South Downs Way

towards the sea from South Downs Way

An undulating walk between Winchester and Eastbourne.

Sheep on South Downs

The South Downs may not have the grandeur of the Lakes or the rugged appeal of a moorland track but I enjoyed the rolling landscape of the Downs with villages and farms tucked into valleys and the change of views as we rounded a corner or climbed to the top of a hill.

There are a few steep climbs but generally, the walk is fairly gentle along well defined tracks. Walking in the summer, it was a joy to stride out across the springy grass and rather a trial when we hit the stony paths, though I suspect that in a wet winter it may be that the reverse is true.

The South Downs Way is well signposted for the length of the trail, though I wouldn’t walk it without proper maps, if only to get to overnight accommodation or the railway station. It’s an ideal route to walk in sections with good public transport links, plenty of accommodation within easy reach of the Trail and interesting diversions along the way.

South Downs Way near Beachy Head

Day 1

Eastbourne Railway Station to Bo-Peep Farm (13½ miles)

We decided to walk this route East to West as the thought of heading towards Eastbourne (with all its retirement home connotations) seemed too dismal to contemplate. Eastbourne is well served by public transport, so amidst the tennis fans headed for the Eastbourne tournament, we jumped off the train at Eastbourne railway station and headed for the South Downs Way.

There was a little discussion as to which road to take, but on the basis that all we needed to do was head for the sea, we set off seaward and found the SDW. The path starts with a steep uphill climb and at the top, as we tried to work out which of the slightly confusing signs to follow, a large dog ran over and jumped up at us ignoring the half-hearted calls of its owners. With no apology from the dog owner for our now muddy clothes and the fact that Bill had been knocked in a rather delicate part of his anatomy, we turned our backs on Eastbourne, bloody dog walkers and set off for the countryside.

Climbing steadily, with fine views across the sea, we soon reached Beachy Head. Looking down from the cliff top, the lighthouse looked tiny and much to my amazement, people sat on the overhanging edge of the cliff seemingly oblivious to the crumbling cliff below them. After a drink at the café at the Belle Tout lighthouse we proceeded past the Birling Gap to the Seven Sisters. Everybody raves about this part of the walk, but up and down between the Sisters’ steep bottoms became rather a drag with only the sea to the left and grass to the right. It was with a degree of relief that we veered inland towards Westdean and on to Alfriston where we paused for a cream tea in the garden of a teashop before pushing up Bostal hill to Bo-Peep car park where we turned off the SDW to descend the road to BoPeep Farmhouse for the night. We took an evening stroll across the fields to a nearby pub for supper and returned for a sound night’s sleep.

South Downs Way near Bo-Peep car park

Day 2

Bo-Peep Farmhouse to Lewes Railway Station (12 miles)

After a hearty and delicious breakfast we retraced our steps up the road, which seemed much steeper than the night before and headed for Lewes.

We turned off SDW to head down a steep track to Kingston near Lewes and into Lewes along Juggs Road, an old trading route across the South Downs from Brighton, named apparently after the earthenware jugs and pots in which the transported fish were salted and kept fresh.

After a quick look around Lewes and a fortifying snack, we headed back to the railway station and home.

South Downs Way Devil's Dyke

Day 3

Lewes Railway Station to Steyning (18 miles)

We emerged from Lewes railway station into bright sunshine and headed up the cobbled Keeres Street and out towards the Downs along the Greenwich Meridian Trail. After the open land of Landport Bottom we left the GMT and headed west to join the South Downs Way. We walked on towards Ditchling Beacon, through Pyecombe with its gate into the churchyard that has a shepherd’s crook for a latch, refilled our water bottles at the tap at Saddlescombe Farm and along the path as it rose up through the scrub. This part of the walk was marred by the bags of dog poo that dog walkers had piled up around bushes and under signposts. Words fail me at the mentality of the stupid people who do this. When we reached the Devil’s Dyke, we perched on a small hummock to eat lunch while reading that, according to local legend, the Devil’s Dyke was formed when the Devil tried to carve a dyke through the Downs to let the sea flood the churches of the weald.

Suitably refreshed, we walked on, past the Youth Hostel that looks rather like a secondary modern school dumped on the side of the track and along the road as it gently falls downhill. Leaving the SDW we cut down on the steep and bumpy Monarch’s Way to Upper Beeding, passed Bramber Castle and into Steyning. Rhubarb scones at Steyning Tea Rooms made a welcome end to the walk and we strolled along Steyning High Street, which was full of small independent shops, making a pleasant change from the normal bland High Streets filled with big chain shops. We stayed the night at Springwells, which was a conveniently placed, if not overly inspiring, small hotel.

South Downs Way Chanctonbury ring

Day 4

Steyning to Amberley Railway Station (11½ miles)

After a fortifying breakfast we took the road west past police station and followed the bridleway around woodland until we joined the South Downs Way. Pausing to admire the landscape at Chanctonbury Ring (an Iron Age fort that forms base of a ring of trees) we then descended down the chalk and flint track to cross the A24, which being a mid-morning weekday, wasn’t too busy. By lunch time we were sitting outside The Bridge Inn at Amberley with a drink and something to eat before jumping on the train to return home.

SDW above Amberley

Day 5

Amberley Railway Station to singleton (13 miles)

We made an early start on a bright July morning and joined the grey clad commuters on the London bound train, crossed town and headed out to Amberley Station to pick up the South Downs Way where we left off earlier in the year. By half past nine we were walking along the River Arun in brilliant sunshine enjoying the quietness that was broken only by the sound of a forage harvester a few fields over. The path rises with views of the Arun valley below and beyond the landscape opens up with far reaching views of farmland and rolling downs.

As we passed through the trees on Graffham Down we met several groups of walkers coming the other way making this the busiest stretch away from the honeypot car parks. We stepped off the track into the quietness of one of the areas cleared by The Graffham Down Trust and ate our sandwiches as watched the butterflies flitting about. After a short stretch of the SDW we branched off south cutting through the trees along the Sussex Literary Trail as we walked steadily downhill to Charlton. A footpath took us through a grassy meadow past drowsy cattle standing in the shade and into the village of Singleton where we visited the Weald and Downland Open Air Museum.

I’ve wanted to visit the museum for many years and I wasn’t disappointed. It was very inspiring to walk into the buildings that have been dismantled from various Sussex locations and reconstructed on this large site. Each house has been furnished to a specific date and it was fascinating to see how people must have lived and how hard life must have been. The gardens were planted to the same period and Bill was rather disappointed to see the very old broad bean varieties were doing better than the modern varieties in our garden.

After meandering around the museum for several hours, we retraced our steps back to the village to Rose Cottage B&B, took a welcome and relaxing bath and then strolled along the road to The Pheasant pub for a good meal.

SDW Butser Hill

Day 6

Cocking to East Meon (16½ miles)

After a breakfast that was probably the prettiest I’ve ever had with a beautifully arranged bowl of fruit adorned with edible leaves and flowers, we packed our rucksacks and caught the bus from Singleton up to the South Downs stop on Cocking Hill along the A286. The bus runs every half an hour, so if you want to pop down to the museum from the trail, it’s very easy. Alarmingly, the bus driver didn’t really know where our bus stop was but between us we managed to choose the right one.

The path undulates along the ridgeline with far reaching views and it seemed as if we were miles from anywhere, with only the sound of birdsong and the occasional plane overhead. Leaving the open downland, we headed through the forested section of the Queen Elizabeth Park and arrived at the café, where several groups of walkers sat outside at the tables enjoying the sunshine and food. Suitably fed and watered we bought a take-out baguette and fruit as emergency rations for the following day and followed the path under the A3 and out onto the open stretch of Butser Hill.

Butser Hill is the highest point on the South Downs and when we reached the gate nearly at the top, we paused to admire the view and get our breath back after the climb. Skirting around the top slightly, we followed the signs for the SDW and at the entrance to the car park turned a sharp right to leave the SDW along Limekiln Lane, which was a narrow and sometimes slippery downhill path to our overnight stop at The Long House just outside East Meon. For supper, we wandered the mile or so down the road to the pretty village of East Meon for supper in Ye Old George Inn, which is much better than its name might suggest.

SDW 27 Winchester

Day 7

East Meon to Winchester (20 miles)

At breakfast we compared notes with a group walking the SDW in the opposite direction, who thought we were ambitious to walk the section to Winchester in one day. Two of the group were from Winchester and gave us information about bus routes, should we change our minds.

We walked to East Meon, across a footpath to pick up the South Downs Way. This was a different day of walking, with fields instead of open downland and fewer steep hills, apart from a short climb out of Exton.

Our timings were slightly out so that we arrived at Whitewool Farm cafe too early for a mid-morning coffee and Exton too early for lunch. Our second choice for lunch was The Millbury’s Inn near Beauworth but we walked in just after a coachload of people had descended on the pub and put in their food orders. The far from jovial publican informed us that because the coach had just arrived (unannounced) we’d have a long wait for food so we decided to have a drink and press on. Unfortunately, he had also run out of ice and the toilet cisterns appeared to be rather short of water.

Thankful for the baguette and fruit tucked in our rucksacks, we walked a mile down the road and sat on a grass verge in the shade of a tree to eat lunch. The afternoon was easy walking along quiet tracks that passed by enormous arable fields of healthy looking crops with no steep ascents or descents and before long the city of Winchester spread out before us. Usually, it takes an age to reach the destination but after a descent through the pretty hamlet of Chilcomb we soon reached the outskirts of Winchester and headed for the city centre.

I’m not sure if there’s a marker for the end of the walk as the South Downs Way signposts disappeared as we neared the city centre, but we walked past the statue of King Alfred and on to the Cathedral, which seemed an appropriate end. As usual, the end of the walk was a bit of anti-climax but we celebrated with a cup of tea and a slice of cake and then caught the train home.