of the steep descents not any easier.  I have lost count after the first few, you come to the next summit hoping that it is the last, but no, on they go . . . ever on.  Even the glorious views, both before and behind, are no longer enough to sustain you, incredible though they are.  Then, after about five or six hilltops, lost in the swirling confusion, I pause in the shelter of a few bushes for lunch.  At rest, enjoying the view back the way we have come, does the mind wander over the week ahead or is it just hoping to reach the end of this the first day.

       A few sandwiches later, breaking cover and fighting against the wind - at least there is plenty of sunshine and blue skies - I eventually struggle on to reach Haven Brow.  From there I can look down into Cuckmere Haven and see the distant cliffs rising up beyond.  The sunshine clearly picking out the colour and detail that the Haven proudly displays.  As we turn to start heading northwards, walking down towards the banks of the Cuckmere River we are now sheltered from the wind and the strength of the sun and the warmth of the day becomes increasingly evident.  The views across the valley, all looking so rich and vibrant, the graceful winding of the river and the man-made cut just beyond.

       On reaching the riverbank I choose to follow the course of the river to the visitor centre of the Seven Sisters Country Park rather than heading up Exceat Hill with the South Downs Way and almost everybody else.  The river winds and meanders and in the edges a heron stands waiting for a fish.  It is all very lovely and fairly peaceful.

       I soon reach Exceat and rejoin the trail to cross the busy A259 and, on the other side, the trail soon meets another hillside to climb.  It is a fairly steep rise and, stopping to catch our breath, we turn round to admire the wonderful view down the Cuckmere valley.  There is another chance to take a final picture of the ox-bows along the meandering river as it makes it's way towards the sea.

Cuckmere Haven

       Into the shelter of some woods and we soon arrive at the Friston Forest Steps, a series of over 100 steps taking us down to the bottom of the hill.  There in front of us is the little village of Westdean with a green telephone box and then, coming into view, is Sue together with a large group of people who, having got lost, have now learned the error of their ways and returned to the trail.  Sue and I walk together through Friston Forest and the large crowd soon melts away as we talk about our adventures of the day so far.  The trail is now following the Vanguard Way and, passing over another hill, we see, over on our left, the White Horse carved into a hillside and said to commemorate a young girl who was killed when thrown from her horse.  On our right are some cattle relaxing in a field, they have seen it all before, weary walkers passing by, and pay us nevermind.

       Heading downhill to the pretty little village of Litlington which lies on the east bank of the Cuckmere River, knowing that we are passing through the village hall has set out it's stall to serve refreshments in order to raise funds for the obligatory church toilet.  A lovely opportunity for the weary traveller to rest awhile - and with a large selection to choose from, it was coffee and shortbread I enjoyed in the company of Amanda, Heather and Kate and their doggies.  As there was plenty of time another cup of coffee was most welcome, there is no need to dehydrate.

       There was now only a mile or so along the bank of the river in the warm afternoon sunshine to the finish at Alfriston.  The hard work has been done and it is now merely a gentle stroll.  The church in the distance was gradually getting closer, St Andrews known as the Cathedral of the Downs.  The occasional swan would sail gracefully downstream on the water.  Eventually, a white wooden bridge was before us and we used this to cross the river into Alfriston and then there were just a few yards further to go to find the blue Footprints banner and the end of the day's journey.

        Waiting for the last coach home as the remaining walkers arrived, there was time to complete the daily quiz and maybe win a new rucksack and relax in the afternoon sun, another place in another world.

Day 2 - Alfriston to Newmarket Inn

       It is the second day, the longest day in terms of distance - about 14 miles - and many people have this thought in their minds.  Accordingly, it is a quick stop in the toilets - the queue for the ladies was stretching halfway back to Eastbourne - and off we go to head out of Alfriston back on to the trail of the South Downs Way.

       We had not left the main road in the town centre when we were met by runners taking part in the Seaford Half Marathon.  As we made our way to the lower slopes of the Downs on the west side of Alfriston, more and more runners were hurrying down.  A long line of walkers took to the right side of the track going uphill and the runners took the other side coming down - there was very little room for overtaking either way although there were plenty of friendly "hellos" called out from both sides of the track.  Out of almost 400 runners, the winner was James Wright.

       The long climb up towards Firle Beacon seemed endless, maybe it was, and the views were becoming more glorious with each step we took.  The undulations and shapes of the naturally carved topography of the Downs leave one breathless - so it is not just the hills! - and there, over in the Weald, is Arlington reservoir.  Many paragliders were settled in the grass to our right near the edge of the steep incline waiting for the right sort of wind - it was certainly not as windy as yesterday, just a good sunny day.  Occasionally, one would tentatively try to take to the air and then quickly return the few feet back to the ground below.  Then, suddenly, without a sign, conditions must have optimised, a flock would take to the air, rising higher and higher in the breezes.

Arlington Reservoir

       As we approached the summit, Firle Beacon appeared to be capped with red-shirts holding sway over the lesser mortals surrounding them.  It was a good place to rest for a short while, enjoy the views and eat a banana.  Along the top of the ridge the ground was much flatter and the going easier in the grassy turf.  There were some scattered sheep, groups of cows and sometimes even a few cattle.  It is all lovely.  The views to the north over the villages of Firle and Glynde with the turning of the wind turbine in the distance and to the south, Newhaven with it's incinerator and, from the harbour, a ferry setting out to sea.

       There were more paragliders on the heights above the village of Firle and we continued to head on west towards the radio masts at the summit of Beddingham Hill.  The compound surrounding these masts was guarded by many large and hefty padlocks and, after this, it was then the gradual descent towards the valley of the River Ouse.  Passing over Itford Hill and the descent steepens sharply to take us to the South Downs Way Bridge, wooden clad on steel, over the A26.  It is the crossing of the railway next at Southease station before reaching and crossing Southease Bridge over the river.  It is a swing bridge, but it has not swung open since 1967 and is the only bridge over the Ouse between Lewes and Newhaven.  The village of Southease has a spacious green in front of the church and is a pleasant spot to stop for a lunch break.  The church is one of three in the Ouse valley with round towers

        After lunch, the road climbed up out of the village and into the open countryside again.  It was time to hold everyone up as I decided to photograph a most picturesque wind-swept tree - well, why not.  Then it was along a farm track, dusty in the hot sun, before the steep climb up Mill Hill to get back up on the ridgeway with long views to the north over Lewes and the inland chalk cliffs.

Paragliders near Firle Beacon

        I discover the Meridian Post and gathered people up for the crossing from the east to the west - to gain or lose a day, who knew. One cyclist we held up did not believe, he probably still thinks that the Earth is flat - it certainly does not feel flat when you keep going up and down hills, it is all just a matter of perspective.  Anyway.

       The valley to the north of the ridge was especially steep and spectacular and gave a somewhat vertiginous feeling.  On this long day the trail seemed to become endless as we walked high above Kingston near Lewes and the Ashcombe Mill clearly shone in the bright sunlight.  Eventually, we reached the Jugg's Road, a track that once ran between Brighton and Lewes, and there, in the far distance, we could see the Newmarket Inn, the finish of the walk for today.  But it never seemed to come any closer as we circled above Cold Combes and began closing in on the Amex stadium (Seagulls!  I think not) which was not far away.

        Eventually, we began descending the hillside and leaving the South Downs Way to make our way under the railway line to the Newmarket Inn at the side of the A27.  Weary and a little footsore, with the long day now over, it was time for a rest, rehydrate and await the last coach home.

Day 3 - Newmarket Inn to Devil’s Dyke

       Starting today's walk from the Newmarket Inn, it was my intention to make a quick visit to the toilets and then be away out on the trail.  The ladies queue was fairly lengthy, as usual, but the big disappointment for many people was the failure of the hostelry to provide breakfast sandwiches upon which many had been relying.

       Anyway, back we went under the railway line following the diversion we had taken yesterday afternoon and up the footpath to rejoin the South Downs Way.  We could now turn northwards and truly be on our way again.  It was a good start to the day, crossing the A27 by bridge at Housedean Farm and then follow the long line of people making their way up Long Hill.  At Bunkershill Plantation the trail drops sharply before rising again as we reach Balmer Down.

       A quick pause in the sunshine to eat a snack and look back at the line of the hills we had followed yesterday afternoon.  After the rest, continue the steady slope up Balmer Down to Buckland Bank where a large flock of sheep were being rounded up by a man - with a little help from his dog who then drove them smoothly into a pen.  Phil Drabble would have been proud.  What fate awaited the sheep we did not know.  The track continued to climb upwards to the ridgeway and reached Blackcap where the quick-eyed caught sight of a deer moving away at a fair pace.  It was again time for a short rest and admire the view.

       Now we were up on the ridgeway it was a fairly straight walk westwards along the trail across Plumpton Plain and passing many sheep and cattle as Streat Hill and Western Brow came and went.

       Stopping for lunch at Home Brow amongst the fields of buttercups, just a little way before Ditchling Beacon.  There was a great view north across the Weald as well as seeing the promise of an ice-cream as an orange-coloured van was standing in the car park ahead.  That will be ideal to round off lunch a treat.

The tapsell gate at Pyecombe Church

       Having obtained my Feast ice-cream, soon starting to drip as I nibbled away, I set off over Ditchling Beacon and soon came to the many dew ponds that were strung along the top like a necklace.  Some were dried up but many still functioning, each had a group of cows or sheep nearby, and this was generally in the area before Keymer Post which is sited on the county border between East and West Sussex.

        The trail led on and, taking a shorter route, I did not pass very close by the Clayton Windmills, maybe next year.  It was hot and I was soon walking alongside the Pyecombe Golf Course on the broken track before crossing the busy A273 into the village of Pyecombe.

       At this fine church in a medieval style there is a tapsell gate (centrally pivoted and peculiar to Sussex) with a genuine Pyecombe shepherd's crook incorporated as a handle.  Dedicated to the Transfiguration of Jesus, the ladies of the church provided a splendid array of refreshments in order to raise funds and, along with many of the others, I partook of these delights.  I enjoyed a cake of lemon sponge and a mug of coffee in the grassy churchyard.  Whilst it would have been nice to bask in the hot sunshine all afternoon there is no rest for the wicked and it was soon time to move on and leave these peaceful surroundings.

       Next I had to cross over the A23 and soon begin the long and hard climb up West Hill.  With frequent stops to admire the view (and gasp for breath) the post mill known as "Jill" was shining a bright white in the sunlight on top of the hill now well to the rear.

Jill is glowing in the sunlight behind us

        It was about here on the flattish top of the hill, walking alone with no one in sight either ahead or behind, that I came to a herd of cattle gridlocked in the corner of the field where the gate was positioned.  As I approached, I could see that there was no way around, I had to go through.  At least the gate was on the side of the cattle that I was approaching from, and so, gently at first, I rattled the gate to attract their attention and then continued to ease first one cow and then the next away.  It all progressed slowly so as not to agitate the cattle (or me) until, at last, I had got all fifteen or so of them a few yards away so that I could open the gate and pass through.

        By this time people had arrived from both front and rear to benefit from all of my hard work.  At least they had seen and did appreciate what I had done, before they had got there, and so ease their passage through.  Obviously, the smoking of all those Marlboro had not been a waste, I had not forgotten everything about cowboys that I once knew and it had certainly done the trick.

       It was now sharply down East Hill to Saddlescombe, mentioned in Domesday Book and once a home of the Knights Templar, before the final climb of the day up Summer Down.  The climb was slow but, once up there, to walk around the south side of Devil's Dyke and be amazed by the steepness of the V-shaped valley.  The largest chalkland coombe in Britain and formed during the last ice age.

       The day was wearing on and I eventually reach the Footprints banner, the close of the third day of this walk, and I relax with some of my friends from the Arundel coach.  As is always my plan, it was the last coach home but the interest of the day was not over.  As we drove along Devil's Dyke Road back to civilisation, a bus came the other way.  It was not surprising that there was a fair amount of reversing and manoeuvring to be done before we could finally be taken home.  Well done, driver.

Day 4 - Devil’s Dyke to Washington

       Starting this day at Devil's Dyke we were immediately up on the ridgeway and so set off westwards without delay.  The magnificent views across the Weald, it all seems so high up with a miniature landscape so far below.

       I walked with Sue for a while as we quickly passed Fulking Hill, Perching Hill and Edburton Hill - there were great views to the north in the rather cold morning light.  The radio masts on Truleigh Hill were getting closer and we were soon climbing the hill to reach them.  This was a good place to rest for my morning snack despite the day being fairly cloudy and it was pretty chilly.

       The masts are towering above me and a nearby cottage is the entrance to the underground bunkers.  This always brings back the memories of the times spent with a group of friends down in them some forty years ago.  Where are the young men - we see ourselves now as we never have seen.  It is with these thoughts chasing in my mind and the sight of Chanctonbury Ring in the far distance. The finish today is beyond all of that.

Chanctonbury Ring  -  a long way off in the distance

        The trail now runs down towards the Adur valley and it was at this point that a heated discussion arose regarding the cement works and the pig farm.  I strongly campaigned that both should be left alone, the cement works because it is history and the pigs because the Downs have been a farmed landscape for centuries - and that is why it looks the way it does now.  Others held a rather diametrically opposed viewpoint and no ground would be conceded by either faction - rather spoiled the day.  Indeed, the cement works is considered to be a fine example of post-war technology.

        The trail leads down Beeding Hill and then across the A283 and it was at this point I passed Andy Gattiker, Trail Officer on the South Downs Way, with a team of his workers trying to fix the broken drinking water tap.  A friendly call of hello and then on to the footbridge, our way across the River Adur - the western riverbank is an ideal place to stop for an early lunch and feel the world go by as the river flows.  Tranquil and peaceful.

       After lunch there is a short walk along the riverbank which passes by the Saxon church at Botolphs that stands across the field before a road then takes us through the village.  The climb up Annington Hill and through the pig farm is next.  The pigs were good to see but there did not seem to be many little piglets.  It was very noticeable that areas used for the pigs last year now have green crops flourishing on them.  Point made, say no more.

Pig  -  a lovely creature

       After a fair amount of cloud and some cool weather, the day was becoming a bit brighter and it did warm up a little when the sun made brief appearances,  The South Downs Way now passes to the south and west of the Steyning Bowl and we soon came to the Langmead memorial, to a local Sussex farmer.  As the trail turns again it now begins to head directly towards Chanctonbury Ring.

         At Wiston Bostal I come across a group of youngsters being taught their map-reading skills - of course, it is always easier just to ask a passing stranger.  There, before me, is possibly the most iconic sight along the whole length of the trail we are taking, Chanctonbury Ring - an iron age fort and the site of a Roman temple.  The trees are regrowing and will soon return to their former glory.  It is not especially high but the huge panoramic views northwards from the Ring never ceases to give inspiration.

       The steep and terribly rugged chalk and flint path down from the ridgeway to Washington is never easy and I was taking it fairly gingerly after four days of walking.  From the car park just before the A24 I took the footpath heading north to reach the village and the end of another day.  To rest in the garden of the Frankland Arms.

Day 5 - Washington to Whiteways

       Into God's own country now.  The fifth day and today we will reach the midpoint of this annual walk - so it will be all downhill from there . . . yes, I wish . . .

       Anyway, it is the shortest day, only a little over 9 miles and the sun is shining.  It looks as if it will get pretty hot today as I walk away from the Frankland Arms back to rejoin the South Downs Way.

       I am off to a prompt start and walking through Washington village I pass the church and go across the bridge over the busy A24.  As a preferred route I take the footpath heading south immediately after the bridge, it rises and falls in line with the embankments of the dual carriageway road and I eventually reach Biggen Holt, a wooded area on the side of the Downs.  The ever so steep path up to the South Downs Way is stepped and the steps are very uneven and many are broken.  It is necessary to make many stops for recovery, but the quietude makes it all worthwhile.  The path comes out on the side of Highden Hill to meet up with the South Downs Way.  The trail continues upwards onto the ridgeway and soon meets the alternative route at Barnsfarm Hill.

       As I was an hour out from the start, it seemed that this was a convenient place to sit and eat the morning banana.  After the short rest I stood up and, breaking cover, startled the back-markers who were just reaching that point and causing them to stop and hold back behind me.  Happy again in my fairly usual position of last man walking.

Washington Church

       Following the trail, walking on the fine springy turf, and looking at the views over Storrington and beyond, we pass Sullington Hill.  Soon walking through a host of cattle that were being unsettled by the farm vehicles in operation nearby.  It was not long before Chantry Post came and went and we were now on a chalk path as we headed towards Kithurst Hill.  There, clearly visible on the white path, was a Fox Moth caterpillar - what a good find for the day.

       Now in the area of my youngest days - how many hours of many days I had spent up here - and there, ahead, was our first sighting this year of the ice-cream lady waiting for us in the car park at Kithurst Hill.  What flavour to choose?  I plump for butter toffee and it was certainly most welcome.  Up above us gliders hang in the air having been launched from the Southdown Gliding Club far below at Cootham.

       Onwards in the mid-day sunshine we pass Springhead Hill with views of Parham House and the surrounding deer park.  Then it is Rackham Hill and soon we come to Rackham Banks.  A lovely spot to stop for lunch and I am not alone in this choice, many others have broken their journey to enjoy these wide views across the Amberley Wild Brooks and the Arun valley.

The broken steps going up Biggen Holt

        A little further on and it is now time to journey down Amberley Mount, far easier than climbing up it, and then it is along High Titten where there were plenty of wild flowers in full bloom at the roadside.  However, it was here, I later learned, that there was a Bee Orchid but I missed noticing it.  The trail takes us over the Arun valley railway line and then we pass both the wastewater treatment works and tap for drinking water, certainly a most uncomfortable combination.  We soon arrive at the banks of the River Arun, the water here never seems to hurry.

       Crossing the river at the footbridge, it is always so good here, cattle nearby and the white chalk showing from the disused quarries behind the railway station.  The countryside of a forgotten age however, it was soon time to climb back up to the top of the South Downs.

       A long and weary trail in the hot sun up the blindingly white chalk path, you feel the moisture draining from your body.  Stop to look back at the river valley, there is Bury church poking a spire above the trees.  We reach the high ground and then cross the A29 and it is but a short walk on until there is a left turn to lead us down a footpath and through the edge of Houghton Forest to Whiteways and the finish of another day.

       To relax with a cup of coffee (spilt most of it, but not over myself this time) and a huge portion of cherry and almond cake (so large that it was still being eaten over the next two days).  Hot day but I managed to get on the right coach back to Arundel despite being given a reservation for the Worthing/Shoreham one!  What larks.

Day 6 - Whiteways to Cocking

       Not much happening at Whiteways and so I set out without much delay and, after briefly cutting through Houghton Forest, took the footpath back to the South Downs Way and then headed on towards Bignor Hill.  The sun is shining and there is not a cloud in the sky - it is another lovely day and feels like it is going to get hot.

       There is a steep climb coming up soon on the broken chalk-surfaced path but after setting a steady pace it is done and we reach Toby's stone, a mounting block, near the summit of the hill.

           Home is the sailor

           Home from the sea

           And the hunter

           Home from the hill

The ice-cream lady at Bignor Hill car park

       Along the track we go and the next stop is for the ice-cream lady who is waiting at the car park - stem ginger was the choice of the day, delicious - although her little man favoured mint choc chip.  Then, for a few yards, we follow Stane Street (the name being an old spelling of stone street, so named to differentiate it from the muddy native trackways).  It was the Roman trade road from Londinium to Noviomagus (London to Chichester, to you).  We continue heading west and pass to the south of Glatting Beacon, easy to notice with two radio masts.  The trail goes on towards Burton Down and Sutton Down before it begins heading downhill to reach the A285 at Littleton Farm.  On the way down the view is lovely but most uninspiring as it shows the track steeply climbing back up on the other side of the valley towards Crown Tegleaze, the highest point on the Sussex Downs.

       After crossing the road it was time to stop for lunch before the climb uphill onto Littleton Down, then through the woods to meet up with many others who were resting at Tegleaze Post, a popular stopping place.

       The next section on towards Graffham Down is most enjoyable, walking on lovely springy turf - a real treat for the feet after all that chalk and flint.  This part of the trail is also following the route of the West Sussex Literary Trail and soon enters a heavily wooded area.  Today is where the open expanse of the South Downs changes to a different and much wooded environment.

Two weary travellers resting at Tegleaze Post

       Some Gurkhas run by as we rest on some tree stumps next to the path near Heyshott Down.  In this area there are quite a few nature trails on either side of our path where the native plants have an opportunity to flourish and many people wander through with heads down hoping to spot something interesting - well, it is a site of special scientific interest.

       Coming towards the end of this day, as I was no great distance ahead of Shirley - today's remaining back-marker - I allowed her to catch up and we walked with Anne to the finish.  On the way, we spent our time looking for the elusive Bee Orchid - it was in bloom last year on the slopes of Manorfarm Down, but there was no sign of it this year.

       We reached the end of this hot and tiring day at the farm at Hill Barn, to just sit down with a Diet coke from their tearoom was enough of a treat.  A few minutes rest before walking the final few yards down to the A286 and the last coach home.

Day 7 - Cocking to Queen Elizabeth Country Park

        The coach arrived at the start point on the A286 just to the south of Cocking and we learned that the Worthing coach was delayed and, indeed, had not yet left Worthing.  Anything interrupting the smooth running of Footprints organisation was most unusual and, despite causing a little ripple of interest, we set off westwards up Cocking Down.

        We soon passed some large horses in a paddock next to the trail - whether they were Clydesdales I am not sure, but they seemed to have the right shape.  Then, a little further on, there is one of the chalk stones created by landscape artist Andrew Goldsworthy.

        It was a pleasant walk along the ridgeway despite the heavy cloud and feeling rather muggy - the forecast of thunderstorms hung above us in the air.  We passed by Linch Ball and upon reaching Didling Hill I decided that it was time for the morning snack whilst still in the open.  In front of us were the woods surrounding Monkton House.

        The Devil's Jumps, a series of five Bronze Age barrows (burial mounds) are to the right of the path and these ancient monuments are often home to the Bee Orchid.  Stopping here to investigate, I again meet up with Shirley who was standing like a sentinel on top of the last mound.  Although there was no sign of that elusive flower, the foxgloves were giving a nice display.  We headed on and stopped at the small memorial to the German pilot, Hauptmann Joseph Oestermann, shot down on the first day of the Battle of Britain . . . standing there briefly for a quiet moment.

        As we continued on together it was noticed that a couple ahead of us had missed the turn at Buriton Farm and, after attracting their attention with some well-chosen shouting and waving, they were put on the right road.  The trail continued, passing Mount Sinai and it was on the slopes of Pen Hill that I decided to stop for an early lunch and a bit of a rest.  Although the day was pleasant, the threat of thundery weather still hung in the air.

The Devil’s Jumps, Bronze Age barrows

        It was now that the first walkers from the delayed Worthing coach began to pass by, there was no way that I would manage to keep up with them.  However,  as I reached the top of Pen Hill I saw Pete striding over the fields towards me from the south having added a few miles to his journey in order to enjoy a glass of beer in the Royal Oak at Hooksway.  A chance meeting along the way and another opportunity for friendly conversation.

        Next was the mountainous Beacon Hill, but easier from this direction as you are starting from halfway up.  At the top, a little way to the south of the triangulation point, is a windswept tree under which lies a fairy.  I had not previously known that it was there and is most intriguing - despite subsequent investigation, it's origin continues to remain a mystery to me.  The slope down Beacon Hill into Bramshott Bottom is excessively steep and treacherous and not to be recommended if the grassy chalk is at all wet or slippery.  The quick way down is not always the best.

       Met up here with some fellow travellers who were having lunch at the mid-point of the day's walk.  A few words of how the day was going as it is quite a few miles since you last met with them earlier in the day.  Not stopping for long and I soon set off again onto the Harting Downs.  As usual, the view down to the village of South Harting was special and, despite the weather forecast, the ice-cream lady was there in position.  It is her last appearance for us until next year and she has made special arrangement to stay until all the delayed walkers have managed to come through.

        Walking down the wooded track eating my honeycomb ice-cream until I can find a fallen tree to sit on - there will be few suitable resting places over the remaining miles today.  It is then across the B2146 and the trail now follows tracks and roads for about 3 miles - they are pleasant enough on a sunny day but do not hold an awful lot of interest.  However, the line of beech trees, a short walk after Sunwood Farm, do look impressive especially when the sun is out.

The fairy at the top of Beacon Hill

       After Coulters Dean Farm a little light rain settled in for a short while, enough to make me take out my shower jacket.  I encountered a fair few bikers (lycra not leather) - they seemed to be struggling with the gradients more than me, so I gave them a smile and an encouraging word, as you do.

       No one had passed me for a long time even though I was getting slower and I knew there were still plenty of people behind me.  Eventually, with a sigh of relief, I reached the Queen Elizabeth Country Park - an area of woodland and parkland - at last, I am almost there - and started along the track and up the hill.  No worries, nearly there now, but the South Downs Way has had a new route opened in the park a few weeks ago and I am now directed by a finger post up a further wooded hill, not what I had been expecting.  It seems a much longer way round (and does not appear to be a popular alteration, I heard a few comments being made about it as the later people arrived at the finish! Still, I knew the finishing post was not too far away as the sound of the traffic on the A3 was growing ever louder.

       The final yards to the visitor centre seemed confusing but there were some yellow iris in the margins of a pond worthy of a photograph.  Finally, I reached the visitor centre, the end of the day, to sit for a long rest with a cup of coffee and wait for the other walkers to arrive, especially those that had been delayed on the Worthing coach.

       Sue arrived weary from her long day, glad to have finished, and there was plenty of time to recover before everyone else had rolled in and the last coach set off for home.

Day 8 - Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Exton

       The weather was rather overcast this morning and after the long drive to get to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park an air of uncertainty seemed to hang - whether this was because it was the penultimate day or for some other reason who could tell.

       An unsure beginning today, should I set off straight away or just have a wander around the visitor centre.  I don't know . . . and, after an indecisive spell of circling, I set off and took the path under the A3 and out onto Butser Hill.  A long line of walkers was stretched out up the hill in front of me and, no doubt, the front of the line was already over the top and out of sight.

       Coming the other way, down the hill, were runners in the SDW100, one of the Centurion races - this one is the entire length of the South Downs Way on foot with a cut off time of 30 hours - the ones we were passing had already done the best part of 25 miles in a little over 4 hours . . . and they were certainly not the leaders!  A cheerful crowd, they even had the strength to respond with a cheery hello as they ran by.  Of the 266 who started the race, the winner was Peter Kaminsky in a time of less than 17 hours - to do all those miles and navigate your way across the South Downs . . . incredible.

       Taking it at a steady pace I soon neared the top of Butser Hill with it's radio mast, the highest point on the South Downs.  Once over the top the trail swings westwards again and we are soon walking along Limekiln Lane.  We pass to the south of Tegdown Hill before the track becomes wooded as we traverse the north edge of Hyden Wood.  Coming out into the open at Hyden Cross there are uninterrupted views over to the north and the view is splendid as the day is now brightening up with a little sunshine.

The line stretches all the way up Butser Hill

        It is now only a short walk to the Sustainability Centre at Leydene Park where there is plenty of room to sit and enjoy a cup of coffee or the choice of many other things on offer in the Beech Cafe.  A good place to meet up - Pete was there eating some chocolate cake and I also bumped into Sue with her guests of the day.  You recognise many of the people and acknowledge most with a smile and a hello - there is a general sense of movement as people are constantly arriving or leaving.

       Opposite, on the other side of the road, is where HMS Mercury used to be, the Navy's main signal school during World War II.  Some of the barbed wire still remains but that is probably more attractive than the large expensive properties that are now there and others still to be built on the remaining land.

       The trail now turns north again for a while in order to climb Wether Down, unusual to see free-range chickens on the Downs, but there you go.  We soon pass by some more radio masts high up on the Downs before reaching Salt Hill.  The path back down the other side is fairly steep and very broken and rugged and making one tread carefully to avoid turning an ankle (however pretty and shapely) on a loose rock or tree root.  There is a humid shade on this tree-lined track as the sun is now out and at full strength.

       In time we are back out on the open downland, it is so peaceful on this very warm and sunny day.  It is lovely, nothing better, and the trail now leads us to the tranquil waters of Whitewool Lake where the gentle action of the fly-fishing is in progress.  Again, many people are relaxing at this idyllic place and always ideal for some lunch.  As we sat, there was the frequent splash of a fish in the water or the sight of one being landed.

The man himself high above Whitewool Lake

       Again I met up with Sue and her guests and we set off together for a while after the break for lunch.  There was an uphill track across the side of a hill to cover next and, halfway up, we came across a gathering around a group of cyclists.  One of them had gone down on the rough terrain and, amongst all of the blood, he had a fairly severe gash down his cheek that would require some stitching.

        The day was wearing on and as I headed towards Old Winchester Hill there were now few people left to be seen.  The South Downs Way does not cross the top of the hill but it is a nicer way to go.  The Iron Age hill fort is now a National Nature Reserve and I soon took a path leading over the top but on the northern side.  I circled round to reach the summit and admire the view.

       After this it was now gently downhill, firstly through some trees with the path dappled in the sunshine and then by the side of fields as we descended into the Meon valley.  So peaceful and pleasant.  Coming to the dried up bed of a stream, maybe water flows during the rainy season, and then there is a little wooden bridge over the Meon.

        We are now approaching the outside world again as we cross the A32 and it is lovely to then walk along a small road with the river running close by and enter the pretty village of Exton.  Very picturesque as I pass the church and the old cottages with their well-tended gardens to finish the day at The Shoe.  To sit in the pub garden in the afternoon sun, the River Meon flowing swiftly along at the garden's edge, and enjoy an ice-cream cone - white chocolate and marshmallow in these balmy days of summer.  Bliss.

Day 9 - Exton to Winchester

       The final day, there is both relief at the prospect of soon reaching Winchester and also a fair amount of sadness that it will all be over for another year.

       Inside The Shoe at Exton, preparations have already been made to serve the bacon sandwiches with cups of strong hot coffee, so tempting . . . but no.  Just a quick visit to the toilets and when I come out the queue for the ladies was, as usual, all but endless.  There are my friends patiently waiting and, never one to hold back, Kate ascertains that no gents remained inside before leading a brigade of women in through the trouser door.  Like the rushing of a horde of barbarians, they are not the fair sex but the unfair sex, I do not suppose that any man managed to get as much as a foot inside the door for quite some time.

       The day was again starting cloudy and I met Sue outside of the pub as I was about to set off and together we wandered out of Exton and across the fields as the trail led up Beacon Hill - yes, a different one.  As we crossed the fields, the slope in each field was steeper than that of the field before until, on the steepest gradient, we reached the beacon.  A stark iron cresset on a pole with a plaque commemorating the Diamond Jubilee in 2012 of Queen Elizabeth II.

Poppies in a field not far from Gander Down

        I stopped for a break when we reached Beaconhill Beeches and, by then, the day was beginning to brighten up.  Along road and track the undulations were becoming gentler and, as we walked, the trail was soon leading down another track and through Lomer Farm.  Around some fields and then it was Wind Farm and after passing that it was not far to the Milbury's at Beauworth.  The pub stands at the intersection of ancient trackways and houses an historic treadmill and well and also other interesting features.  Time enough to stop in the sunshine for another break in the pub garden and chat to some of the other walkers before setting off again.

        The path continues to head along tracks between fields and there are some geese rushing about in one - so many walkers going by in one day.  There is always the meeting and re-meeting of friends, everyone is extra cheery as it is the last day.  A last chance to take a photo of someone you will probably never see again, it is all a little poignant.

       Then we walk along Holden Lane and there, waiting at Holden Farm, is one of our coaches, it is the one for Arundel and will be the one taking me home tonight.  Not the time to think about riding in coaches there is still plenty of walking yet to do.  We now have to make the first crossing of the A272 as the trail then begins to climb up Gander Down and I always feel that this is an ideal spot to stop for lunch.  Today, in the warm sunshine, I eat lunch with Amanda and Barker, her dog.

        After lunch the trail continues along tracks between fields and there is little to see other than the occasional poppy - but these are nothing like the splendour of last year when whole fields flushed red.  The trail runs along with the King's Way and over to the north is an area where it is possible to drive tanks and other vehicles from the Second World War.

Sluice on the River Itchen with Gunnera

       Soon there is a sharp left hand turn and we now follow a ridge alongside Temple Valley.  The time is passing and I know there is little chance that I will reach Winchester before 4 o'clock when the buffet reception begins.  I pass others who are resting beside the track, no one seems to be in a hurry.  On the side of the path, in the woods just before Cheesefoot Head, Anne directs us to a Twayblade Orchid - certainly not a plant that is easy to notice.

        At Cheesefoot Head we cross the A272 for the second time and are soon passing Telegraph Hill and are now able to see the futuristic-looking Hampshire Technology Centre Trust, an educational charity, across the valley over on our right.

        Winchester lies ahead in the near distance and we walk downhill and through the village of Chilcomb.  It is then across the last of the fields before reaching the M3.  The river of traffic flows swiftly and we cross it on the footbridge that brings the South Downs Way fully into Winchester.

        At last, after nine days we have finally arrived in Winchester.  Following the roads as they drop down to where the River Itchen flows through the town.  Although in a town, it is relaxing to walk alongside this fast flowing river, considered to be the finest chalk-stream for fly-fishing.  We pass by a sluice gate where the water is rushing through and over there are a few ducks having a paddle.  Heading upstream towards the City Mill, mentioned in Domesday Book and rebuilt in 1743, we finally turn a corner and there, in front of us, we see the statue of King Alfred.  The last few yards.  The end of the journey.  The end of a wonderful nine days.

The statue of King Alfred in Winchester

       It is only a few yards further on before we reach the Guildhall where we are all to gather and celebrate.  Wandering into the crowd of people who have completed the trail, I am welcomed and congratulated.  Amongst the crowd I meet up with Peter and join him at one of the tables.  Collecting our certificates and enjoying the splendid buffet, we settle back to be amused at the prize-giving and rounding up of all that has happened.  Everyone is in a splendid mood

        There was still enough time to wander and chat, to find Sue and have a few words with her as well as with other acquaintances, both old and new, who I may hopefully meet again in future years.

        It all too soon drew to a close and was finished, as always, with Keith reading a poem, a prayer to the South Downs Way.  All that was left was to catch the coach home, for one final time, with all of the memories so newly acquired.

       A year seems far too long a time to have to wait.

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The South Downs Way Annual Walk is organised by Footprints of Sussex

- southdownsway.com


Just thought you’d like to know

text and photos - Colin Luxford