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A Rainbow in Curved Air

Walking along the South Downs Way

Aching Men’s Feet

Through the Grass Darkly



The sun comes up another day begins
And I don’t even worry about the state I’m in
Head so heavy and I’m looking thin
But when the sun goes down I want to start again

Eastbourne to Winchester  9 to 17 June 2017

  106 miles or thereabouts

Life, the universe and everything

 Day 1  -  Eastbourne to Alfriston  -  10.4 miles

 Here we go - the long wait is finally over.

  And despite the coach taking the longest route possible and driving so slowly all the way along the seafront from the eastern end of the town to the west  . . .  why? Everyone is starting to get edgy and champing at the bit. Anyway, at last we disembark and make our way to the tea kiosk where the first green sward leads directly uphill - it is not a cliff, but it is close. A last chance to take a breath before setting off - the kit and all my accoutrements are each in their correct position - hat, badge, camera, rucksack, water bottles and, especially, my pole - yeah, all there. Ready and willing. Looking good. A photo is taken of me at the finger post despite Barker dragging at Amanda’s arm as she clicks the camera - he is just so eager to get going  . . .  and then there is no reason to delay any longer  . . .  go, go, go.

  Waking up at the crack of dawn is never the best way to begin anything but it has to be done - it was not the milk train that got me to Arundel but I am sure that it could not have been too far ahead of the one I took. As usual, I arrive about an hour before the coach is scheduled to leave and, surprisingly, I am not the first as others are already there, hanging around. After barely a couple of minutes I am already renewing old friendships and making new ones - this is what it is all about - catching up on a year’s gossip and trying to allay the fears of the apprehensive first-timers. They are the ones with the fearful look in their eyes. Unsurprisingly, the apocalyptic thunderstorm at Firle last year remains a vivid memory for many and is heard being mentioned by several people. Anyway  . . .

At the start  . . .  Here we go

  This first hill at Eastbourne still seems to be so steep as I slowly take those initial steps to get myself underway. The weather is looking rather gloomy and, as I set off, the wind is blowing very strongly into my face. Is that a touch of rain in the air or perhaps a little sea spray blown quite a distance up the cliffs and inland. The wind gets stronger as the weather slowly brightens and I remember that first day two years ago which was such a struggle against these strong westerlies. Sometimes, it is almost impossible to keep walking forwards.

  There is no rush and I slowly climb the hill, with frequent pauses to look back and catch the breath that the wind is blowing away. The path is leading us away from Eastbourne and towards Beachy Head. There are many paths going in roughly the right direction and it is never obvious which one is the actual South Downs Way. Eastbourne fades and, not counting the public conveniences located halfway up the hill, my first stop is at the memorial to the men of Bomber Command. A quick photograph to catch the moment as the sea is crashing beyond the fence and far below.

  Once around the next bend on the cliff top and suddenly the Beachy Head lighthouse comes into view - there, at the base of the cliff, it seems small but proud. The first of many iconic sights waiting for us over these nine days of walking. No time to pause for thought and next up is the Lloyds Watch Tower Base. The original watch tower was taken over by Lloyds as a signalling station before becoming a kiosk selling postcards. It closed following the outbreak of war in 1939 and fell into disrepair. All that remains is the base - so much history to ponder - and then, a few steps further from the cliff edge, there is the Prayer Stone which quotes Psalm 93 : 4 - nothing seems to change, everything is in the proper order.

  For a while, there is always the nearby cliff edge and, if one is foolish enough to get close enough, there are spectacular views of the cliffs falling away to the sea. The beauty of the views that stretch away in all directions is glorious but is losing some of its fascination in the fight against this blustery wind which continues to strengthen. The sun is now out and a little further on, despite the “Cliff Edge” signs there is a further sight of the red and white lighthouse, now behind us and far below.

Still falling

  A downhill slope is always a welcome relief but this one is all too quickly followed by the steeply uphill track that leads us to Belle Tout, the old lighthouse. The building and the cliff edge again seem to have become one - does one stop before the other one starts, it is so hard to tell without going to the edge to find out. Anyway, there is now just too much wind to appreciate the scenery that is all around me and so, with my head down, I press onwards into the wind. There is no shelter and I am determined to reach Birling Gap and get some miles under the belt before stopping.

To the lighthouse

  As the the trail now slopes gently down to Birling Gap I am able to clearly see the cliffs known worldwide as the Seven Sisters. They are shining a bright white in the sunshine as they march along the coast to the Cuckmere Haven and Seaford. The remaining coastguard cottages at Birling Gap stand defiantly for the time being but their days are most certainly numbered - it is not so infrequently that one hears of more erosion at some point along this coast.

  There is some shelter from the wind at Birling Gap and I briefly pause, a quick look around, not really for any reason other than to buy a Feast ice cream from the van - it is a welcome treat and makes me feel that the event is now well and truly under way. With my frozen treat in hand I set off on the next stage of this journey and I head uphill towards the Seven Sisters. Although the day is not so very warm, the ice cream is still trying to melt faster than I can eat it. The wind does not help except to blow the drips away before I can get them to my mouth and enjoy the taste.

  The struggle up Went Hill takes place in a strengthening gale and when I reach the crest of the climb the landscape of the Seven Sisters fully opens up before me. Truly magnificent and I am now on this rollercoaster ride that is to take me westwards. First, I pass the Micheldene Obelisk - in memory of his two brothers killed in the Great War, W A Robertson gave land at Michel Dean to the National Trust. Then up to the summit of the first of the Sisters and the steep descent into the following gully is taken very unsteadily. The switchback has begun and the very short grass on this chalky soil does not allow much grip. In the gusting wind it is extremely difficult to maintain the balance and not go tumbling down like a casual roll of the dice.

  I slowly make my way up and down the slopes. It is such hard work - and such phrases as “never again” and many that are worse keep crossing my mind. The wind is just so strong and cruelly tears away all enjoyment. The pleasures of the views lie there like wreckage on the beach. Up and down, one after another, there is plenty to see and, after a while, as the end will not come, I stop for lunch in the welcoming shelter of some bushes. They are the same bushes that I used for shelter two years ago - unlike the eroding cliffs, some things can be relied upon. The relief of a rest and a sandwich.

  The Seven Sisters is barely two miles in length but it seems to be so much further, especially on a day like today. Baily’s Hill, Flat Hill, Flagstaff Point, Brass Point, Rough Brow, Short Brow and Haven Brow - one after the other like some natural roller coaster in an amusement park. Looking to the future, at the start of this list, erosion is giving birth to an eighth sister, Went Hill Brow - won’t that be nice - no epidurals, just a deep breath and push.

  After lunch, heading back out into the wind, I continue on what seems to be an endless task. As I go up and down I take notice of my surroundings - there is the occasional structure on a summit and, in a valley, a crowd of horses. Onwards, and eventually, after much endeavour and with little regret, I reach Haven Brow - there is a sigh of relief as I can, at last, look across to Seaford Head and down into the river estuary at Cuckmere Haven. The sun is still shining, the view is still lovely and all is now well with the world - how soon everything changes - in only a few paces, I go from a wearisome trudge to a light and easy spring in my step. Funny old world.

  The sandy beach looks welcoming down below but there is no time to stop and rest. I turn to the north at Cliff End and walk down into the Cuckmere Haven. As if by magic the wind has disappeared and is no longer troublesome, the sun is now becoming very warm indeed. In the valley the river winds a difficult course although the man-made cut makes straight for Exceat Bridge. Time passes and the walking is now jolly pleasant as I head down to the banks of this meandering river. On reaching the level ground by the river, the Seven Sisters Country Park is noisy with people - my fault as I do not to follow the trail as it goes up and over Exceat Hill but choose to continue along the side of the river instead. The disturbance made by these people is only for a short while as we make our way towards Exceat and then, all of a sudden, they are left behind as I approach the visitor centre of this country park.

  The A259 is busy, no surprise there, and crossing it without injury can be quite a skill. I eventually manage to get across - safely - and regroup with the people who took the correct SDW route. The trail now leads up a(nother) steep hill that, on stopping to turn around, gives a glorious final view of the Cuckmere Haven and, in so doing, highlights the extravagant loops in the meandering river.

  At the brow of the hill we clamber over a low wall and into some woods that are part of the Friston Forest. There is cool shade with the sun dappling through the leaves and I am soon heading down the Friston Steps - far too many to count - and I give a brief thought to next year when they will seem almost vertical as we will be climbing slowly up them but, then again, maybe next year I will take the Jevington route instead. Back to today and the path leads us out into the village of Westdean, with a green telephone box and village pond. It is almost lost in time as it is surrounded by the forest but, walking through, we see that it is not quite asleep. There are a few houses to pass before the trail takes us back out into the Friston Forest again.

St Andrew, Cathedral of the Downs

Bleating and babbling they fell on his neck with a scream

  A climb up through the trees and the day is starting to feel rather long. In the open spaces it is hot as the sun beats down and I am eager to find a seat for just a little rest - I know that there is one here somewhere and I eventually find it. The pleasure of just a few minutes of rest, sitting down, taking the weight off, and a sip or two from the bottles. Refreshed I continue on, soon there are some very uneven steps at a sharp downhill drop. Not long after this there is a turn to the right and it is up and over another hill, the last of the day, which gives us a great view of the White Horse carved into a nearby hillside.

  Not far to go now and it is good to know that some refreshments are awaiting us in the village hall at Litlington. However, before we get that far, there are some cattle in the fields and everything is so very peaceful. It is downhill into Litlington and there is the welcome treat to enjoy, made ready by the ladies of the village. I choose to have coffee and a flapjack and this is enough for me to while away the time as part of a quiet and relaxing rest, sitting outside in the sunshine. There is plenty of time available until the last coach, only a mile to go and no need to hurry at all.

  There is also enough time for a quick visit to the crystal shop - it is renowned for quality and well worth a visit. Although small inside, the shelves are crowded with crystals of many different colours and size. There were some lovely translucent pink crystals which took my eye - rose quartz - balancing the emotions, they would look nice in the land of pink and grey, unconditional love, maybe Candy would appreciate a gift.

  Moving on, the final mile along the bank of the Cuckmere River is taken at a very gentle stroll. I walk slowly, gazing at the countryside, seeing the cattle and the flight of birds as well as the many wild flowers. It is with all the time in the world that I head towards St Andrew’s church. The Cathedral of the Downs, with a spire emerging from the trees and reaching into the sky. As I walk I pass many pink markers that are set out ready for tomorrow’s charity marathon - they are there, already in place to show the route of the Macmillan Mighty Hike.

  Eventually, I cross the White Bridge and reach the finish for today in Alfriston. The first day is now over and it has been completed successfully. I sit and rest near the Footprints banner, filling in the answers to the quiz and waiting for the last coach to take us home. It is all so lovely, we have so easily got into our stride again, roll on tomorrow. A happy smile.

  

Day 2  -  Alfriston to Newmarket Inn  -  13.8 miles

  It is the second day and as we arrive in Alfriston it is certainly bright and sunny, warm with a gentle breeze - just perfect walking weather and everyone seems to be in good spirits.

  The transport, all under the banner of Worthing Coaches, is smartly parked. The coaches are side by side, in a line, and there is not much reason for us to hang around. It is nearly 14 miles to the finish today and so I set off quite promptly. As I walk through the busy streets of Alfriston there does seem to be a lot of activity and buzz of expectation in the air. The people take little notice of us, perhaps the town is getting ready for the hordes of Macmillan walkers who will be passing through in a few hours time. We avoid the traffic in the narrow streets and it is not long before we are leaving Alfriston and head out into the countryside.

  There is a long and steady climb that leads away from the town and we are soon spread out as the line of walkers begins to stretch. As we gain altitude the views in all directions begin to fully open out and we find ourselves as just a very small part of the wide downland. There are herds of cattle here and flocks of sheep there, all scattered about. On our right is the Weald stretching away into the distance with Ardingly reservoir not too far away. Behind us are the hills we walked over yesterday.

  As we continue the climb that eventually heads up to Firle Beacon, we begin to pass the first of the green-shirted walkers that are coming the other way. Onwards we travel, over Bostal Hill and through the car park at Bopeep, the trickle of green gains in strength until it gradually becomes a torrent. These people are all part of the marathon walk, starting from Brighton racecourse to finish at Eastbourne, the Macmillan Mighty Hike, raising funds for this Cancer Support charity.

  On a bright day such as this the views that run north across the Weald seem to be endless - on a clear day you can see forever, today I would settle for tea and cake - and walking along the ridge certainly gives a very wide outlook on all of the countryside below. To the south, on our left, lies Newhaven with the English Channel spreading out beyond.

  Upon reaching Firle Beacon I take a rest, enjoy the view and eat a banana - unfortunately, it is not very peaceful as the green tide rolls on by endlessly. A tidal wave of people, like army ants they cause everything in their path to scatter or be engulfed. Although it is a good cause, many people feel that these fundraisers, who are there en masse - and reputed to number in excess of 2,000 - are often taking the whole of the path and are not giving any consideration to other people or the countryside. Regrettably, they are rather spoiling the day.

Bull in Field  -  Hefty

   Heading onwards, Firle Beacon is left behind and is that Firle Tower far below nestling amongst some trees? Up ahead the masts of the radio station on Beddingham Hill are slowly getting nearer. Walking on, the wide open sky is just above our heads, and in it an old biplane is flying quite low in the blue. I try to quickly take a photograph but I think I only managed to record a patch of the cloudless sky. No matter, we shall have to wait to see what was captured on film.

  It is not long before I finally reach the top of Beddinghan Hill with the two radio masts, they are excessively well protected by high fences, barbed wire and many massive padlocks. Not particularly interesting but it is there and a marker to show that we are slowly getting the miles done. The ground beneath our feet is now gradually descending and we move on towards Itford Hill. It is in this area that there was a bovine herd - a mighty fine bull and many cows with their calves - normally docile creatures, they were becoming rather unsettled by the mass of humanity that was endlessly passing in both directions and, in many cases, not so very quietly.

      After Itford Hill we see the expanse of the wide valley in front of us with the River Ouse running along the bottom of it and just beyond that lies the village of Southease. The descent steepens as we go down into the Ouse valley. It is a chalky, rutted path that leads us down to the South Downs Way bridge over the A26 at Itford Farm. There is now the prospect of lunch only a mile away and I am certainly ready for a good rest. I do not stop at the Youth Hostel but carry on, make my way over the railway crossing before reaching the swing bridge that crosses the River Ouse. Once across the river and the green tide finally dries up - hooray - there is now a chance for a little peace and quiet! There is now only a few yards to Southease for a pleasant lunch on the green in front of the church.

     The green is filled with people, most of them are walkers on their journey along the South Downs Way, eating their picnic lunches. It is good to find a bit of shade under a tree and I settle down to eat and recover sufficiently for the second half of today’s walk. After I have eaten I go and look at the church with an unusual round tower - there are only three in Sussex and they are all in the Ouse valley. The church, dedicated to St Peter, is pretty fine inside and it was well worth taking the opportunity to spend some time investigating the interior. There did feel as if their was a presence inside the church but, as it is going to be a long and hard day, I cannot spend too long sightseeing. Maybe I can take more time next year and I head off for the second half of the day’s walk.

  After leaving Southease, the trail takes a course along the bottom of a dry and dusty valley that heads towards Cricketing Bottom. It is then a sharp turn to the right that sets us on the very steep climb up Mill Hill. I struggle up the hill, walking along between some sheep and, eventually, the path takes me back up to the ridgeway. Looking across towards Lewes the chalk cliff faces that lie to the north of the town are showing up very clearly.

  Walking along a track that lies between fields, I am soon encountering the Meridian Post - this marks the line that separates the east and west hemispheres. The cairn of flints around the base of the post is surely growing and appears to be very much larger than it was last year.

East meets West  -  The Meridian Post

  The ridge takes us along, high above Lewes, and I can make out the castle but the heat of the day and the distance of the walk is starting to wear me down. The ground is still gradually climbing and, as a consequence, the speed at which I am travelling begins to falter and the people in front of me steadily get further away. Front Hill and Iford Hill - they both come and go with the concrete roadway - it is very wearisome, indeed.

  The concrete finally ends as I reach Swanborough Hill and, at last, I can find some grass upon which to sit and take the weight off - to rest and ease those weary feet - sit and recognise the landmarks, castle, prison, distant summer haze - but not for too long. There are many cattle up here, resting in the heat of the day - how I wish that I could just stop and rest all day, too. There are still quite a few miles to go and the trail marches on, high above Kingston and the Ashcombe windmill, continuing until we pass the Jugg’s Road that still runs from Brighton to Lewes.

  The day seems endless and I try to make out where, in the distance, the Newmarket Inn could be and the line of the trail that leads down to it. My feet hurt and, ahead of me, I see walkers embarking on another hill as the Jugg’s Road heads up Newmarket Hill. I do not remember this from before but there is a Footprints waymarker pointing up the hill, it must be right, and so I follow the trail as it now makes a wide circle above Cold Coombes before heading back down towards the Newmarket Inn. The Amex Stadium is not far to my left and it seems to be much closer than the finish.

  Although it is now all downhill, the feet are really hurting and I need to make quite a few stops to rest them in order to keep moving forwards. I keep a look out but, fortunately, I cannot see the back-markers - they cannot be too far behind and they must be getting closer. Struggling on, I leave the South Downs Way and take the path that leads me to the finish of our day. There are a few cottages to walk by and then it is under the railway bridge and, finally, here we are. I have eventually reached the Newmarket Inn by the side of the A27 and find relief in a chair on the patio, sitting there amongst the other weary travellers. I am tired and I hurt.

  It has been a nice day and there have been plenty of cattle and sheep roaming at various points along the trail. They all appear to be content. And yes, aching men’s feet - so we wonder, as we sit in this chair, whether it is the men or the feet that are aching. Makes you think - still, tomorrow is another day.


Day 3  -  Newmarket Inn to Devil’s Dyke  -  12.4 miles

  It was rather overcast when the coach arrived at the Newmarket Inn this morning and, as I did not really want a bacon sandwich, I had no reason to go inside the pub. Taking a little time to get myself organised, it was only a few brief minutes before I embarked upon today’s walk to Devil’s Dyke. Retracing the steps I had taken late yesterday afternoon - back under the railway bridge, passing by the cottages and up the side of the field until we reached the South Downs Way.

  We were now following the National Trail again and taking the turning to continue on our journey - down through some woods, around a different field, under another railway bridge and along a path that runs parallel to the A27. From here there is a good view of the line of walkers climbing steadily up Long Hill on the other side of the road. After a while we reach the bridge and cross over the busy road at Housedean Farm.

  It has taken a fair amount of time but I am finally heading away from the noise of the road. It was a steady pace that took me up the steep climb of Long Hill with just a few pauses to catch my breath and, as the day was warming up, take my jacket off. After the climb up it is immediately followed by a steep descent through the trees of Bunkershill Plantation. Coming out of the trees into the peaceful downland countryside - no more noise of the traffic hurtling along, just the sound of silence mingling with the call of birds. The path heads upwards and the sun has broken through the clouds and it looks as if it is again turning into rather a nice day. But, for now, it is time for an early rest and a banana.

  The ground is rising steadily as I travel across Balmer Down towards Buckland Bank. It is a gentle walk over the grassy downland but, before too long, we turn to the right and follow a path heading in a northerly direction towards Blackcap. This path finally takes us up to the ridge and, on arrival, it is another opportunity to call a halt and rest. Seated on the grass to the west of Blackcap one can enjoy the views which reach across to the ridge where we were walking yesterday. In the far distance, and now seeming to be a long way back, is Firle Beacon - we were there at this same time yesterday.

  After a brief rest and energy boosting chocolate biscuit it is soon time to move on. Learning from past years, I take the opportunity to walk on the access land as the grass is so much easier on the feet than the chalk and flint path of the official South Downs Way. The trail takes me across Plumpton Plain in the direction of Ditchling Beacon and I head for a clump of trees which seem to be ideal for a comfort break. On arrival I find that a small crowd, not enough for a flock, of sheep are sheltering under trees. Well, that is inconvenient - no pun intended, I am sure - and I look forward to finding a bush or two a little further on.

  Although the sun is shining, there is rather a strong breeze at times and this is giving a rather chill feel to the day. Do the cattle notice the weather as they stand in a group near to the route I am taking. The access land is now no longer suitable for my purpose and I have to return to the chalk and flint - the unevenness of this stony ground is immediately noticeable.

  At Streat Hill I look for the Bee Orchid that was found at this location last year but I could find no sign of one today. No worries, and onwards I go crossing over Western Brow and then Home Brow before stopping for lunch just before Ditchling Beacon. I am seated amidst a yellow carpet of buttercups (and some dandelions, too) looking out over a wide view across the Weald. Laid out below were Ditchling and Keymer and Hassocks.

  I could feel that the time was ticking away and so I quickly hurried on, only stopping long enough to finish my lunch break with a Feast ice cream from the nearby van. Nothing ever seems to be straightforward and I must try and find a way to eat these frozen treats before they melt and drip everywhere. At the moment it is not a particularly warm day - there does not seem to be any sense in it at all. Maybe a cone is the answer, I will have to try and think this through.

  It was certainly a day for cattle and sheep to be grazing peacefully up on the ridge and I passed many as I wandered through this rolling countryside. It is not long before I pass the Keymer Post which marks the county boundary. I travel from East Sussex to the more genteel West Sussex - the change from one to the other at the county boundary is certainly not having any effect on the scenery that is around me.

  Continuing on my way, I am soon not far from the Clayton windmills and it is here that I see a small group of gurkhas run towards me. In their green tops I was reminded of the green tide of the Macmillan walkers from yesterday, but this tide was very brief and with cheery hellos was soon gone. It is at this point that I take the opportunity of making a small short cut so that I could enjoy a longer rest at Pyecombe church. Looking across, as I tread this lonely path, I could see the vanes on Jill were slowly turning in the breeze whilst Jack stood motionless nearby - like a sentinel on guard.

  Walking by the side of Pyecombe Golf Course the track descends and there is some new seating which I gratefully take advantage of in order to give my feet a brief respite. A few yards further on and there is the crossing of the A273 to make and, once this is done I head into the village of Pyecombe.

The Church of the Transfiguration, Pyecombe

  I am soon arriving at the Church of the Transfiguration which has an unusual tapsel gate. There is quite a gathering of people when I arrive and it is here that I meet up again with Erica and Janice and catch up on the day’s news of their walk. Inside, the ladies of the church are happily displaying the home-made refreshments that they make available to us. Avoiding the rather lengthy queue for the loo I redeem the Footprints voucher and make my selection and also make a contribution towards the church’s latest worthy causes. Seated on the grass outside the door, I enjoy both a cup of coffee and piece of fruit cake. Very good indeed and it would be nice to stay forever but I see the back-markers arrive and there are still a few miles as well as a few hills left for me to negotiate today.

  From the church, the road heads down to the A23 and, fortunately, there is a bridge to aid our crossing. I seem to have returned to the modern world but very soon I leave it behind by clambering up East Hill. It is very steep and, in the pauses, there are good views as I look back at the landscape of the last few miles. As usual, after going up there is a downhill to follow, and we descend West Hill to reach Saddlescombe. Once home to the Knights Templar, this working farm was mentioned in the Domesday Book and appears to be having an Open Day.

Devil’s Dyke

  Nearly there, and after the last descent it is time to make the steep ascent of Summer Down. Having already done the best part of 12 miles today, this is hard work but, once I have completed the climb, that is it. I am now above Devil’s Dyke and I can take the time to relax and experience the wonder of this landscape. There is now no reason to hurry and the Dyke is looking truly magnificent in the bright sunshine. Surprisingly, distant voices sound so near at hand as the steep valley amplifies the sounds.

  I soon reach the end of the day’s walk at the Devil’s Dyke Hotel and, near the Footprints’ banner, I sit and await the last coach. Although tiring, it has been a most enjoyable day.


Day 4  -  Devil’s Dyke to Washington  -  11.6 miles

  Another day and the weather was a bit chill - pretty gloomy, in fact, and rather overcast with the wind again blowing strongly into our faces. Setting out from Devil’s Dyke there was certainly a good reason for tying the hat down  . . .  if it was blown away there would have been little chance of recovering it. No way was it going to land until it touched down in Fulking far below at the bottom of the steep scarp slope.

  Heading in our usual westerly direction - go west, young man - the trail follows the rolling downland towards Truleigh Hill which is clearly marked by the collection of towering masts. We cross over Fulking Hill and Perching Hill and then Edburton Hill. The walking routine settles as we trail along the ridge, passing over hills and enjoying the wide-ranging views across the Weald.

 


  It is not long before I am beneath the masts that tower so high above me at Truleigh Hill. They overlook the scarp slope which lies below and, yes, it is time for me to take a break - a banana and a rest is most welcome whilst I shelter from the wind. What has happened to the sun today?


Truleigh Hill mast

  Too chilly to sit around for long and I soon continue on and find there is a crowd of my fellow walkers taking their break at the youth hostel a little further on. I pass them by and walk along the road as it makes a long and gradual descent into the valley that has been carved by the River Adur. In the far distance is Chanctonbury Ring - it looks so far away but we shall be there later this afternoon.

  The work that is being done for the Rampion wind farm (named after the Round-headed Rampion, Phyteuma tenerum, the county flower of Sussex which is also known as the “Pride of Sussex”) litters the landscape. Most noticeable is the white chalk line that has been carved across the Downs. The enormous round bobbins that hold the cable look majestically structural as they stand or lie scattered around the landscape. As everything changes, whether it is natural or man-made, they are here for a season and, when the cable is laid, will soon be gone and, in time, forgotten.

  We follow the path as it leads us on and down Beeding Hill. The day slowly brightens and there are splendid views all around us - the chimney of the partially derelict cement works (which has been described as hauntingly beautiful), the chapel at Lancing College (a part of the Gothic revival and the largest school chapel in the world) and also the one surviving wall of the tower at Bramber Castle - they are all from different times and are all part of this rich landscape that has slowly evolved over the years. All of these structures are well worth the effort of preserving - indeed, the Downs would no longer retain its magnificent glory if they were lost or the electricity pylons no longer strode so majestically across the land.

  The valley bottom is reached and I quickly find a sufficient gap in the busy stream of traffic to allow me to cross the A283 near Dacre Gardens. It is now only a short step or two and I reach the River Adur - the tide is out and the river is low and exposing a fair amount of muddy bank. The footbridge allows an easy crossing of the river and then there is a brief walk along the riverbank. It is now time to think about stopping for lunch. A little farther on, for a change, I leave the trail and stop at the little village of Botolphs, formerly Annington. Resting in the grounds of the Saxon church of St Botolph who, appropriately, is the patron saint of wayfarers. A few other people have had a similar thought, it is an ideal spot in which to enjoy a rest and a sandwich or two.

St Botolph

  Again, I am conscious of the time and I cannot stop long enough to look inside the church. There is just time to take a quick snap outside and I must set off to retrace my steps back to the South Downs Way. I am not looking forward to the stiff climb up Annington Hill - it is always such hard work - although the passage through the pig farm is always most pleasurable. The land on which the pigs are farmed seems to move regularly, previously the trail ran through the middle but this year it runs along the northern edge. It is, I suppose, the pigs which move and not the ground.

  I know that I am slowing down and try to maintain the momentum of my pace across the ground as it is steadily rising in front of me as I head onwards. All too frequently I am looking backwards to see if I can catch sight of the backmarkers - they must be there, somewhere. Struggling on, I pass the Steyning Bowl and I am determined to reach the Langmead memorial before I stop to take another brief rest. My only consolation is that I know there are other walkers behind me - a sit down and a rest is most welcome, indeed.

  Passing Steyning Round Hill and the Horseshoe - well remembered from the cross country runs when I was just a lad attending the grammar school. How Steyning has changed since those distant monochrome days, it was another world then and I am now a world away. Gone is the past.

  From now on it certainly does seem to be sheep country that I am walking through and the chalky path across the Downs rolls slowly on towards Chanctonbury Ring. As the afternoon wears away, the sun has finally become strong enough to break through the clouds and the heat is quickly building. Passing the crossing of footpaths at Wiston Bostal, it is now the last hill of the day up to the Ring - although it is really only a slope it does seem steeper than it actually is. There is not much further to go and I take a longer rest on the grass under the cooling shade of Chanctonbury Ring. As I sit there, looking back, I believe I can see the back-markers shepherding people forwards - I am relieved to see that they are not making headway at any great speed, no need for me to worry.

  The time ticks on relentlessly and I leave the shade to journey the final mile or two to the finish. Refreshed from the rest, I make good progress over the soft and springy turf - passing by Chanctonbury Hill and the dew pond before reaching the stony road. Soon, there is a right-hand turn and this leads me to the very rugged chalk and flint path which needs careful footwork to navigate down. Steeply down this track and then there is a choice of footpaths into the village of Washington. The alternative route through the village was created in order to avoid the dual carriageway of the A24, safety first.

     It seemed a lonely path but the finish of the walk today is at the Frankland Arms and the blue Footprints banner flutters in the garden of the pub. After collecting my ticket for the coach to take me back to Arundel, I rest among friends and enjoy a cold glass of coke together with a complimentary packet of crisps - thank you to Footprints.

  It is good to be able to rest and not feel the need to be looking out for the back-markers, who arrive not very long after me. There I sit, in the sunshine, and just await the arrival of the last bus to take me home.

 

Day 5  -  Washington to Whiteways  -  9.7 miles

     There was boundless sunshine from start to finish on today’s walk through the area in which I spent many happy years wandering as a lad  . . .  and growing up. Did the open spaces of this glorious countryside create in me an ideal being - I do not suppose that I should answer that question  . . .  and anyway, this was going to be a great day, indeed.

     With nearly all the pleasant attributes of a home-coming, the day begins at the Frankland Arms in Washington. It is open for us walkers and I delay the start of my walk with a very good bacon sandwich. There I sat, at the picnic-tables out in the garden amongst many other walking friends, munching away and chatting, it is so delightful  . . .  but soon I hear voices encouraging the remaining people to be on their way. Time waits for no man, or even me, and, with the remains of my sandwich clasped in my hand, I am one of the last to leave as I set off on my way.

  It is jolly pleasant to walk through the village, passing the recreation ground and the school and heading out towards the South Downs Way. I pass St Mary, the parish church, and soon cross the bridge over the A24. The countryside lies ahead of me and, instead of taking the direct route, I make a sharp left turn and follow my preferred route back towards the national trail.

  Walking along the edge of fields which run parallel to the dual carriageway, I make an undulating journey southwards. After a short but steep climb the path drops quickly down before it soon reaches the forbidding barrier of Biggen Holt. Now, the climb really begins and soon becomes very steep indeed as it clambers up the uneven and broken steps that are set in the side of this wooded hill. I struggle upwards, frequently stopping to gather my breath and wonder why I insist on coming this way. Eventually, I reach the South Downs Way and spend a few precious minutes recovering before setting off along the trail. The path is still heading upwards as it tackles Highden Hill and I do the best I can as the extra distance of this unofficial route is surely putting me even further behind the other walkers.

The broken steps at Biggen Holt

  Hurrying on, I still have hopes of reaching the point where the official alternative route which comes up Barnsfarm Hill meets the route I am taking. That alternative route is the way the back-markers will be coming and I keep my eyes peeled for any sign of them. Still some way ahead of me is the point where the two paths meet and, there they are, the back-markers who are casually strolling along. They do not turn in my direction and so do not see me and I hurry along in order to catch them up. When they reach a gate they then turn to look back and recognise me coming along behind  . . .   and, like the gentlemen they are, they kindly wait.

  Heading on as the downland rolls by, I pass the barn at the top of Sullington Hill and then go through the field which is, like today, usually frequented by cattle. I catch up with the last of the walkers who appear to be in no hurry and, as they have stopped, I walk on by. I am soon rewarded with a treat as the ice cream lady is waiting for us, today she is positioned at Chantry Post. A choice of the butter toffee flavour was made and this was very welcome as I sat enjoying the rich taste whilst small knots of gurkhas came running by.

   I could not stop for long and I shortly find myself passing by Chantry Hill and Kithurst Hill. Soon the car park which lies to the west of Kithurst Hill is reached and, as this is the mid-point of the trail between Eastbourne and Winchester, there was the Footprints team waiting to provide us with celebratory squash and biscuits. Very thoughtful and, again, most welcome as the temperature was rapidly rising in the strong sunshine.

  It has been all treats so far today and the splendid views to the north as I wander over Springhead Hill and Rackham Hill are magnificent. This trend was set to continue as I rested at Rackham Banks for lunch. This wide view of the Arun valley is pretty much without parallel, so glorious - there is almost no better view along the whole of the trail. Many people stop here for lunch, including the back-markers, it is such a beautiful spot.

  The pleasure of the walk continues as I set off again and I can see the river gently winding a way through the countryside, it all looks so peaceful and tranquil.

Amberley Mount

  On reaching Amberley Mount, the trail sharply drops from the ridge and down into the valley. Far below, the cattle are in the field and I make my way down towards them. The sun is oppressive and making the day very hot and our water bottles are quickly emptying. As we walk along High Titten, people are looking in the verge at the roadside for the chance of spotting a rare plant - they can be frequently seen here by those with sharp eyes. We soon come to the main road and there is Wysh House with such impressive chimneys.

  I skirt around the village of Houghton and begin to cross the valley bottom - over the busy turnpike road and then over the railway line and then, never so pretty, the trail passes by the wastewater treatment works. But wait, there in front of me is a huge yellow tanker lorry and it appears to be blocking the whole of this narrow lane. Fortunately, there is just enough room to squeeze by - considering what the tanker is full of, just remember not to breathe in. Apparently, the wastewater tanks were being cleaned out, not a nice job on such a hot day, but a job (like all housework) that had been waiting many years to be done - or so I was reliably informed.

  It was then not much farther until I reached the bank of the swift flowing river, it is a most tranquil spot to briefly rest and watch the whole world go by. I see others that I know relaxing a little further upstream (or is it downstream, probably depends on which way the tide is flowing) and we wave to each other, so civilised. In a while I walk further along the bank of the river and, before long, I am crossing the footbridge over the Arun. This is an area where several major trails are within a stones throw of each other - South Downs Way, Monarch’s Way and West Sussex Literary Trail.

  There are now just a couple of fields of green grass to cross over, some with cattle, before it is time to begin the long climb back up to the top of the Downs. On the uneven chalk track, it is very hot and humid as the white chalk is reflecting the glare and heat of the bright sunshine. The climb is hard and, with frequent stops to catch my breath, it allows me time to enjoy further views of the Arun valley and the spire of Bury church which nestles nearby among the trees. The track continues and slowly climbs through fields growing a cereal crop before passing the southern edge of Coombe Wood.

  At last I reach the busy A29 and safely cross the road before there is a little more uphill work which lies across the side of Bury Hill. It is now not very far to go but first there is a very overgrown path which I must follow. It is certainly not interesting but does take me due south to the finish at Whiteways. As usual, at the very end, I take a short detour through the edge of Houghton Forest to the car park.

  In the car park at Whiteways, the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) had their display van on show. Presumably they were aware that the walkers on the Annual South Downs Way Walk would be arriving in numbers and so took the opportunity to be here. This gave me the opportunity to pick up a leaflet or two.

  It has been a lovely day - certainly the most enjoyable so far - I await the coach home, happy but also a little sad, it is disappointing to think that there is now only 4 more days left - if only it could all last forever.


Day 6  -  Whiteways to Cocking  -  10.2 miles

  It is another fine morning and the day looks as if it will be splendid, too. The coaches are all parked in a neat line at Whiteways as I set off into Houghton Forest wondering whether to head straight for the South Downs Way or not. I am very apprehensive about walking back along the overgrown footpath - in previous years, it has been crowded with people all jostling for space and trying to make the speed that they want. I knew that some people were going to avoid this by taking the Monarch’s Way and make for the South Downs Way further westwards, much nearer to Bignor - what to do, I do not really fancy either choice.

  In the end I took the overgrown footpath leading directly north and, to my surprise, there seemed to be hardly anyone around. I am not sure why but I am certainly grateful. I soon reach the South Downs Way and follow the trail westwards alongside the farmers’ fields. There are clear blue skies above me and, as I pass by, there are many fields of flax with their delicate blue flowers. A regular line of people are passing me by and I let them get ahead so that I can more appreciate the quiet solitude and the endless countryside. To be on the ridge with a sense of loneness, looking south across the land to the distant waters of the English Channel.

Fields of Flax

  Looking ahead I can see the masts that are on top of Glatting Beacon but first, the trail drops down to the three barns at Westburton Hill. The barns are something of a landmark and it is here that the path turns sharply to the left for the steep climb up a deeply rutted chalk track. I find that this climb up Bignor Hill is best taken at a slow and steady pace. There is a great sense of relief when the climb is over and I reach Toby’s Stone, a mounting block, that is close to the top of the hill. Time for a rest and a banana and, for some unknown reason, the back-markers arrive whilst I am sitting there. No worries, I do not wish to hurry - well, not yet anyway.

  As the trail continues on, there is a spot where the endless views truly do stretch out forever in all directions - it is so like being on top of the world, it makes one’s heart leap for joy.

  Only a little further and there we find the ice-cream lady, she is waiting in the Bignor Hill car park and my choice for today is to be vanilla and stem ginger, very nice. Although the treat was splendid however, as I sat on the grass at the edge of the track, there was bad news to reflect upon, the butter toffee is to be axed next year and so this is now rather a gloomy prospect for the future.

Frozen treats near Bignor Hill

  Anyway, back to this year, there is now a very brief walk along Stane Street, the old Roman road, and this is soon to our rear. The trail crosses fields, usually occupied by sheep, and passes to the south of Glatting Beacon. The two masts at the summit stand sentinel and are clearly visible for many miles around.

  The trail continues, rolling along beside the tree-lined fields and eventually opens out onto a grassy downland which gently descends into a valley. The gradient becomes steeper as it drops down through some trees towards Littleton Farm. The valley bottom is soon reached and is fairly narrow and I quickly hurry across the A285. This is then immediately followed by the start of a climb back uphill over Littleton Down and on towards Crown Tegleaze, the highest point on the South Downs in Sussex. Halfway up this steep rise I stop for a quiet lunch and a rest in the warmth of the sunshine.

  A little refreshed from this short break, I pack up my things and continue on my way up the rest of the hill. When the ground stops rising it enters a wooded area and it is cool in the shade of the trees and, on the other side of this wooded area, there are magnificent views to the north. There is Tegleaze Post, the meeting point of several paths, standing tall and proud. It is here, in this soft and springy turf, that the South Downs Way and the West Sussex Literary Trail run along together above Graffham Down. At this point, I walk for a while with Shirley and one of the London Blind Ramblers. It is a great day, with great people and there is this wonderful landscape rolling along with us.

  All of these different shades of green that are in the countryside, they are all around us - there is open country on one side and plenty of woodland nearby on the other. The trail then continues through further woodland before the Literary Trail makes a turn to the south. The South Downs Way carries on, relentlessly heading west along the top of the ridge which follows the northern edge of more woodland. The village of Heyshott is to the north of us as we cross the path of the New Lipchis Way.

  As I walk through this lightly wooded landscape, the trail passes between many small areas which are protected and allow many plants and butterflies to thrive undisturbed. The day wears on and, leaving the trees behind, the heat continues to build. A sign directs the traveller to the Unicorn Inn, 20 minutes down hill - but how long would it take to come back up hill after a few beers?

  There are cattle and sheep peacefully grazing in the fields as I cross the top of Manorfarm Down and soon begin the long walk down the gentle slope. It is not very much further to the finish of the walk today which is located on the A286 just south of Cocking.

  Footprints have erected their banner at the farm just a few yards before the finish and this allows us to rest in reasonable comfort - much better than standing on the edge of the road. The farm has a butchery where I purchase some homemade sausages (Olde English) as well as a tearoom where I set my sights on a very large slice of vanilla sponge which is over-loaded with jam and cream - it is a rare treat indeed. I sit and enjoy the cake whilst waiting for the last coach home - it is finger-licking good.

  Absolutely lovely. There has not been a cloud in the sky all day, just continual sunshine, and, despite the heat, it has again been great walking.

  Also today, I have handed in my entry for the limerick competition. Oh, dear! As if pride will always come before a fall, which certainly sounds like one of the Jane Austen novels giving a social commentary on the pursuit of marriage. Remember the disappointment of last year. Anyway, ever the optimist, I have high hopes of success - not only because of the rhythm and wonderful rhyme scheme but also because it does not try to rely purely on any cheap smuttiness - as if. Indeed, when all is said and done, we certainly would not wish to emulate or compete with the literary talents of Hilaire Belloc - now there would be a rhyme to playfully conjure with  . . .

 

Day 7 - Cocking to Queen Elizabeth Country Park - 12.8 miles

 A lovely day again today - isn’t it always - with just a few clouds but plenty of sunshine and just a little gentle breeze to freshen the warmth. It is so very good for walking.

  I set out from the Cocking Down car park on the roadside of the A286 and begin the long, steady climb upwards. It is not steep but it does continue on forever until we have almost reached the sky. We pass many wild flowers including the huge seed heads of the Goat’s Beard (or Jack-go-to-Bed-at-Noon, Tragopogon pratensis). There is always plenty to look at as we climb and, along with most other people, the London Blind Ramblers pass by me - nothing deters them and they are currently a guide short but this has not reduced their pace.

Goat’s Beard seed head

  Eventually the landscape opens out as we near the top of the climb and, shortly, I pass by one of the 14 stones created by Andy Goldsworthy using chalk taken from Duncton Quarry. They are an art installation created in June 2002 and this stone, like the others, sits in the landscape slowly eroding - rather like the chalk cliffs that were at the beginning of this journey some six days and many miles ago. Certainly makes you think. This is an ideal photo opportunity or it will be once I have waited for the other walkers to remove themselves from the shot.

Art installation

  The trail rolls along and I take my morning banana break near Linch Ball and there I meet up again with Erica and Janice. Sitting in the grass looking at the view stretching away to the north. It is a fine time and after a short while we continue in the joyful company of people that are also walking the trail. Heading towards Didling Hill, the skylarks are out in force again and their song is clearly heard - apart from when the Chinook helicopter flies very low above us deafening the peaceful countryside. In a green field to the south of us there is a mass of mauve flowers colouring the landscape but we cannot decide what make they are.

  Heading into the west we are soon entering the woods around Monkton House and it is here that a large group of gurkhas is running towards us, we stand aside and they hurry on by, passing us amidst a cheery chorus of hellos. On through the woods and it is now not much further until I reach the Devil’s Jumps on Treyford Hill. A chance to explore this Bronze Age barrow formation which is aligned with the setting of the sun on midsummer’s day - I cannot wait here for midsummer which is still some six days away and so I spend my time looking to see if I can find an elusive Bee Orchid, they are often found here, but to no avail as there just seems to be a few foxgloves.

  Continuing on through woodland, the trail makes a sharp turn to the right and before long I reach the memorial stone which remembers the young German pilot shot down in this area in 1940 during the Battle of Britain. It is a quiet and thoughtful moment.

As I move on through this wooded terrain, the Chinook helicopter returns and begins to noisily sweep the area in a very low flight - it is annoying and maybe it will be silenced by finding a crash site. Soon I leave the woods behind me, the landscape opens out and as it gently rolls on there are again wide views stretching away. It is here, passing near Buriton Farm, that I save a fellow walker from failing to take the correct turn. It is very fortunate how effective a well chosen shout can be - I certainly would not have relished the choice of having to hurry after them.

  Onwards I travel, following the path both up and down, it passes Mount Sinai and then goes over Pen Hill. Next I come face to face with the awesome Beacon Hill, it stands there tall in front of me. The path of the South Downs Way takes a route to the south of the hill but I decide to take a shorter path which goes over the top. It is a steep climb up and this requires me to make quite a few stops for recovery. Looking back I can see a few people already such a long way below.

  Whilst at the summit of Beacon Hill with its triangulation point (242m) I stand and look towards the horizon which is a very long way distant. Whilst here, I take the time to look and see if the fairy is still lying there beneath the windswept tree. Yes, it is there and is now framed by a border of flint - I point it out to other walkers who seem rather disbelieving. Their loss and, like it says in the song - I tell you the truth but you don’t believe me - how very true.

  The extremely steep descent is taken very carefully - there are no accidents around here - and at the bottom I sit with friends to eat my lunch. It has been a good day and we are only about half way through today’s walk. There is no time to relax and, as I chew on a sandwich, we see and the back-markers striding down the hillside not far behind. Already, they are not so far away and at about fifty yards distance they settle on the grass to take their lunch.

  I later learn that if I had followed the route of the South Downs Way around the southern slopes of Beacon Hill, I would most likely have seen the Bee Orchid that was discovered today. Hindsight is such a wonderful thing. I am still only on a total of two seen in five years, this does not seem to be such a great achievement.

After lunch there is a little more climbing to do before I reach the Harting Downs. This is a lovely area and I look down to see the village of South Harting nestled in the countryside below. There is the green spire of the church standing out clearly on this fine sunny day. At the western end of the Harting Downs, there is the ice-cream lady awaiting us for the last time this year and I enjoy the butter toffee flavour for what is presumably the last time ever - I am going to make the most of this refreshing treat. It is here that I meet up again with the group from the London Blind Ramblers and I walk along with them and Shirley, who is assisting again as a guide. The trail leads through a wood which lies below Tower Hill and this wood is known as The Bosom - many people have speculated on the reason for this name but I am unaware of the truth of the answers given.

South Harting

  After crossing the B2146, the walk trails along tracks and roads which are not particularly interesting and, after a while, the Blind Ramblers soon begin to outpace me. As usual, I am left trailing along to the rear. Nevermind. I wander on, and sometimes I am alone and sometimes I am in the company of others. The afternoon wears on and, eventually, I pass Sunwood Farm and move from a dirt track to a tarmac road. The avenue of copper beech trees that line the road spread a glorious colour in the sunlight.

  As the miles continue to pass, I travel on and it gradually becomes a byway rather than a proper road and is deeply rutted with potholes as it scrambles up and down. It is a long day and the walking was getting tougher as the day wore on and, as a consequence, I began taking frequent opportunities to rest and ease the feet. I knew that there could not be many people behind me and so I tried my best to press on.

  Finally, we have come to the entrance into the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. It is a relief to know that the finish is almost in sight, however, I just want to sit down for a while and rest. Unfortunately, there is no time, we know that the back-markers must be almost on our heels. The prospect of the extended trail that runs through the country park is no fun, it winds up through the woods in a very roundabout route. It is now that the back-markers catch up with us. They are striding as we are struggling - come on, give us a break - still, not too far to go now.

  We walk in with the back-markers to reach the finish at the cafe in the visitor centre of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Another day done but the last few miles of each day is certainly getting to be rather a struggle. Although the weariness fades as soon as I sit down, I am too tired to celebrate the day. Shame.

 

Day 8  -  Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Exton  -  10.5 miles

The day was beginning fairly cloudy and I take a quick wander around the visitor centre - there is no particular reason, I do not know why - the QE Country Park just seems to be there, I never find it inspiring in any way at all.

  So, without inspiration and without any further delay I set off to walk to Exton. The journey begins by going under the A3 and facing the long and steep climb up Butser Hill. It is the highest point on the South Downs Way and stands there with a radio mast at the summit. What a way to begin the walk today, this the penultimate day. With a steady pace I make the ascent and about half way up I am caught by Amanda who is accompanied by Barker, the weimaraner. We travel on together and the summit is eventually reached.

  The cloud starts to break up and the sun is becoming more evident as the trail stops climbing. After the climb we take a fairly gentle route out of the park and travel along Limekiln Lane. The South Downs Way has entered a different phase and there is now frequent spells of road walking. The surrounding landscape is now more flatter, gently making its way along. This stretch of the walk follows both road and track and passes over Tegdown Hill before crossing Hyden Hill on the northern edge of Hyden Wood - it is pleasant enough but the scenery is, at the moment, no longer breath-taking.

Flower and Butterfly  -  Native Love

  However, once we have come out of the trees at Hyden Cross, the view north towards the village of East Meon is well worth spending a little time to stand and admire. The day has become sunnier and warmer as the time has gone by. Yes, it is another lovely day.

  A little further on and I come to The Sustainability Centre which seems to be an oasis amongst all of the expensive housing. It is a welcome break on the journey and is able to provide a good rest whilst I enjoy a slice of their cake, banana and chocolate chip - very nice, indeed. There is a feeling of activity as many people are either arriving or leaving and it gives a chance to meet up with the other walkers. A bit of a gossip with the locals, too. After a little rest, I too set off and leave this independent study and learning centre. Underway again and I pass by the grounds of what was once HMS Mercury, home of the Royal Navy Signals School but now, no longer.

 Turning north I head deeper into the countryside again. The trail makes its way up and over Wether Down with two masts towering high above us before crossing over Salt Hill. The green downland stretches away to either side as I walk the path between the hedges that border the fields. Soon, the ground falls away as the path, broken by tree roots, steeply descends. This slows the pace but we are soon back on firmer ground to continue the walk.

  In the hot sun the sound of the insects is drowsy and each step like sleep-walking and the weary feeling is hanging heavily. The last mile before lunch lasts indefinitely as the stride shortens and the pace is becoming slower. Memory plays tricks with distances and, at last, I reach Whitewool Pond. It is good to stop and sit on the grass beside the cool waters and take a pleasant lunch. Many of my fellow walkers are already here, there is a chance to make conversation and, as the trout were rising, we sat and watched the men as they flicked their rods to land their flies gently on the surface of the waters.

  Apparently, to make an attempt was every girl’s dream. So, after a few brief words, Carolyn was favoured with having an opportunity to try her hand with this chappies’ rod - unfortunately, after a little instruction, she did not seem to have the right wrist action. Like a lot, it is obviously a man-thing.

     I set off after lunch with a small group of people and we pass through a herd of cattle as we climb up out of this arm of the Meon valley. Once out of the valley we are heading towards Old Winchester Hill. There are many little paths in this area which are frequently diverging only to meet up again a few hundred yards later. It did not really matter which one was taken, all paths lead us on. Soon there were splendid views of the Iron Age hill fort as it rises majestically from the surrounding countryside.

Plant Life

  Taking the route of the Monarch’s Way in order to walk across the top of this National Nature Reserve, it gives gloriously views all around. The ground beneath my feet was heavily peppered by many native flowers and these were being visited in turn by the flitting of numerous butterflies. Inside the perimeter of the hill fort there are many Bronze Age barrows which give the ground an uneven and bumpy nature. Oh, yes, just to be able to sit up here in these peaceful surroundings and imagine such times gone by.

  Moving on, the trail that leads down from the hilltop passes through a little wooded area and the leaves on the trees make the sunlight dapple and shimmer on the root-covered path. So lovely that one always wants to linger but I hurried along taking the descent towards Exton as quickly as I could in the hope of a rewarding ice-cream at The Shoe Inn. It was certainly a pleasant walk down, following a line around the edges of fields and so into the valley ahead. At the bottom of the slope there were very many tree-roots to negotiate as the trail went along the side of an old railway line and the dried up bed of a stream.

A few steps down

 - M C Escher

  Then, finally, I come to the River Meon which, on this hot day, is like a breath of fresh air. It flows so gracefully with the sunlight glinting on the surface of the water, gently rippling. The greens have a feeling of delicate coolness and it is so like finding life renewed in the pleasantry of a water-meadow. Too quickly it passes and suddenly there is the A32 - one forgets about the car so quickly - look both ways and make the crossing of the main road.

The River Meon

  Trying to stay out of the way of a reversing coach was the next obstacle, not sure if it was one of ours, bur Mr Driver gives me a wave so maybe it was. There is now just a short walk before reaching the pretty village of Exton, a name derived from the old English meaning “farmstead of the East Saxons”. There is no hurry and enough time remains to take the opportunity to go and get a look at the church of St Peter and St Paul. For such a small village, the church looks quite formal in these rural surroundings.

  Gutted. Unfortunately, it was this small detour to visit the church which meant that I missed the chance of an ice-cream treat at The Shoe Inn by just a few short minutes. It was such a shame as I had been looking forward to one of the cones all day - nevermind, I tell myself that it is almost as good to just sit with friends and drink a refreshing coke in the garden by the river, but I am surely not so easily convinced.

  The end of the day and the red-shirts were there in force and definitely in a jovial mood as they smiled and laughed happily for the clicking cameras. Only one more day to go - it has all been so very wonderful.

 

Day 9  -  Exton to Winchester  -  12.5 miles

 It is very sunny and such a very hot day right from the get-go - yes, the weather forecast says that there is certainly not going to be any respite from the heat and there will be little chance of finding any shade from the sun. So, the final day is here and everyone is in terrific spirits.

  The coach arrives at Exton and we walk down the road to The Shoe Inn - it is open for us and there is a welcome in the air - it is, indeed, a celebration. There is coffee and also bacon rolls on offer. Even though a freshly cooked bacon roll would have been a lovely treat to begin this, the last day, there is such a mass of people inside the pub. It was definitely too large a crowd to try and make my way through. So, with a touch of regret, I did not wait to purchase either a bacon roll or a cup of coffee but set off and took the route across the fields and out of Exton.

 The ground quickly steepens and it soon becomes such very hard work to climb up another Beacon Hill. As we cross each field and clamber over the stiles, the path becomes ever steeper and the line of walkers gradually stretches out as if we were on elastic. The summit gradually gets nearer each time I stop to recover my breath but it is difficult getting used to these stiff challenges at the start of each day. Eventually, the beacon at the top of the hill comes into view and I head straight for it. A little recovery time and then the reward, turning around to see some stunning views of the Meon valley which lies far below. The view has quietly opened out to our rear - it is well worth all the effort.

Cattle

  There is still a little more climbing to be done before I reach Beaconhill Beeches and then the trail again follows various tracks and roads. Along the side of fields we travel before reaching and passing through Lomer Farm and then Wind Farm. The rising heat of the day is very oppressive and is making the distance stretch out and the dogs are already beginning to struggle. It is a relief to eventually reach The Milburys, a pub that lies about a mile south of Beauworth. A brief rest in the grounds of the pub, a little recovery is welcome and it also gives the opportunity to take on a snack and a drink.

The Milburys

  Setting off again, it was more of the same - further tracks and roads and through other farms. Holden Lane takes us on through the farmland and Barker is hurrying from one bit of shade to the next and relishing any long grass that has remained cool enough to roll in. We reach Holden Farm and there is one of the coaches and some of the red-shirts, they are gathering at this point to take the coach to Winchester and make ready the party to celebrate the completion of the 38th annual walk of the South Downs Way. We pause at the farm and make use of the water tap, so essential on a day like today.

  Next is the first crossing of the A272 and then it is through a field or two before reaching Gander Down. We stop for lunch in the shade of some rather scrubby trees - any shade today is at a high premium - but the pleasure was mostly to just rest the feet. Whilst the sun had shone I had, unfortunately, dallied too much through the morning (and probably dillied as well) and so, whilst we were sat eating our picnic lunch, the back-markers caught up with us. Already! So soon and we are only at about half distance . . . and so tired and weary as well.

  Whilst the back-markers stopped and settled for their lunch, I hurried to pack my rucksack and with Amanda and Barker we set off again. Although we were pushing onwards in the heat of the day Barker was constantly seeking for any cool grass or shade that could be found. I was beginning to struggle, my feet hurting, the enjoyment had gone. It now seemed to be a rather thankless journey and the knowledge that the back-markers were not so far behind forced us to keep up the pace as best we could. It was certainly hard work under the relentless sun and the opportunity for any rest at all was fast disappearing.

  Hurrying westwards along the track we pass an area where tanks and other military vehicles are often seen being driven and shortly after this we reach the left turn at Keeper’s Cottage. The trail now ran south alongside Temple Valley and if it were not for the encouragement being given by Amanda I think that I would have just stopped - with 4 miles still to go, my feet hurt and all I wanted was to take the weight off, just rest them for a while but that was not an option unless I chose to give up. But we are made of stronger stuff and continue on towards Cheesefoot Head although, regrettably, I was not able to enjoy the scenery that was opening up around us. In the distance we could see a group of people ahead of us but, try as we might, we could not catch up with them.

  After reaching Cheesefoot Head, it was the second crossing the A272 and the beginning of the long descent into Winchester. We pass by Telegraph Hill and soon see the white radio telescope dishes that are sited away to our right. Although it is now a gentle downhill I do not feel much better, just the thought that there is still about three miles to go is burdensome. We could now see who that group of people in front of us were but still we were unable to further close the gap to them.

  Onwards we went and it was whilst passing through the pretty little village of Chilcomb, with still a couple of miles to go, that I just have to stop to sit down and ease my feet. It is here that I fall into the clutches of the back-markers as they catch me up and, leaving me to their ministrations, Amanda and Barker continue on to the party at the Guildhall in Winchester.

  With hurting feet I continue on with the back-markers and one or two other people - there is still two more large fields to walk along the side of and then it is over the M3 and the entry into the city of Winchester. Time and distance seem irrelevant, it is now all about getting to the finish, nothing else seems to be important. The heat does seem to increase further as I make my way through the city streets and down to the water’s edge. Then, almost there, it is along the side of the swiftly flowing river Itchen to the statue of King Alfred.

  There is supposed to be a new route through the streets of Winchester to the finishing post but, at this moment, no one seems to care - what is wrong with the way we know that runs beside the river. Let is always next year to discover this new trail marker.

  The statue of King Alfred, the Saxon king, standing tall and proud above the modern city - unlike me, I am here and it is certainly none too soon. There is a great relief as I sit on a bench at a bus shelter, such indignities we are reduced to. The walking is now done  . . .  I can breathe a sigh of relief  . . .  another South Downs Way completed successfully. Hooray.

  It is done  . . .  It is finished.

The 5th Certificate

  The celebration of the walk over these last nine days takes place in the Guildhall which is just a few yards further on and still within the sight of King Alfred. I am only twenty minutes late and other walkers are still being urged into the building. There are refreshing drinks and, in time, a lovely finger buffet to enjoy and, most importantly, seats to sit on. The certificates are available for collection - that is five now, getting quite a collection.
 
  I sit with Erica and Janice and the congratulations are fit and proper as well as the odd photo or two for the album. As the slide show of pictures taken during the walk this years rolls on a screen behind, Keith begins to bring the annual walk into focus and drawing together what has happened over the last nine days. Despite the difficulty with the public address system and the raucous applause, the prizes are distributed to the lucky winners. No, my limerick did not win - I shall re-enter it next year.

Looking Good

The man celebrates

  Gradually, the event is drawn to its conclusion with the reading of Bob Copper’s prayer to the South Downs. A solemn moment, a pause to think, at the end of this happy experience.

  All that is left, whilst we wait for the coaches to be driven to the foot of the statue outside, is a last chance to say goodbye to the many friends, both old and new. Yes, another year is now over and we ask each other whether we will be here again next year - happily, it seems to be the intention of many people that there will a return.

A Hundred Years in the Sunshine

        The sun shone out bright and true
        From a sky so filled by blue
        As our walk across the Downs
        Knew no restraint or any bounds
        The glory of our land was for the chosen few

  These are such happy days, indeed.

Just a few words to thank Footprints and their team of red-shirts for making the Annual South Downs Way Walk such a wonderful experience. Thank you so much. It is certainly no surprise that so many people return year after year.

Footprints of Sussex

www.footprintsofsussex.co.uk

Regatta

The outdoor and leisure clothing company

A total of £60.00 has been collected in recognition of my endeavour to walk along the South Downs Way in 2017. These donations have been made to assist the work of Cardiac Rehab Support West Sussex.  If you would like to help the efforts made by this local charity  -  please pass any contributions to me.
It is all very much appreciated.  Thank you.  Colin x

(c)  Colin Luxford