Last Man Walking
A journal of my completed walk along the National Trail
One hundred miles -
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 -
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 make my way to the start point -
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 -
An early comfort break in the public toilets to make up for the one I missed at the start -
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-
Passing over the highpoint of Beachy Head (a corruption of the French beau chef meaning beautiful headland) there is the spectacular view ahead -
The lighthouse at Beachy Head
Then uphill, against the wind, to Belle Tout -
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 -
A few sandwiches later, breaking cover and fighting against the wind -
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-
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 -
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 -
It is the second day, the longest day in terms of distance -
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 -
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 -
As we approached the summit, Firle Beacon appeared to be capped with red-
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-
Paragliders near Firle Beacon
I discover the Meridian Post and gathered people up for the crossing from the east to the west -
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 -
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 -
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-
The tapsell gate at Pyecombe Church
Having obtained my Feast ice-
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-
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 -
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 -
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 -
Chanctonbury Ring -
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 -
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 -
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.
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-
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 -
Into God's own country now. The fifth day and today we will reach the midpoint of this annual walk -
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-
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 -
Now in the area of my youngest days -
Onwards in the mid-
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 -
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 -
There is a steep climb coming up soon on the broken chalk-
Home is the sailor
Home from the sea
And the hunter
Home from the hill
Along the track we go and the next stop is for the ice-
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 -
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 -
Coming towards the end of this day, as I was no great distance ahead of Shirley -
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 -
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 -
It was a pleasant walk along the ridgeway despite the heavy cloud and feeling rather muggy -
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-
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 -
Met up here with some fellow travellers who were having lunch at the mid-
Walking down the wooded track eating my honeycomb ice-
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) -
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 -
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 -
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 -
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 -
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 -
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-
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-
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-
Day 9 -
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 -
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 -
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 -
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 -
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-
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-
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-
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.
The Footprints banner
The South Downs Way Annual Walk is organised by Footprints of Sussex
Just thought you’d like to know
text and photos -