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Piper at the Gates of Dawn

     A journey through another world

Eastbourne to Winchester   7 to 15 June 2019

about 100.59 miles (give or take)

The Annual South Downs Way Walk celebrates the 40th year

Hosted by Footprints of Sussex

“  . . .  and I will show you something different from either your shadow at morning striding behind you or your shadow at evening rising to meet you; I will show you fear in a handful of dust  . . .  ”

Day 1    7 June    Eastbourne to Alfriston via Jevington    8.06 miles

Yes, it is the same old story - dawn breaks at 4.04am on this day - so I wonder why is my alarm sounding and trying to wake me up. Well, yes, it is today  . . .  and the alarm certainly does not wake me as I am lying there already awake and almost restlessly eager, waiting for this big day to begin.

And so here I go again on my own - going down the only road I have ever known - like a drifter I was born to walk alone. These are the ghosts and phantasms of a bygone age, long remembered from the forgotten days - not following, they are all around - uncontrollably flicking in and out of dimensions, there and not there, like some unreal constant companion  . . .  always never alone - voices emote, does fire walk with me. I hear them, I hear them whispering, the quiet voices talk behind my back  . . .  look, see, he is wearing the blue 25 litre Blackwell rucksack won in the daily quiz last year  . . .  it makes no sense.

What is the truth, what is the reality, can you see the crown of thorns - you really just had to be there.

From East to West - we ride the waves

I don’t know. It was an early start this morning and I was there, waiting at Arundel station, before half seven. The weather was not looking great, cloudy and rather dull and certainly not overly warm. As the time slowly passes the anticipation continues to build and old friends soon begin to appear. Welcoming smiles and hugs of friendship - where has this part of our lives been since June of last year? The pleasure is there but still the clouds thicken and the rain begins to descend from the sky.

Our coach is the second of the four to reach Eastbourne and the rain is continuing to fall. It is not very heavy but enough to ensure that we are all prepared with our wet weather gear. As I leave the coach I am still undecided whether to brave the Seven Sisters or play safe and take the inland route going through Jevington. The decision waits and will continue to wait until I have climbed halfway up the first hill and so have felt the grass beneath my feet and assessed the options. Once the path diverges and the choice becomes determined.

I walk up towards the start point, greeting friends and acquaintances who have already arrived in the other coaches. In the rain, it looks fairly deserted at the point where the green hill climbs away from the road. There is always time to take a few pictures of the new starting post which matches the one in Winchester. No, there is never any ceremony and I pause to wonder whether I will one day possess this start post - a former old sign is now one of my treasured possessions, held safe and secure at home - possession is nine tenths of the law and like the word in the song says, memorabilia.

One small step  . . .  and then another  . . .  and another  , , ,

The first hill is steep (the start from Winchester is always so much kinder and more user-friendly) and the few people already ahead of me are fully covered in their wet gear as they are making their way up. As I said, there is no ceremony, nothing to note the endeavour we are about to undertake, and so I too step forwards beginning the clamber up the hillside.

I have not done much walking in recent months and intend to use this first hill as a gauge to my fitness and the strength in my legs - so will it be the Seven Sisters or the inland Jevington route that I take. In the end, as it is a tough day tomorrow, I opt for the easier option and soon turn northwards and take the inland route. Having walked the Seven Sisters many times I can afford to give them a miss until a more sunny day comes along

At the point where the path divides, the finger post seems to be giving conflicting information as both forward directions are deemed correct. Several people are going one way and then some turn around and walk back again. As always, I go the way I am going, happy in the knowledge that all is well - this is the beginning of nine days of pleasure despite the light rain slowly getting rather heavier.

It is pretty gentle walking and there are not many people around - plenty of time for contemplation and the slow pace allows the trail to unroll before me towards the horizon until all outside movement ceases. Onwards, step by step, into the groove, it is not long before I have reached the circular pond which sits high above the town. Is it a dew pond? I am never too sure but it is a good place for a quiet five minutes rest and watch the raindrops ripple the surface of the waters.

Walking on, it is a misty horizon and the Eastbourne Downs golf course is drifting backwards behind me. It is here that Amanda and Barker catch me up. I had lost sight of them as we got off the coach - no matter, there is always plenty of opportunity for meeting up later in the walk. The strolling is pleasant as we walk across the top of the Downs with the western edge of Eastbourne off to the right and well below us. The rain is now gradually getting lighter again and our eyes are always being drawn into the murky green downland that is to be our world for the next week or so.

When the trail has reached a height of over 650 feet it turns more westerly and slowly begins to head downhill - the gradual descent into Jevington, home of the Banoffee Pie. The rain seems to be disappearing and the clouds are becoming much less ominous. It is indeed a good life.

After a while, the brightness of the sun is gradually more in evidence amongst the clouds and we reach Jevington - there is the blue plaque on the wall of what was once The Hungry Monk - and crossing the road we head towards the church. St Andrew, Jevington dates from the early 10th century and has an unusual Anchor Cross above the south porch and a Saxon sculpture set into the north wall of the nave.

Taking possession of a bench to the front of the church we are stopping here for our lunch and a little rest. There are quite a fair number of walkers taking this inland route - the weather forecast seems to have a lot to answer for as usually not many come this way preferring the coastal beauty of Beachy Head, the Seven Sisters, Cuckmere Haven and the glorious downland which lies alongside the banks of the river.

It certainly seems like a long climb out of Jevington as the brightening day is raising the humidity in the air and making it feel like hard work. Some of the wet gear is stripped off but, as a consequence, it all needs to be carried. A lot of this climb is through a wooded area on a rough track. We follow the guidance of the new finger posts and very soon we do eventually reach the open downland again.

Back up on top of the hills, the views are excellent as we see the tumbling landscape across the top of the Downs. The rain has become a distant memory and the breaking clouds allow the sunshine to reach across the land - in a supreme vision of lonelitude, let the sunshine, let the sun shine in. The afternoon is warm and bright, such good walking weather, and nearby many sheep are cropping the grass. At the moment we are heading both north and west and over there, in the Weald, is Arlington reservoir.

The Long Man of Wilmington is nearby, carved in the chalk surface on the scarp slope, but we cannot see him from here. After crossing the top of Windover Hill a chalky track winds along as it descends, taking us down into the Cuckmere valley. The descent always seems so much shorter than the ascent is when coming in the other direction. It took no time at all going down compared to how long I took last year climbing up this same hill in the hot sunshine.

Soon we reach the valley bottom and enter the fields, it is a much more lush green here and the grass is longer - there is not far to go now. Unexpectedly, there is a strange object that is held high in a bush which has been stripped of leaves. Looking closer we do not see some carelessly discarded rubbish but see a caterpillar nest - do such things exist, apparently they do. This is the home to a species of tent caterpillar - will the little creatures eventually emerge as moths or butterflies, I do not know. Well, I do now, this is the larval stage of certain moths.

A caterpillar nest  . . .  will they turn into moths or butterflies

There is just a field or two left to cross and in front of us, rising above the tops of the trees, is the spire of St Andrew’s, the Cathedral of the Downs. The walk is coming to an end and after crossing the White Bridge, which takes us over the Cuckmere River, we reach our destination, Alfriston. It is a lovely day and still early in the afternoon so we go in search of a tea room for some refreshment.

There are certainly plenty of places to choose from which offer the weary traveller whatever he seeks  . . .  and, when a suitable establishment has been chosen, refreshments are purchased and slowly enjoyed. We sit in the garden chatting with others who are also part of this annual South Downs Way walk. The camaraderie encourages conversation and it is surprising how soon any connections are found and one thing quickly leads on to another. With my hot beverage, was it tea or coffee - that memory has already faded - I was treated to some home-made scone with jam and cream.

The day is waning, time is passing as the sun arcs across the sky and so we head for the finish, the Footprints banner that is fluttering in the north car park. Despite our gentle pace and casual enjoyment of the refreshments we are still in time to catch the third coach  . . .  but, no - whilst we wait, I realise that my walking pole has been left at the tea rooms. It is not even a year since I left (and lost) a pole in Lavenham and so I quickly set off to recover my trusty pole. I would feel lost without it clasped in my grip.

The world is good and, as I am walking back across the car park, there is my pole being brought back to me by the friendly fellow walkers we had spoken to whilst at the tea rooms. Everyone is always so kind.

It is the end of the day and so the coach takes us back to Arundel.

Sitting and reflecting as I look out of the coach window  . . .  the day has indeed been great - a nice walk and the rainy start was no inconvenience - and every year is always very different  . . .  and best of all, plenty of friends whom I have not seen since last year  . . .  and, in some cases, from several years previously. New friends, old friends - people do return to this walk year after year - and all are welcomed.

Day 2   8 June   Alfriston to Newmarket Inn   13.71 miles

Well, it is the second day and it is the long walk at a distance of almost 14 miles - up high in the sky walking along the ridgeway. So, without any further delay we set off promptly and head straight for those alternative toilets that are only a few yards away but do not have a lengthy line of lingering ladies leading out of the door. The only concern seems to be whether the bloke who is hanging around the “ladies” had a justifiable reason for loitering - I assure the girls that he was the cleaner and that they should just try to keep their facilities more clean and tidy.

All now ready we begin the walk out of town - there are plenty of people around, well, the Macmillan Mighty Hike will be coming through soon - we all drown in the sea of green and are then washed away by this green tide. Also, there are a large number of cyclists here - they crouch down adjusting the gearing on their bikes and the gussets on their lycra and are generally preparing themselves for a good few miles in the saddle. Looks like it is to be a big day for everyone.

NB.  Don’t forget. People have suggested that I mention the wind  . . .  well, today there is quite a breeze blowing and it jolly well feels like a gale. It probably is a gale. It is unbelievably strong and once the open downland is reached the gusts are surely more than enough to knock you off your feet. It blows almost directly into our faces for all of the 14 miles and we will be struggling and fighting against it today on every step of the way. It is hard work  . . .  it is very hard  . . .  but let us not get ahead of ourselves, no more talk of wind  . . .  ‘nuff said.

We walk through the western side of Alfriston, these residential roads look fairly uninspiring to me but soon the tarmac roads disappear and we reach a more gravelly track. The uphill of the climb begins to become noticeable and my pace begins to drop in order to accommodate the extra work. With a cheery voice the cyclists we saw in the town start to come up behind us and go by in twos and threes - although the solitude of the Downs is gloriously splendid, the meeting of all wayfarers is a treat and can almost always be relied on to bring out the best in everyone.

I am dragging behind, I can’t keep up with the pace and so let the others go. A slow and steady step will get me there in the end as I drift backwards. However, once I lose the shielding from the trees and feel the full force of the wind in my face the word forwards no longer seems to exist in my vocabulary. As the trail takes me higher the strength of the wind grows, gusting, pushing me back, pushing me sideways. After barely a brief mile, the phrase “are we there yet?” springs to mind.

It is all uphill and against the wind as I head on towards Firle Beacon. Usually there are wide open views across the Weald with Arlington reservoir standing out clearly - I am sure that the scenery is still there but the struggle takes it away from my mind. Onward and upward and soon the green tide begins to heave into view - these are the early “runners” which begin as a trickle and soon become a flood. The Macmillan Mighty Hike is encountered - they can be cheerful, they have got the wind behind them all the way - but they pay no attention to anything but themselves.

Crossing the top of Bostal Hill it is one step forwards and one blown sideways  . . .  yet up in the sky, with the wind blowing so hard, the larks fly and swoop and sing. They are happy, and seem to be far above the difficulties which are bothering us down below.

I meet up with Amanda again at the Bopeep car park where the walkers on the Mighty Hike are being fed jelly babies. With Barker, the placid weimaraner, we set off on the remaining part of the climb up to the triangulation pillar on Firle Beacon which is set at 712 feet. However, it is not long before I am unable to keep up the pace and so settle into my own rhythm. With the fierce wind driving through me I focus on the beacon ahead and aim directly for it.

When I reach the beacon I have lost sight of the other two and take a break on my own. A banana and some rest as I sit with my back resting against the triangulation pillar hoping to gain some shelter. The wind is so strong, there is very little shelter to be had, and many people are milling around - still I do get a few minutes rest while I eat my banana and gain some recovery.

Firle Beacon is now behind me and the rolling downland lies ahead. The turf is springy and encouraging as I walk along, heading directly into both the wind and the Mighty Hikers. As the trail is no longer heading uphill it all feels so much easier and I begin to pick up the pace. To my right and below is the farmland of the Weald stretching away north and in front of me are the radio masts standing tall at the top of Beddingham Hill.

Despite the weather, it is a day of walking as the sun is high and there are plenty of people out and about as well as the Macmillan hordes and ourselves on the South Downs Way. There are also many ancient earthworks up here, if one knows what to look for, many tumuli and the occasional barrow. After a while I eventually close in on the radio masts and soon pass them by. They certainly are a prominent marker on the skyline, reaching high into the blue.

Don’t look back in anger  . . .  

Radio masts on Beddingham Hill and a few of the many Macmillan Mighty Hikers

Once the masts are behind me the trail gradually begins the slow descent into the valley which has been created by the River Ouse. On reaching Itford Hill the gradient of the descent increases - good for me but the Mighty Hikers are now finding it hard work on what is, for them, a steep climb. The green tide is still running strong but I know that it will come to an end soon enough. The final descent down to the crossing of the A26 seems easier than usual, the broken chalk and flint track is often rather tricky.

It is sunny and warm in the Ouse valley and I soon pass the last of those on the Mighty Hike and head for the youth hostel to take advantage of the facilities on offer. A comfort stop is always welcome and then to see who is around - maybe treat myself to an ice cream. As always, there is a queue for the ladies (smile) which I walk straight passed and on into the gents. When I come out, the same queue is still waiting outside the ladies (I smile again) and head for the cafe to see who is there. I come across Amanda on the way as she hydrates Barker near the door - no time now for that ice cream as we head on to Southease church for a lunch break.

It is only a further half mile, crossing the railway line and then the waters of the Ouse by way of the swing bridge and the straight road takes us into the village of Southease. It has been a long morning and we are certainly ready for our picnic lunch, sitting on the village green with our backs resting against the flint wall which surrounds the church. There are many picnickers here already and other walkers are arriving and leaving whilst we rest and eat.

It is good here. Sitting and chatting and watching the movement of tiny people in the far distance on Itford Hill. But we are only halfway towards reaching the day’s finish - there is still a long way to go - and then we see the back markers stroll in. Time to move on.

After lunch we continue the fight against the wind and begin by heading along the dry valley where the poppies which are growing amongst the cereal crops are indeed a much deeper red this year. Whether there is a reason for this we do not know but it is certainly a feature worthy of noticing. At the end of the valley as we turn to face Mill Hill we see the “spider seat” - it has recently been reported on social media and is a fairly new addition to the trail. It is something that I have been hearing about and so it is now interesting to see - maybe something of a treat. Whether it will be permanent or of a more transient nature, time will tell.

The spider chair at the bottom of Mill Hill - but is it art?

Mill Hill is a struggle, it always is going up, and the wind seems to be getting ever stronger. We slowly make our way up and, after that, the trail again rolls on across the edge of fields. Soon we come across a guy who is placing markers for the SDW 100, a Centurion race which began this morning. He says that these way markers will be taken down tomorrow after the last runners have gone through - I wonder whether we will see any of the later runners in their race tomorrow? Something else to look out for! Anyway, he runs off with his satchel - nice bloke. On later investigation, it appears that Paul Maskell won the race completing the 100 miles in 14 hours 28 minutes and 53 seconds.

What is next? Well, it is a good day - warm enough with a bright sky and some sunshine keeping the light clear. A little further and there is the Meridian Post, it has been refurbished and is looking a lot smarter this year. The post is still surrounded by the cairn of flints and the mound of farmyard manure remains a backdrop behind. Pause to take a photo as it does not look as if there will be that many taken this year. The town of Lewes stands out clearly in the distance with the castle looking proud and dominant. Remember 14 May 1264 - just 755 years and 25 days ago the course of history changes - we could have seen it all from here.

Oh, no. The concrete road is never ending and, against this wind, the steady uphill gradient grinds one down. Others are struggling, too. Perhaps I am just feeble as I again drift off the pace. It is hard work and the thought of just wanting to sit down and not get up crosses the mind. Keep on plodding. Keep plodding on. As my mind wanders, it is certainly doing better than me, I again notice the much deeper red of the poppies growing nearby in the fields.

At last, the concrete ends and my feet find the softer grass to tread on again. Amanda waits there with Barker and I have a rest and a quick snack. Restore the energy to be ready for the final few miles. The trail now runs along the very edge of the scarp slope which falls so steeply away - one false step and it is a very long climb back up. The cows do not have a problem - it is us humans that must have a design flaw. The narrow chalky path soon leads us on to a more grassy downland which revives the spirits.

Not far now as we reach the Jugg’s Road, on it’s way from Brighton to Lewes, we begin the last climb of the day which takes us up into the wind to travel around the head of Cold Coombes. There are quite a few walkers and bikers around, not surprising as we are very close to the suburbs of Brighton as the crow flies, and so there are quite a few cheery greetings to be made.

The Amex stadium is in view as we begin the downhill finish. This is most welcome as I am again some way behind. Downhill is indeed a pleasure as long as it is not too steep. Anyway, the cereal crops in the fields next to the trail are being whipped into a frenzy by the wind, making waves, and the frequent gusts create cats paws. It is all a very fluid motion and not easy to try and capture either the strength or the beauty on camera. Heading down the slope to the Newmarket Inn, we are almost there - the tricky catch on the gate and then pass by the cottages and under the railway bridge.

At the edge of the A27, the Newmarket Inn stands. It is done, we have got here.

Waiting in the garden of the Newmarket Inn, it seems to be pretty well sheltered from the wind. The final walkers out on the trail make their way in and soon we are ready for the final coach to leave.

This has been such a tough day. Enjoyable but tough.

Day 3  9 June  Newmarket Inn to Devil’s Dyke  12.34 miles

So, this is the third day  . . .  the creation of land and sea  . . .  Day Three of Nine  . . .  and the weather is looking set fair - it could end up being the best day of the week weather-wise. The sun is out and there is only a gentle breeze, enough to keep the air in motion.

The coach swiftly takes us from the Arundel railway station to the Newmarket Inn where we finished our walk yesterday afternoon. Leaving the luxury transport supplied by Worthing Coaches we set off with little delay, there is not much to hang around for. All is made ready for the day’s hike and off we go, a line of walkers that will soon be spread fairly thinly along the top of the Downs. Making our way back up the hill we came down yesterday to the point where we had left the South Downs Way.

In these early moments everyone is getting into their own rhythm, making adjustment and generally settling into a routine. It is at this time when you greet the people you have met and spoken to on the previous days - never be one to hide and avoid.

The countryside is looking good and there are a decent scattering of poppies with their darker heads in the fields as we pass. Up and down hill and under the railway line twice - it is indeed a jolly circuitous route to get us back to the A27 and when we do we are only a hundred yards or so further along that road. Safety first and foremost as always. We cross the busy road using the bridge and come down on the other side at Housedean Farm.

Shortly we turn away from the road and the day gets under way in earnest as we begin heading uphill. Long Hill is fairly steep and requires me to take a few pauses for breath and stop the heart beating so hard. As it is a lovely day in such lovely surroundings it is always worth stopping and looking around. My slowness breaks up the walking companions and the three amigos are down to two for a while as I drift back down the line.

Eventually I crest the ridge of the hill that I am climbing and enter Bunkershill Plantation, a wooded area that feels quite cool in the dappled shade. What goes up must come down and with a great sense of inevitability the trail dives steeply downwards to lose most of the height I had worked so hard to achieve only minutes earlier. Then, coming out of the trees not many moments later, the path climbs back upwards but at a very much more gentle pace.

There is not far to go until I reach the point where I have often taken a rest. Through a gate at the corner of a field, sitting in the grass and looking across the fields as they are falling away from me into the valley. The other two amigos are already there and we rest and greet many of the other walkers as they pass by.

Although it is a fairly gentle rise as we cross Balmer Down heading up towards the ridge that lies to our north, I am delayed by a stone that has worked its way inside my boot. I stop to make the running repairs - well, it is easier to sit on the ground to remove my boot rather than attempt it whilst running. The English language is certainly a mystery and very strange mistress of words. The stop has left me a long way back from my companions, again - but this is no worry as there are always plenty of happy faces and cheery voices around for company.

Looking ahead, there is a flush of red in the field and so there is the promise of a display of poppies soon to come. Onwards across this open countryside, the downland rolling in gentle waves that never reach a shore - one could walk all day, it is so perfect. Those who reached the start this morning are now spread across miles of the countryside, there is just an odd person here and there. It is so peaceful as I now walk alone, the sound of birds above me and that of cows and sheep in the fields alongside  . . .  and other non-specific sounds of the country that reach one’s ears. The colours of the wild flowers at the side of the trail which lean to catch their share of the sunlight.

Malva sylvestris - the common mallow

I close in towards Blackcap and there, on the western side of the hilltop, are my friends. I place myself in the grass nearby to rest with them as there is always plenty of time to enjoy the splendid view. To see across the wide valley to the ridge on the other side which we walked along yesterday - Firle Beacon and Beddingham Hill are standing out so clearly. It is surprising how far we have come in only a day. Yesterday was the wind and today the weather is glorious with the sunshine beaming down.

After an energy bar, more likely a chocolate biscuit, and we are ready to wander along the next stretch of the trail - across Plumpton Plain and heading on westwards. The track is flat but it is comprised of chalk and flint and as such it is hard on the feet. The grass of the access land on the other side of the fence beckons but with livestock in the fields it would not have been appropriate to make use of it in the circumstances. There are certainly more cattle in these fields than I usually see up here.

High up on the Downs and the distance north across the Weald stretches away endlessly - at least as far as the horizon, anyway. In front of us, the ridge we walk along gently rolls but heads directly west. When we reach Streat Hill the chalk and flint track gives way to a grassy path. These downland meadows are open wide and the blue sky feels so big above our heads. The world suddenly seems to become a much bigger place.

It is noticeable as we cross Western Brow that there are definitely more people about, we must be getting close to a car park - there are not many people willing to stray far from their car. Then comes Home Brow and glimpses of the car park at Ditchling Beacon. The sunlight glints off of the car windshields and the distinctive colour of the ice cream van is easy to be seen.

As we walk along the ridge getting closer to Ditchling Beacon with the scarp slope nearby on our right, it is a delight with splendid views on all sides that stretch both far and wide. With the benefit of the views, we stop for lunch - sitting on the grass facing north and plotting out the names of the towns and villages that we can see. There is all day to spend, to stop and stare and take things so leisurely, but encouraging us on is the ice cream van just one hundred yards away - so much for the call of the wild.

Moving on, we cross the minor road which takes the traffic over the Downs. It is very busy today with cars and bikes and people all trying to use the same small piece of road. Safely across and today it is my treat, the van is able to provide exactly what is required - I have a Feast (can’t fight against tradition) and my colleague has an Oyster which I had never heard of before. Seemingly, it is a large amount of soft ice cream in some sort of crunchy wafer shell. It seemed to go down very well but there was no sign of any pearl. Super, that was my first frozen treat of this year’s walk and I have done just on 30 miles.

Eating our ice creams as we pass the face of Ditchling Beacon our minds do not focus on the height of 814 feet and the fact that it is the highest point in East Sussex and the third highest point on the South Downs. Facts are interesting but not as tasty as a frozen treat on a sunny day.

Heading onwards, that is the way of our days on the trail - heading on, moving on, like a caravan without any camels looking out for the next caravanserai. However, there are several dew ponds along this stretch and from the air it must make the trail appear as if it were a diamond necklace. Even from the ground these ponds can look unnaturally beautiful as the few bushes that stand at the water’s edge with their branches stretched in one direction to show the line of the prevailing wind. A dark romantic bleakness on a cold winter’s day  . . .  Oh, Heathcliff.

The sun is slowly beginning to sink from the zenith as we pass the Keymer Post and cross the Sussex Border Path. The changes are slow and almost unnoticeable but we are moving forwards gradually making our way from Eastbourne to Winchester. East Sussex is behind as we step into West Sussex where the cry has always been for king and country. The pace is steady and it is not long before we come in sight of the Clayton Windmills, Jack and Jill, although they are fairly well shrouded by trees from this direction. We do not stop for a closer look today, maybe I will take time next year to look at them again.

The trail is now heading downwards and the path is rather broken and rutted as we pass by the side of the Pyecombe golf course - should we shout “Fore” as we pass the golfers, maybe we should if we knew which derivation the word actually comes from. Anyway, the softness of their greens looks so tempting as the ground we walk on, especially the flints, make our feet feel the miles. We pause at some seats to take the weight off and have a short rest - just for five minutes.

We leave the environs of the golf club, cross over the Clayton Tunnel, and then wait for a gap in the traffic before we hurry across the A273. Having reached the village of Pyecombe it is not far to the Church of the Transfiguration which is our next target. Each year the ladies of the church kindly set out a delicious spread of refreshments for us in order to raise funds and aid their charity work. The church is noted for the unusual tapsel gate - unique to Sussex these gates have a central pivot to assist the movement of coffins through at times of burial.

The Church of the Transfiguration, Pyecombe

The refreshments are set up outside today and I sit on the grass amongst the gravestones enjoying a mug of coffee and some lemon sponge with raisins. A lovely treat to go with a pleasant rest. We donate to the church funds in addition to that which has been given by Footprints.

The queue for the toilet is long, as is usual, and so I set off alone on the final leg of the day which will include two steep hills - they are hard work to climb but, once they are done, it is then just a stroll around Devil’s Dyke. Anyway, I set off by myself and when my companions have reached the front of the queue they will then set out to chase me down. Undoubtedly, they will catch me before I reach the top of even the first of the two hills.

Leaving Pyecombe and the trail immediately hits the modern world - I take the road bridge over the A23, it is surely safest, and then I am soon heading uphill. It is a long and slow climb up West Hill - slow small steps is the recommended way - there are quite a few people around and most are struggling up but there are some bikes speeding down. I have just about reached the “flat” crown of the hill when the hare is caught - I do not feel much like a hare, more like a tortoise - well, I had spent time looking back at the “Jill” windmill gleaming brightly in the sunshine.

Sometimes going downhill is just as hard as going up - but for very different reasons - the tree roots and flints combine to make foot placement uneasy, anyway, it is now downhill to Saddlescombe. A former home of the Knights Templar it is now owned by the National Trust and still a working farm for over a thousand years. There are many interesting things to notice as we walk through, the old and the new. What looks to be old farm implements and also what are seemingly not the most common breeds of farm animal. It is rather like a step back in time.

Come now to Devil’s Dyke - almost a wonder of the natural world. We are here. Just the stiff climb up Summer Down and a walk around the southern side of this geological feature. Once one is up there on the crest and able to look down at the sides of the Dyke as they fall steeply away, it brings out the sheer beauty and splendour. It is so difficult to capture the severity of the scenery on film, the steep sides and almost non-existent valley at the bottom. It leaves one breathless for words to describe what can only be seen with the naked eye.

Around to the western side and there is the pub and the car park and also the Footprints banner displaying proudly. Here is the finish of the day’s walk. Facing outwards and looking over Fulking with one’s back to the pub the view is there for all to see. Indeed, in Victorian times this was a major tourist attraction with a fairground, two bandstands, an observatory, a camera obscura and much more all served by a branchline of the railway from Hove. It was a huge attraction in those days with 30,000 people visiting on Whit Monday in 1893.

Nearby, the pub and the vehicles in the car park do not seem to be inspiring but they are a necessity of the times - without them it would not be easy to get here. There is still time for a relax with a drink and wait for the last coach to be made ready. It has been a good day - no, so much more than just good.

Standing there at the finish, looking west towards the masts on Truleigh Hill - the cloud formation was special, highlighted from behind by the sun slowly going down. What a fantastic day.

Day 4   10 June   Devil’s Dyke to Washington   11.55 miles

The fourth day sees the weather turn a little nasty - we all know that a colourful turn of phrase will brighten up any day - so, in pastel shades, the light rain falls from dark clouds.

For a change, the coach is driving us up to the top of the Downs - so there is no steep climb to start the day. I do not know why, but for some reason, on the day we start from the Dyke the weather is invariably misty or damp or just plain wet. It matters not whether we are travelling east or west and today is not proving to be an exception to this rule. The gentle rain coats a shine onto the surface of our wet gear and is dampening the grass but not our spirits. We are in our element, high above the Weald on the very edge of the scarp slope - we head west from Devil’s Dyke towards the masts on the top of Truleigh Hill.

The turf of this chalky grassland is beneath our feet and gives a spring to the step and we do not take so very long to cross the hills of Fulking, Perching and Edburton. It is a bit “heads down and get on with it” as the light rain comes and goes. There is definitely plenty of rain about and we pass cattle lying down in the fields - are they forecasting the rain that is to come or just idly chewing the cud - some say that cows can sense increasing air moisture and are preserving a dry patch in the grass.

Chewing the cud or waiting for rain  . . .  

I am sure that we will soon find out

The rolling Downs are pleasant despite this intrusion of the rain. It is good to be out walking whatever the weather. Since yesterday we have begun to pass several notices pinned to gates which have been inviting us to Meet the Farmer - it seems to be an initiative from the Arun to Adur Farmers Group. I don’t think that we are supposed to just roll up at the farmhouse door looking for tea and cake but to watch a short film on the internet. It is of interest and a copy of this film can be found on The Park page under SDNPA of the South Downs Way section on my web site -  www.neverunderstand.co.uk/thepark - so take a look.

My chance to Meet the Farmer soon comes along  . . .  the first moment of particular note for today is when a tractor reaches a gate on the trail at the same time as I do. The farmer has got down to open the gate and we have a chat about why there is such a large number of walkers passing through. I tell him about the annual walk and offer to shut the gate once he has driven through. A cheery wave as he drives off up the track and I close the gate after him.

I have lost sight of the other two amigos - they must now be somewhere ahead of me, I suppose - and so coming off Edburton Hill I make my way up Truleigh Hill. The radio masts at the top tower high above me and then, after passing them, it is on to the youth hostel to see what is happening there.

The youth hostel is fairly busy - there seems to be a school trip in progress - and so I sit on the bench just outside eating my banana in the drizzle. My new hat is proving to be most effective, a baseball style cap with neck protector. The peak shields my face and the neck protector is supposed to protect from the sun but serves well to stop the rain running down the back of my neck. A Regatta product, it was a jolly good bargain, the RRP shows as £25 and it was acquired from the one pound box. Once the banana is eaten I go to have a look inside but find my friends standing at the doorway - they are just on the way out. A quick visit to the toilet and I am ready, too.

The three amigos are back together and we set off to walk down the road as it gradually descends into the Adur valley. The rain is falling, the clouds are getting lower and any view is becoming very limited. Beeding Hill goes down all the way to the river - the riverbank and the waters edge - the River Adur. By the time we have reached the river the rain has become quite heavy and there is not any prospect of it stopping. The footbridge takes us across the river to Botolphs and we wonder where would be a good place to stop and eat our picnic lunch.

The weather will make lunch an inevitably soggy experience wherever we are and so we choose to stop in a small wooded area and foolishly hope that it will give us a little shelter. It is some sort of educational nature facility for children - there is a low table of sorts and a few small logs to sit on, very suitable for young children but it does just about serve a purpose for us. We eat our lunch but the trees give little shelter  . . .  almost no shelter would be closer to the truth  . . .  and everything just gets wetter and wetter.

As we sit there eating a soggy sandwich or two trying to ignore the other walkers on the trail who are passing and making cat-calls at us. It is nice here with a view of the trees - not. Everything is getting pretty wet, there is no point trying to keep anything dry as we pack up and get ready to set off again. Heading off towards Annington Hill we split up for a while and I go on ahead to begin my slow climb up the hill.

Slowly walking uphill out of the valley I reach the pig farm. The pigs seem to have a lot more sense than we do and are sheltering from the rain in their arks - very appropriate in this weather. As I pass them by it always seems that the layout of the farm is rather different from one year to the next. Amanda catches up with me and the trail heads on, steadily climbing higher and a mist is gradually descending lower and shortening our line of sight. We are not sure how far we are in front of the back-markers, they may be close on our heels or they may not, the rain and mist has become rather disorientating and we are not sure who, if anyone, is still behind us.

In these very poor conditions we each walk at our own pace, we split up again and I drift away as we cross around the back of the Steyning Bowl. The benches would be inviting for a rest but not on a day like this in the pouring rain. Crossing the road that is the Steyning Bostal is like fording a river, there is plenty of running water all around to splash through. The three amigos soon rejoin forces again as we head up towards the Langmead memorial. Briefly stopping for just a moment we gather ourselves together and make ready before setting off in this rain for the final 3 or 4 miles.

Once the climbing has ceased the walking becomes easier as the ground is more flat, we just have to keep walking around all of the Olympic-sized puddles. We judge the distances from recognisable markers in the landscape but at the top of the ridge the mist is low and we cannot see very much at all. When we have gone far enough we are not even able to see the iconic Chanctonbury Ring at all as it is completely enshrouded in the clouds. There is now no view, we cannot even see the trees as the trail passes within a few feet of them.

As the rain gets ever heavier, the puddles grow still more and the chalky path is all but a milky river that is falling down towards Washington. We have not seen any sign of other people for ages but suddenly, as if from nowhere, there are now a few around - where did they appear from? Nearing the finish, we take the footpath that goes around by Elbourne House - in these conditions I should think it much safer than the path that Footprints have way-marked.

We reach the old London Road a little south of Washington - to think that all the traffic once used this narrow road - it is now completely awash and all the water is flowing freely down the slope into the village. We manage to avoid the volumes of water being thrown up by the passing cars which, for the conditions, seem to be in an unnecessary hurry and so make our way to the finish in the Frankland Arms where we can find shelter. Was the Footprints banner in the garden? I did not see it but I admit that I did not look for it.

The Frankland Arms has only recently re-opened - it has been closed for nearly a year - and the new people make us feel very welcome indeed. We are soaked and dripping with water but they are prepared for us and have a blazing fire burning strongly. They have had to cater for a great many walkers cascading water as each has arrived - they have not stood back from making us welcome. Many thanks to them.

There is a celebratory atmosphere in the bar as people are relaxing and drinking and drying out. We could have stayed longer but the last coach is ready to leave and we must go home in order to be ready for tomorrow. A rousing cheer of thanks was given to the proprietors as we left.

It has been a very wet day, indeed!

After the hiatus of last year when the pub was closed a very few days before the annual walk reached here, the new owners of the Frankland Arms have certainly done us proud. I am sure that they will assuredly be featuring highly on many people’s list of recommendations, Well done them.

Day 5   11 June  Washington to Whiteways  9.63 miles

Well, yes  . . .  we are reaching the halfway point of the walk and despite still being a bit damp around the edges from yesterday’s outing I do so wish that it could all last forever.

Today we start from the Frankland Arms in Washington and the sun is up and shining down - so it is in shirt sleeves that we arrive and look to find a suitable someone to apply the sun lotion in all those trickier places. Yes, it looks as if it is going to be a lovely day but before we step out on our way there is time to buy a bacon roll from the pub. They have opened early, especially for us, and both food and drink are available although I am not sure whether that includes any alcohol. As we placed our orders yesterday, everything is prepared and the bacon rolls are wrapped in foil to keep warm, and they are now being quickly served together with cups of hot coffee as required. There can certainly never be enough treats to enjoy and I tuck the bacon roll that is mine safely in my bag for later consumption.

Together the three amigos head out of the village, going passed the village hall and infant school before reaching St Mary’s church and then across the bridge over the A24. We are immediately into the countryside and, for a change, I take the route which heads up Barnsfarm Hill along with all the other walkers. I am soon struggling up this steep incline - it is hard work and I think to myself why I do not usually come this way on the westward route. There is an alternate path which I prefer to take that is not too far away and reaches the South Downs Way up a long flight of broken steps that have been cut into the steep scarp slope. Anyway, having taken the recommended route, I quickly lose the pace and drift backwards away from the others.

Most of the way up there is a stand of trees and people have paused here to catch their breath and look back to admire the view that is laid out below. I catch up with the group but lose touch immediately when they set off again. I have to hurry, so undignified, to catch up with Amanda in order to direct us off to the side and show her the stone seat that commemorates the 5th Baron Denman of Dovedale who used to live nearby at Highden House and died in 2012.

We take a short rest at the seat and enjoy the still warm rolls bought earlier - whether we had chosen sausage or bacon, the taste is lovely. Several people come over to join us as many are unaware of this feature which lies just a few yards away from the trail. From here the views are long to both north and south - the wind farm out in the waters of the English Channel is particularly clear and can best be seen from such a high vantage point. The more distant Isle of Wight is also clearly seen.

The path that we are following soon meets up with the main trail which had taken a more direct route and stayed south of Washington to weave a way through the speeding traffic of the A24. Up on top of the Downs, far from the road, the rolling hills are relentlessly marching on westwards - this morning we have Barnsfarm, Sullington, Chantry, Kithurst, Springhead and Rackham. So many crests and these hills are like the eternal waves that never reach a shore and their soft turf is such a delight to walk on. Forever, this stretch along the top from Washington to Amberley will always feel as if it is the centre of my world.

There is a new and modern water trough on Sullington Hill which allows Barker a good opportunity for a drink - he always makes a good picture. Shortly afterwards, our little group grows as some girls who had lingered longer at the Frankland catch up to us and the conversations inevitably widen. Mainly, we debate over what the structure we can see on the Isle of Wight may be - it looks as if it must be massive with the reflected sunlight shining from it - further investigation later proves it to be none other than Osborne House. Still, we did cover a lot of ground whilst discussing that.

Unfortunately, there is no ice cream lady waiting for us at Chantry Post today - no worries as there will always be other treats as the miles pass. Without this stop the pace that the ladies are making is too strong for me and so I begin to wander along some distance behind. Looking all around as I walk, quietly alone, allows me the opportunity to see a deer emerge from some bushes, cross the trail and then run on through a crop field - from the colouring, maybe it is a red deer.

A little further on, by the Kithurst Hill car park, Footprints have set up a stall with plenty of refreshments. They help us to celebrate reaching the halfway point on the South Downs Way on this the 40th year of the annual walk. So, there is only another 50 miles or so, not far to go now.

Ruby Tuesday  -  Footprints help us to celebrate the 40th year with refreshments at the half way point of the trail

This pause has allowed us the chance to regroup and we all head off together. It is a lovely day and the walking is easy. Each with their own pace and different objectives, sometimes there are others nearby and sometimes one can be quite alone. It can be a very fluid motion which is changing at every moment. The time and the miles pass quickly as the scenery rolls gently along - the Elizabethan estate, Parham Park, is below.

It is not long before we reach Rackham Banks. This is a lovely spot and, in the bright sunshine, it is ideal for our picnic lunch. Many people have the same idea and we sit on the grass entranced by the glorious view below. The Arun valley and Amberley Wild Brooks are a delight to see as the countryside spreads out wide below - at our backs, and so out of sight, there is a very dark and threatening cloud looming up above.

We take no notice of the ominous cloud and do not see it anymore. After our lunch is eaten we head for Amberley Mount which will lead us down towards some semblance of civilisation - the village of Houghton. When down the steep hill, this is followed by a road known as High Titten which always has many flowers in bloom along the edge, an especially lovely stand of yellow iris is on display this year. On reaching the main road it is decision time, stay on the trail or go to the village and choose between refreshments at the pub or the tea rooms. Being strong-willed we refrain from temptation and so follow the trail as it heads on to cross the bridge over the railway. The lane then continues to pass the wastewater treatment works, the cattle sheds and the water tap - there is always an eclectic range of things to see.

We carry on towards the river but there is a need to squeeze into the foliage at the edge of the track in order to give space for a couple of trucks to drive by. There is always a sense of peacefulness as we reach the banks of the River Arun and stand there to watch the water as the current quickly flows by. As time cannot be halted, the moments drift rapidly away - the loss is encapsulated in certain spaces. The river is like life itself, there are so many bends and turnings, and as it is still tidal well beyond this point, it is hard to bring to mind which way is actually downstream. Life, oh, let the floodgates open wider  . . .  

The footbridge is close by, it takes us over the river and then the trail flows around the edge of a few green fields. The height of Bury Hill rises before us, this eastern flank draws the head up ever higher - the yellow of the corn reaches up to the blue of the sky and the underlying white chalk is almost painfully bright in the mighty sunshine. The trek up begins and the three amigos break apart for the duration - but the future is hidden and intentions may never run true.

It is a long climb in the strong sunshine, it is a slow climb and I am soon being easily outdistanced and lose sight of the people ahead as the trail twists and turns. A silence falls all around - have I passed through the gate or am I the one who is left - slow and steady in a timeless reverie. I step aside, out of the way of the bikes as they come crashing down, with a cheery word of greeting. The exhilaration brings the best from them - whether racing downhill over the broken ground or straining so hard to go uphill that even I am overtaking them. It is only here that my world can exist.

The eternal summer’s day and the frequent stopping to recover give me plenty of opportunity to admire the panorama which is spread out below. The spire of Bury church as it peers out from amongst the trees and, not far from it, the river flows ever on. These hills give true meaning to the landscape.

This green and pleasant land

The afternoon bliss wears on and I have not seen any other walkers for an age - it surely is a world of my own. Not quite my own, the busy A29 is at the top of the climb and the sound of the traffic gets louder as I get closer. Coming out to the roadside is almost a shock - from a dreamy, timeless world here is something else  . . .  here is something that cannot be described by the use of soft syllables or a gentle internal rhyme. Wake up! Wake up! a bit of care is needed to recognise the cars and judge the speed of their attack.

Almost in a whirl I am safely across. The reverie broken, there is not much further to go now - a few weary steps along the chalky trail as it begins crossing the crown of Bury Hill. Then, there ahead, half-hidden by the trees is the turning. A lengthy footpath that will take me to Whiteways and the finish of the walk for today. As it is off the trail, Footprints have kindly and clearly signed this path with their individual way markers.

The 40th Annual South Downs Way Walk  . . .  walk this way

I have not gone far along this path when the world disappears. I trip on an embedded chunk of rock, probably flint, and I go down. Not elegant, maybe, but there is no one around to see how the mighty do fall. Strangely, my first thought is being face to face with the adder I saw at the field’s edge near here last year - random, indeed. However, it seems that I am ok, nothing is hurting very much - I wait for the shock to gradually disappear and then pick myself up off the ground. No damage done, I hope - there is no sign of blood or bone and no significant head trauma  . . . (who could tell - Ed.)

Brushing myself down, I look around  . . .  still no one in sight hurrying to my rescue  . . .  and with barely the slightest of limps I slowly set off to reach the end of the walk. I feel very conscious and unsettled and tread much more carefully than usual along this final stretch. Fortunately, the path is not as overgrown as it can be - at times it can be a battle to break through the undergrowth.

Pausing only briefly in order to take a picture of a fine bloom from one of the Heracleum family, I make my way to the finishing post. I arrive at the Footprints banner and collect my pass for the final coach. Still a bit shaken I settle down for a quiet rest and wait for the remaining walkers to arrive - unfortunately, quite a few people have decided to enjoy their day and not return on time and so make the last coach wait for them.

Another day done. Apart from the minor mishap, it has been a lovely day. Walking in lovely weather with such special people in this glorious countryside - let us make it never stop.

Day 6   12 June   Whiteways to Cocking   9.63 miles

I was a little apprehensive about my knee following yesterday’s fall - it was rather stiff with a tendency to hurt just a little bit. Nothing serious, it is just a natural caution as four days remain to be walked. Still, we would give it a go and see what happens  . . . (the brave little soldier! - Ed.)

Until the incident had been reported in the Diary last night no one knew what had happened to me. Consequently, as we waited at the railway station for the coach to arrive, the kind people who had been faithfully reading of my daily adventures naturally showed due consideration and concern. People are so good to me. Anyway, more importantly, in contrast to yesterday, today’s weather is rather gloomy and a little bit on the damp side.

It is only a couple of miles to Whiteways and when the coach arrives at the start it had stopped raining but it was still none too bright. No matter, we have had a couple of lovely days weather-wise so far.

As the narrow path which leads back to the South Downs Way is usually so full of people when the day begins at Whiteways, it is just not conducive to enjoying the start of the day. So, for a change, and to avoid the madding crowds, the three amigos enter Houghton Forest and follow the Monarch’s Way as it heads back to Worcester. There are very few people about in this woodland and the gradient is gentle as the path guides us up the side of Bignor Hill, gradually gaining height all the way.

Barker leading us along the Monarch’s Way

As we make our way along The Denture it is very much a pleasant and gentle walk.  The name of “The Denture”, we understand, is derived from “Devonshire” a method of farming where the soil is enriched by burning. Gosh, who would have thought. But we do not worry our minds with facts, however interesting, but aim to join the South Downs Way at the car park near Bignor Hill. On the way there we pass the remains of a Neolithic camp, it is shown on the map to be in a field over to our right - yes, there are certainly some bumps in the ground at the right place.

The good news is that my knee seems to be improving with the movement of the walking - it is all going well and, at the moment, the weather is fairly reasonable. We reach the South Downs Way and find the ice-cream lady is at the car park, her tricycle under a large red umbrella. She is already doing a good trade as the walkers, I do not know how many of us who set out from Eastbourne are still going, stop to purchase the frozen treats. My favourite flavour - yes, butter toffee - is no longer on the menu but I had pre-ordered and one had been tucked away and was waiting for me. A special treat indeed, the lady is so kind.

The alternate route that we took had saved us quite a bit of time and so we are able to meet up with our other friends who often set a much faster pace. There is always lots to say and chat over and Barker is pleased to get the opportunity to lick out the tubs after we have scooped out as much ice-cream as we can. But, it is soon time to move on. We cross Stane Street, the old Roman road, and then pass to the south of the radio masts on Glatting Beacon. These masts can be seen from many miles away and, from a distance, they can help to pin-point a specific place along this line of hills.

The day is becoming brighter and it is good to be walking along with friends - we are crossing the top of Burton Down and Sutton Down. Walking and talking through the countryside, the pleasure is all ours. The trail soon begins to go downhill as we head into the next valley - there is no river at the bottom just the A285 as it heads south from Petworth to Chichester. As we go down, there is a clear view of the trail as it climbs steeply up on the other side.

At the roadside is Littleton Farm and very little else other than a bus stop. Without a breather the trail immediately begins the climb back up another hillside and this imposing slope is Littleton Down which leads up to Crown Tegleaze, the highest point on the Sussex Downs. Rather unnoticed, the clouds have returned and as we ascend the hill a light rain begins to fall and it looks like it might be here to stay. Out comes the wet gear once more, jackets and rucksack covers and these are quickly put on.

This has broken up the rhythm of our little group and once I am suitably covered I am some way behind. I carry on up the hill, my “slow and steady” pace leaving me trailing further behind these fast girls and, as if to rub it in, the rain is soon much heavier. At the top of the climb is a wooded area which the trail passes through - but it is very much less wooded this year as there is quite a lot of tree felling in progress. It looks a bit messy at the moment but I am sure that it will have recovered a natural beauty by the time I pass through again next year.

If it were a sunny day and time was available, on the southern side of the trail, just a few yards away from where I am walking is a prehistoric linear boundary as well as Crown Tegleaze itself. An informative walking manual, or one of my Journals, is rather essential as there is so much of interest both on and off the trail.

I soon arrive at Tegleaze Post, a popular lunch stop on a sunny day with good views to the north across Graffham. The view is not so great today in the light rain but there are still a few people around picnicking. I join Amanda and Barker and begin my lunch. It is a little damp but that is no worry, we are all getting used to the prevailing weather on this year’s annual walk. The misty view is still good enough to look at while I munch away at some sandwiches. Amanda had been here for a while already and so she moves on, leaving me to my lunch.

Almost everybody else has left by the time I am rested and ready to go. After lunch the trail follows the ridge as it runs eastwards across Graffham Down along with the West Sussex Literary Trail. The rain, sometimes light and sometimes not, is steadily getting heavier and more persistent - it is certainly not the light showers that were forecast. Nevertheless, whatever the weather, it is still good to walk along, high on the Downs, on paths that are now becoming quite muddy.

The open ground becomes wooded and today has marked a significant change in the general topography of the South Downs. The eastern half is mostly open grassland whereas the west side is often more wooded. The trees do not give any real shelter from the rain and as I reach Heyshott Down the wet weather has now become a major factor of the day. I am dripping wet and splashing along through the puddles as the trail becomes rather waterlogged.

Onwards and the miles seem to be stretching out even though this is a relatively short day in terms of distance. I must be getting tired and I begin to slow down, no longer a walk more of a trudge. I am feeling heavy  . . .  and the people on this part of the trail are frequently passing and re-passing each other as we each continue to walk and rest at different moments.

The rain persists in falling and after Heyshott Down the path begins to make a slow descent of Manorfarm Down. To the side of the track there are many sheep and cows to be seen in the fields, they do not worry about the rain but patiently crop the grass - there is plenty of lovely countryside all around even when it is raining.

The farm road heads down to the finish at Manor Farm and, if I choose to look ahead, I can see the trail as it climbs up Cocking Down - however, that is the delight with which we will begin tomorrow morning. First, Manor Farm is family run and they always make us very welcome, they provide delicious refreshments for us to enjoy as well as selling items from their farm shop when available.

Amanda and Barker are there, they must have just missed an earlier coach and are now waiting for the last one home. I select a cup of coffee and some fruit cake and join them at a table. It is most enjoyable as I sit there relaxing and eating my refreshment whilst the sounds of Jerusalem are quietly being sung around me - the madness begins - I mean, weird or what - and did the countenance divine shine forth upon our clouded hills?

It just seems so right. There is no better place to be.

Day 7    13 June    Cocking to Queen Elizabeth Country Park   

12.65 miles

The dawn of another day has broken and the gang is all assembling outside of Arundel station - we are keen, we are eager and although the weather is again looking rather gloomy nothing can dampen our enthusiasm. I mean, whoever heard of a flaming June.

The luxury coach takes us to the exact point where the SDW crosses the A286 south of Cocking. We had ended the walk here yesterday and today the weather is not much better than it was then. It is very heavily overcast but, at this moment, it is at least dry which is all we can ask. There is nothing here, only the side of the road and a couple of bushes. So, with no facilities and without any delay, we set off up the long climb - a track which continues to take us eastwards on our journey. It is not steep but it is relentless and is taking us higher up into the sky.

Middlefield Lane begins our walk up Cocking Down and with everyone starting together the track is busy with walkers. I drift back through the field as there is much more space towards the back of the line - it is no problem, I expect that I will meet up with the others later on.

Indeed, on Cocking Down, high above the village itself, at the side of the trail, stands the first of the thirteen giant chalk balls set in the landscape in 2002 by Andy Goldsworthy. Here, Amanda and Barker are waiting and so we do meet again for a short while. This place, where paths cross, is also the start of a five mile walk called The Chalk Stones Trail which passes all of the sculptures and ends at the gardens in West Dean. The balls are slowly eroding but the changes to them from one year to the next are too small for me to notice any differences.

One of Andy Goldsworthy’s great balls  . . .  

He’s famous but still 30 days younger than me

I cross over the crown of Bepton Down and reach Linch Ball. It is time to stop and take a rest and so, sitting on an old fallen tree trunk, I enjoy the view that is spread out northwards. I eat the banana snack which should keep me going until it is time for lunch. The last I had seen of Amanda she was ahead of me and striding further away, now she is coming towards me from behind - where is the sense? Everyone stops and passes and often re-passes the other walkers throughout the day and it is this which helps make the annual walk so fresh and enjoyable.

Together we walk along the ridge towards Didling Hill and, as we go, there is an increasing dampness in the air. How long is the rain going to hold off, not long by the look of it. Fortunately, the rain does hold off until the very moment we step into Monkton Wood. It is rather gloomy under the trees which give us enough shelter from the rain to avoid getting too wet whilst we get into the wet gear.

Following the trail through Monkton Wood, the summit of Treyford Hill lies to our right (west of the trail) and nearby are the Devil’s Jumps. These are a group of Bronze Age barrows that are aligned with the celestial bodies which rise and fall in the sky above. They are interesting enough for a visit but today the weather is not conducive and so they are given a miss this year. For a change, us three amigos shortly detour away from the trail and head south.

We are making our way to the Royal Oak at Hooksway. This is new for me but then it does not take much for me to be led astray. On the way, much to our surprise, a deer runs across the track in front of us - although it was gone in little more than the twinkling of an eye, it looked as if it may have been another red deer. Although we paused quietly to wait and see if any others appeared, none did.

The Royal Oak is a “boots off” pub and, once inside, we enjoy a very pleasant drink - most refreshing, indeed. Although the pub is reputedly haunted we did not experience anything unnatural just the friendliness of the landlord. The rain has certainly set in while we were inside and, on leaving, we quickly booted up and put on even more wet gear. It did not seem as if a dry spell had any chance of occurring in the near future.

After the pub stop we head north back towards the South Downs Way. Walking along country lanes and tracks, we soon arrive at a long avenue of copper beeches that help to form the sweeping drive of a big house. They certainly must look splendid indeed on a warm and sunny day.

The avenue of trees as we head back to the trail

In due course we arrive back on the trail which is the South Downs Way at a point to the south of Beacon Hill. The rain is getting pretty heavy, it is pouring down, and I would not have chosen to go over the top of Beacon Hill in such nasty weather. As it is, we have got to the trail only just in front of the back marker and he soon walks up behind us. We all walk along together chatting away with the red-shirted guide - not that you could tell, the red shirt being buried under many layers of waterproofs.

We soon come to some walkers who have stopped for their lunch in the shelter of a few trees. It is not much of a shelter but any port in a storm can seem worthwhile. We leave the back-markers with these people and continue on our way - we do not see the back-markers again until we are waiting at the finish in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park.

We wonder where to break our journey for lunch - there is not much of a choice as there is no real shelter between here and the finish. Heading onwards we climb up to the Harting Downs as the rain continues to pour down upon us and turn the chalky track into a milky stream. There is not going to be any respite and so we soon stop for lunch, joining a couple of people we have spoken to on previous days, under the partial shelter of some shrubby trees. She is struggling with a damaged foot but is determined to continue.

Seated on a plastic groundsheet we eat while the rain drips quickly into our lunch boxes - I suppose that there may be something to be said regarding a liquid lunch. Anyway, we do not stop for long as it does not seem to get any easier sitting in the rain which endeavours to try to find a route through the wet gear. Gathering ourselves together we continue on our way.

As we cross Harting Down the wind strengthens, becomes very strong and gusting - it is driving the rain at us. The weather is certainly not pleasant but we aim for the where the ice-cream lady is likely to be - we are confident that she is as mad as we are and will be waiting near to the car park. On the other side of a copse of trees  . . .  yes, there she is, sheltering from the rain but still bravely selling her flavoursome frozen treats.

This poor weather does not stop us SDW walkers from purchasing a treat and then standing there in the wind and rain to eat these ices. It is the last of the Butter Toffee, they are no more - well, one does remain but her son will enjoy that even though at one time he used to prefer the chocolate flavours. It is all good and, as a treat, Barker gets to lick the empty tubs clean - everyone wins.

The weather has rather shielded from sight the green-spired church, the splendour of South Harting - no matter. We walk under the partial shelter provided by some trees along a path that runs beside an area known as The Bosom. This path takes us downhill, down from the top of the Downs to the often busy B2146 - a minor country road which meanders through these Sussex Downs.

Once we are across the road, the final few miles of the day are a long tramp along track and road into Hampshire. The worst of the rain has now eased off and has become a fairly light rain which continues to fall on us. There is plenty of slippery mud and lying water to navigate our way around and the use of a walking pole provides great assistance. The first track we walk along goes by the name of Forty Acre Lane and, in due course, crosses the Sussex Border Path. Half a mile further on it crosses the actual boundary between West Sussex and Hampshire but there is nothing here to note this as you pass on foot.

Occasionally we briefly meet up with others who are making the long journey from Eastbourne to Winchester. When wandering in the countryside, and it can be a long time between seeing anyone, it is easy to wonder whether one is still heading in the right direction or on the right path. During the afternoon, we do assure a few people that this is the right way.

Eventually, here is Sunwood Farm, nothing too notable other than we can leave the muddy tracks and do some road walking - no, not exciting. While the rain does continue it further eases off and eventually sort of stops before we reach the finish - well, more or less, almost stops. Even so, there is certainly no sun to shine and make the line of copper beech trees we are passing glow with a summer warmth whilst they radiate the sunlight - o for the joy of a sunny day.

After a while, the road begins to rise and fall rather like a roller coaster, rather like the Downs in miniature, and it rapidly deteriorates into a series of potholes which are surrounded by stones.

The South Downs Way is always evolving - some changes are small and others are rather more major. We are now south of Buriton and from here the trail once headed straight for the village which was the original western end of this National Trail. Eastbourne to Buriton was once all there was before the trail was extended on to Winchester in an attempt to link all the National Trails together. Whilst this extension is not everyone’s cup of tea, gone are the rolling downlands of Sussex and we now walk the tracks and byways of Hampshire, it does give us two more days walking so that is good. At the moment, however, as we plough on, beneath our feet and in the hidden dark is a long train tunnel on the Guildford to Portsmouth line.

So, we do not head for Buriton, instead it is not much further until we are soon reaching the back entrance to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. It is a false impression of arrival as, within the park there are still more hills to be climbed - haven’t we climbed enough yet today? But on we go with each step taking us that much closer to the Footprints banner and rest. There are so many different paths in this park, and the route of the South Downs Way has been changed from one path to another in recent years, it is confusing even for the experienced. We just about know where we are going and try to keep an eye open and make sure some of the other walkers are following the proper route - not easy as the path does not follow a straight line through the dense woodland.

Guidance is given by the increasing volume of sound that is coming from the traffic on the A3 which runs nearby. The path finally leaves the trees and we are all but there - the last few yards and all of a sudden we meet up with Anne. It is so good to see her and have a chat. It has been a long time since Devil’s Dyke last year and now is the chance to catch up with all that has happened over this last year.

To me, the Queen Elizabeth Country Park never seems to be very inspiring but it does serve a good purpose and is the centre of much activity. The visitor centre is currently being re-built and refreshments are to be found inside a large marquee - I celebrate another good day with a very tasty ice-cream on a stick. We sit down and slowly start to dry out while waiting for the last of the walkers to finish  . . .  if one listens, one can often hear the sound of calls being made. Sometimes the calls protect a territory, sometimes to attract a mate - as in the wild, these calls are made to maintain contact and establish the location of those yet to arrive.

So, another day is done. There has been a lot more rain and some wind as well - it seems to be the way it is this year. Can’t complain, the last two years have been pretty brilliant weather-wise. It is all going well and, as always, the forecast is a little better for tomorrow.

Day 8   14 June   Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Exton

10.68 miles

Here we are, standing outside Arundel station waiting for the coach. It is the eighth day - the day penultimate - and it is rather overcast and a bit chilly. There is not much time left to enter the limerick competition - but does the cream ever rise to the top of the barrel, if only the authors could read out their own entries - by Ged, sir, maybe I shall pin any hopes on the daily quiz (not that I manage to tick the right boxes even when I do know the right answers) - it’s all rather a rum do.

Still, I do have my rucksack from last year. For some reason, other people seem to remember the win better than I do  . . .  

The miles are mounting and the mind wanders like a weary walker - anyway, the weather is still no better when we reach the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, still overcast. Fortunately, it is never difficult for us to find a spring in the step. As the visitor centre has not been completed overnight (it is still being rebuilt) and it remains a fairly long walk in the wrong direction to reach the available porta-loos there is nothing to hold us back. Good job I do not want to go.

So, the three amigos set off to immediately tackle Butser Hill. Walking under the A3 roadway we come face to face with the mighty hill - at over 270 metres or 889 feet in old money, it is the highest point on the chalk ridge of the South Downs. It is as steep as it always is and the climb is breathtaking - I am stopping very frequently for recovery. It does not get any easier and the line of walkers trailing up the side of the hill looks most impressive. I stand and admire the views, both ahead and also looking back down to Hilhampton Bottom and the busy road. Slowly walking upwards I gradually gain the height of the hill.

Butser Hill  . . .  wait for me

Interestingly enough, Butser Hill is named from the Old English Bryttes Oran meaning Briht’s slope and there are many earthworks, cross dykes and tumuli on the top. In contrast, however, the aerial mast at the summit is unsurprisingly a little more modern as is the mock Iron Age roundhouse where cafe, toilets and information is available. As usual I am trailing behind and lose touch with the others during the ascent. Eventually, I reach the crown of the hill and the threesome are soon re-united.

We leave the country park behind us and walk along Limekiln Lane. Up here the ground is pretty flat for the time being and the road makes for easy walking. All is not well as, looking ahead, we can see rain shrouding the far hills. This rain is heading for us and appears to be coming along quite quickly. It very soon arrives with a strong breeze and out comes the wet gear again. Hats and jackets are donned and zips and buttons are both pulled and twisted. This brief frenzy of activity has scattered our little group like leaves in the wind.

I walk on through the rain in conversation with different people. The trail turns away from the road and onto a byway which continues across the top of Tegdown Hill and then through the trees of Hyden Wood. For once it is only a shower and the rain does not last for very long, only about half an hour - so off comes the wet gear. Items get stuffed into pockets and bags, they will have to wait before they can be put away more tidily.

At the end of Hyden Wood I reach Hyden Cross and stop to look over the valley that lies below as it stretches north to East Meon and beyond. Not far now before I come to the Sustainability Centre. It is owned and operated by the Earthworks Trust and is a learning and study centre for a sustainable future. Most importantly, that is where The Beech Cafe can be found. It is a fine place and serves lovely refreshments. On arrival I meet up with most, if not all, of my friends but, on this occasion, I only stay long enough to eat my banana, have a few words and reorganise the contents of my rucksack.

There is no rest but only because one is just so eager to try and capture the whole of the walk in one great big mouthful  . . .  so, it is time to move on and the three amigos set off on the next stage of this great walk. We quickly pass the former home of HMS Mercury (it does not look so impessive now that it is large and expensive houses all jammed in together) and then a sharp turn northwards. Heading up to cross over the top of Salt Hill with the two radio masts standing tall and proud. On the way up we re-unite a lost pole with a returning owner - when a pole goes missing it is always difficult to try and remember when it was last being held tightly in the hand.

After that earlier rain shower the day is becoming brighter as the clouds clear away and it is quickly warming up nicely. Time to start peeling off more garments as the views stretch away on either side of us. The wild flowers are in bloom on the edge of the path bringing their colours to life in the sunshine. Up here with the wide blue sky just above my head and closer to heaven am I.

Now comes the steep broken descent as the path drops away below our feet - the ground is broken, all flints and stones and the grasping tree roots writhe across our footsteps as the rocks shift under our feet. It is almost like some treacherous staircase  . . .  if only there were a bannister, one could tread slowly and gently step by step with one hand softly gliding down the bannister gazing ahead like a starlet and that silk dress trailing behind, oh my  . . .  but, as their is no bannister, care is certainly needed and one’s eyes look firmly down at where our feet will tread next, especially as a stream of mountain bikes are coming up as we are going down. There are quite a number of us walkers and we are struggling down and the lycra-clad bikers are struggling up - bikes and people are everywhere, wheels and legs in all directions, and still everyone has a smile and a happy word - it is all very amicable. On this occasion, the bikers are having the tougher time as they struggle to keep their bikes out of our way whilst gamely trying to keep them moving forwards. The South Downs Way is a most happy place to be  . . .  even for me, it is another world, a world away.

Something of interest, the OS Map shows that this path (which we are currently in the middle of) to be a byway open to all traffic. Parts of it are barely a foot wide and the broken ground so steep that one wonders when any traffic might once have dared come this way.

Over the previous days I have spoken so much of the rain so now I will repeatedly mention the sunshine as it has put in a welcome appearance. The sun is out and it shines strong and bright as we walk along Halnaker Lane. The day is getting hot and this is creating a heaviness in the air - as is often the case I am trailing along behind the girls who are setting their usual faster pace.

Skirting the edge of Henwood Down we make our way towards the trout farm at Whitewool Pond. It is to be the lunch stop and we are always made very welcome and the facilities are available to us. There is no one fishing for trout today and I walk along the bank at the water’s edge looking for the girls, they must be here somewhere. There they are, all in a bunch, like spring flowers.

It is all very relaxing as the six or seven of us sit together on the grassy bank beside the still waters and enjoy our picnics. Who has got potted meat and who cheese, it is so reminiscent of a school trip. We relax and rest, at ease, and look forward to the afternoon ahead. It is certainly now shirt sleeve weather and anything heavy and warm is tucked away in a rucksack.

After lunch we pass through the farm before clambering up the side of the hill in order to escape from this arm of the Meon valley. All the hillsides do seem extra steep today and, after nearly eight days, my legs are beginning to feel the exertion of what has been asked. No, I am all right just slowing down a little bit more.

Old Winchester Hill is next, it is not far away and soon comes into view. Strolling along on this rolling downland we see the ancient hilltop silhouetted against the skyline. Used in the Bronze Age as a burial ground, several barrows were created to house the remains of the local chieftains. Later, in the Iron Age, it must have looked mighty impressive when the hill fort was built. We now only see a shadow of the former glory that was here. A busy place over the years it still draws quite a number of people on a sunny day as well as at night when any “ufos” are frequently reported in the area.

Whilst the SDW goes around the side, it is the Monarch’s Way that crosses over the top of the hill and commands a fine view in all directions. Following the path over the top, the many barrows are still in evidence and we keep strictly to the path to avoid trampling on the ground nesting birds. The hill is both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a National Nature Reserve and is managed by Natural England, wheels within wheels and it is a wonder anything can be achieved. The native flowers, including orchids, attract many butterflies and the small wildlife flourishes here.

The day is slowly wearing away and it is now all downhill to the finish which lies in the village of Exton. So, stepping out, we leave the hill top and head for the finish. Descending the slope as it heads towards the River Meon there is not very far to go. It is not long before we reach the disused railway and from here there is a choice to be made, the old railway line is now a permissive bridleway or follow the footpath and pick our way through an obstacle course of tree roots.

The three amigos choose to follow the temporary route that runs along the line of the old railroad and so allows horses and bikes to continue along the national trail. None of us had gone this way before and so, as a change, it was a most interesting experience. The trail was easy enough to follow and certainly much easier to walk along than stumbling around trees and over their roots. It brought us around to the village of Meonstoke.

All we need to do is cross the A32 and walk into Exton - it is then only a short step to The Shoe. The Footprints banner is flying in the garden of the pub, they always make us very welcome and cannot do enough for us. The tables and benches are fully occupied by relaxing walkers and only a few yards further away, at the bottom of the garden, the fast flowing River Meon runs.

I sit in the sunshine enjoying my ice-cream treat. Two scoops, one is sticky toffee pudding and the other is almond something or other. Delightful and pleasure always outweighs any other feeling - it is pure greed that has me top it all off with a chocolate flake. Happy days as the happy crowd celebrate another day completed and tomorrow is to be the last day, the final day.

The last coach is soon ready to leave and as we make our way to meet it at the roadside we pass a brightly coloured caterpillar. It is looking most unusual, splendid in those colours it is banded with, and I wonder what sort of butterfly it will eventually turn into.

A most interesting caterpillar  . . .  

so why does the camera choose to focus on the wall?

So, the day is over and there is only one more to go. This year has seemed rather different, sometimes taking alternative paths, as we ride the waves from one hilltop to the next in often relatively poor weather - it is never the same from one year to the next. Like the colours in a kaleidoscope change, the bright glow shines and all is good.

They think it’s all over - well, is it? The coach sets off to drive us home but the traffic on the motorway is not moving. It has become gridlocked and so the driver tries to take a route around the problem. Travelling along the Portsdown Hill Road we get some good views south looking across the city of Portsmouth. The Emirates Spinnaker Tower, at a height of 170 metres, is not hard to see. It is also interesting to pass, and see close up, Fort Widley and the other naval installations which do not seem to be named on maps. Looking down, the sight we get of the motorway confirms that the traffic in the eastbound lanes is not moving at all. Even though we are moving, it is still a long drive home today.

Day 9   15 June   Exton to Winchester   12.34 miles

Oh, my word. It is the last day - so soon, it is here already. As the shadow of the axe begins to fall the memories of the past eight days are being recalled to mind. We are all up for today - but whether to achieve the finish or only to want it to last forever  . . .

As the coach is driving to the start at Exton we encounter heavy traffic. We are nose to tail on the M27 and all the lanes are similarly blocked. The time ticks by. We crawl along slowly and there is no stopping the clock. It is going to be a late start for us on this most important of days  . . .  and the celebratory party begins at 1600 hours.

We finally reach our destination, The Shoe at Exton, and without further delay we quickly buy the delicious bacon butties that are displayed with other delicacies and cups of hot coffee. My butty is suitably wrapped for later consumption and, after making full use of the toilet facilities, I finish sorting myself out and make ready to start the walk.

The Shoe is always very accommodating and does everything it can to make our brief time here an enjoyable experience. It is after half past ten by the time I leave the pub and I am away to return to the trail and continue the walk to Winchester. It only takes a few minutes to leave the village, reach the fields and, manfully face the ever-steepening Beacon Hill.

The stiles that lie along the SDW are all in this short stretch and my pace is rapidly slowed as the hill rises beneath my feet. Indeed, I am almost brought to a standstill as Beacon Hill gets ever steeper. It is another tough struggle and Amanda and Barker catch up with me before I get anywhere near the summit. We reach the beacon, in due course, and pause for yet another short breather - once our breath is recovered we set off again to tackle the last climb up to the triangulation pillar which stands at a mighty 201 metres.

Beaconhill Beeches are at the top of this climb up to the ridge and, looking back, there is a magnificent view which stretches far across the wide Meon valley below. There is always time to stand and stare and this chance for reflection is a great help to recover my breath.

Now that we are up on the ridge, the trail runs along a nice flat stretch of track and road. The pace quickens and the legs appreciate this flat surface beneath the feet. It is good walking through the countryside, pleasant and peaceful, such a rural idyll.

Passing by the site of the medieval village of Lomer, hidden from our sight behind a high hedge, the ghosts of previous lives still remain. There was a church here until the 16th century and the settlement was probably abandoned because of sheep farming enclosures. A few lumps and bumps are all that now remains. Lomer Farm, however, is alive and well and as we walk between the farm buildings there is a fine sculpture on display.

A display of sculptured art at Lomer Farm

The clouds are now much lower and heavier and the rain for today has already drifted over and is falling on us - this rain jacket has been on and off all week. After the weather we have had, it would not have seemed right if it had not rained on this the last day.

Walking around the edge of fields there are not many people in sight - with this misty rain now falling most people seem to have taken the decision to reach the finish at Winchester sooner rather than later. Always onwards and always something happening - shortly before we reach the Milbury’s pub we come across a bike race taking place along the country roads. Like Dodge City, marshals are out in force as we pass and are controlling the traffic at the crossroads.

There are very few people at the Milbury’s, usually it is crowded but not today. We do not stop for long, just long enough to shelter under a garden umbrella and I take the opportunity to eat most of my bacon butty. Time seems to have little meaning, with the late start and there being almost nobody around, it is like we have stepped through into another world - this is some other timeless dimension.

There is more road and track to follow, we quickly pass through this agricultural landscape and the easing rain comes and goes but is refusing to finally disappear. Holden Lane, a nice wide track, leads us towards Holden Farm. The times have been changing over recent years and the farm now hosts a small camp site with cafe and shower block. A walk around to the back of the farm and we find some of our friends are there relaxing.

With the availability of benches to sit on, we buy some items from the little shop and take the opportunity to eat a light lunch under the shelter provided by the eaves of the building. An ice-cream is available and so that pleasure could not be missed before use is made of the facilities in the shower block - pity that we had not brought our towels along. Just before leaving, the back markers arrive to take their rest on the seats we had so recently vacated. Although there were still many miles to go, we did not see them again before reaching the Guildhall in Winchester.

After Holden Farm is the first crossing of the A272 - this busy road has become noted in popular culture and, after crossing, we head onto the more open and grassy Gander Down. The rain has now gone away and the day is beginning to brighten, there is a warmth as the sun breaks out. On the ground, the SDW and the King’s Way both follow the same path for a while along a track that runs between fields in which cereal crops are grown.

Although the time is passing and the afternoon wears away, we pause for a short while to water the dog and remove stones from shoes. It is good to rest and I stand there and watch the armoured vehicles in their brown and grey camouflage paint as they motor around a field beside the trail. Whilst it is hardly the broken terrain from the battlefields of Europe, it does look as if it might possibly be fun - each to their own.

Tank Girl  -  On manoeuvres near Keeper’s Cottage

There is a sharp left turn at Keeper’s Cottage and we now head south along the side of Temple Valley. At this corner, it is a bit industrial rural but it is not long before we get back to a greener countryside. The time ticks relentlessly on and we are not going to reach Winchester before the party begins - a shame as I had my own reasons for wanting to arrive in Winchester early, no matter - but putting our best foot forward we should not be too late. The good news is, there is no sight of the back markers hurrying the later walkers on behind.

As we pass by, I bring attention to the post which denotes the Morn Hill Teleport - there is so much that people are not aware of - and now here is Cheesefoot Head. Again the ghosts of yesteryear are all around in the landscape - this time it is Eisenhower and his young American lads with their gum and silk stockings, how many were never to return. Then it is the hurry over the A272 again, for the second crossing, and we are now on the brink - the final leg of this mighty journey, the last few miles, we are on the last page in the map book  . . .  the descent into Winchester.

Across a field and then around the top of Telegraph Hill. Rumour has spread backwards of a strange sight that lies ahead and, not knowing whether it might just be exaggeration and hyperbole, I tread carefully. A corner is turned and there, coming into view, is an amazing sight. Before my eyes, the hillside is covered in masses of bright red poppies - not just a field but field after field stretching away. I have never seen such a massed display running endlessly across so many fields into the distance - the camera lens is not wide enough to fully capture the scene.

Endless poppies on the side of Telegraph Hill

It is now all downhill to the finish - and walking down the side of the hill, Winchester lies in front drawing us ever on. Over to the right are the communication satellite dishes, brightly white in all their surrounding countryside. These are the last views of the year - make the most of them, they will soon retreat to the growing store of treasured memories.

The little village of Chilcomb is always so very neat and tidy, almost manicured, and then there is only one large field ahead with just a couple of poppies before we reach Winchester. The end is nigh and the sounds of traffic gradually get louder, filling the air.

There is no city wall to guard the citizens. We pass through the high hedge and the footpath leaves us at the footbridge which is to carry us over the M3 motorway, the modern-day barrier to this place. After nine days and more than one hundred miles, here we are. No fanfare of trumpets to herald our arrival - no more countryside - just the modern streets and roads of the once medieval capital of England.

As the party must have already begun, the three amigos show some initiative and decide to cut a corner and in this way save a few minutes - it has been that sort of year. It may not have been much of a short cut but whatever - anyway, when we get to the end of it we meet up with some walkers who seem to have taken a wrong turn when entering Winchester. One can be so close to the finish and then disaster strikes - I am not sure why some of them seem to be so annoyed by it and they follow on behind us as if it were somehow our fault  . . .  

We just go on our own sweet way. We will arrive when we get there and go the way we want - along Petersfield Road and down East Hill towards the river. Then a walk along The Weirs, so delightful in the lovely sunshine with the Itchen flowing so swiftly by. The gunnera that stands near the sluice gate is looking splendid - every year it appears glorious and healthy, strong and vibrant. Finally, we arrive at the City Mill, end of the line.

There is still time for those last few photographs. The westerly start/finish point can be found at the City Mill - it is not so impressive as the the statue of King Alfred wielding his mighty sword. Now that is regal and magnificent. Hurrying along I quickly click the camera. All is done, there is no more, and so all that is left is to head straight into the Guildhall to join and enjoy the party.

The finishing post  . . .  and now for the party

The walking is finished and all that remains is the celebration - 100 miles over 9 days in rather changeable weather conditions. The room is thronged with people and all are meeting and greeting, looking for someone and the congratulations abound. As I walk into a sea of happy faces my hand is being shaken.

Amongst all of the joy and laughter I am grabbed by my friends and guided to the seats that have been saved. We have spoken and walked together at varying moments every day and so it seems only right that we be together now - Amanda, Catherine, Anne, Lorna, Janice and Barker. With great forethought they have found and used our certificates as place markers - and so promptly settling down we enjoy the celebratory atmosphere.

Mr Andy Gattiker, the Trail Officer of the South Downs Way, is standing nearby and I take the opportunity to have a chat with him. What can one say, he knows the trail better than I do. Still, it is good to say positive things about the whole of the South Downs Way. Of course, I am just one of many and so I do not suppose that he recalls bringing the original SDW sign ( once positioned on that first hillside at Eastbourne ) to me a few years ago.

This is the completion of the 40th Annual South Downs Way Walk - a fine reason for celebration - the food is eaten, the praises sung and the prizes given out - all are in good spirits and the noise volume increases as the anniversary cake is cut. Whether this has actually been the wettest year is rather a matter of opinion - the nature of the trail is constantly changing from one year to the next and this includes the weather. This change is what makes the trail live in our hearts. We all certainly hope that this year is just another stepping stone into a very long future.

There is not much more to say, it is almost over, just time for Keith to read Bob Copper’s prayer to the South Downs. Quieten the crowds for a thoughtful moment, there is hope that the South Downs can remain unblemished and be inspirational for many generations to come.

Finally, the end has come and the coaches are called to take us all home. Home to distant places and in some cases distant lands, some near and some far - home to reflect on our cherished memories of these last nine days.

What a great week it has been.

On the way home, as the coach drives through yet more rain and with most of the farewells having been said, I fully realise how much I have really enjoyed this year’s walk along the trail. Of the seven that I have so far experienced, this one certainly stands very high on the list. Despite the rain and the wind, the areas of mud and those slippery chalk trails - it has undoubtedly been a great year.

The South Downs Way truly lies in an unreal world and can best be experienced when one is prepared to leave the real world far behind.

It picks me up when I am blue.

That is No 7  . . .  Chanel, the sweet smell of success

Looking ahead to 5 June 2020, many of us have vowed to be on the Arundel coach and will be reconvening in Winchester under the mighty statue of King Alfred  . . .

Alfred, the Saxon king

As always, many thank are deservedly given to Footprints of Sussex and their enthusiastic team of red-shirts who do such an amazing job to ensure that every day of the nine runs so smoothly. It would not be the same without you. Thank you.

Walking for fun - collecting for charity - this year I have raised £50.00 for Cardiac Rehab Support West Sussex. It is a local charity that gives help to people with heart problems. Every little contribution helps them help more people - they sure helped me when I needed it. Please pass any donation to me for onward transmission. Many thanks are given to those who have contributed over the years.

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

Visit them at footprintsofsussex.co.uk

Or learn more about this walk along the National Trail at southdownsway.com

This annual event is sponsored by Regatta

The event is supported by the West Sussex County Council

Walk!  -  No, I just poodle about and put on silly hats

“  . . .  I will show you fear in a handful of dust  . . .  ”

Why not look out for me and say hello on the trail next year!

©  Colin Luxford