The South Downs Way: Day 1 – Winchester to East Meon

(18th April 2016 – 18 miles + 2 reaching the path’s start)

At 5.45am, I was repeat yawning and standing at my local railway station.  I’d been awake since 4, the 100 mile journey to Winchester would take a maddening three hours and, on arrival, I’d face an 18 mile walk.  It was going to be a long day.

South Downs WAy (1)

I’d delayed a decision on when to walk The South Downs Way.  A painful house-move had dragged on for months longer than expected; and bitter experience of muddy Downland paths warned me to sit out weeks of rain too.

Winchester

Winchester city centre

But in early April, the sun returned and I leapt into action … or rather I opened my laptop, booked a rail ticket and emailed three B&B’s.  (For the other two nights, I’d sleep in my own bed).

Winchester Cathedral

Winchester Cathedral

A couple of weeks later, I stood at the path’s start by the Norman cathedral.  Luckily, I timed it perfectly and under a cloudless sky, I felt as frisky as a thoroughbred colt … or a middle-aged Englishman going for a walk.  One of the two.  It was past 9am and I was champing at the bit.  And a croissant.

KIng Alfred Statue, Winchester

Hamo Thornycroft’s statue of King Alfred the Great, Winchester

Dodging early shoppers and important looking people going off to important jobs, I raised my hat to His Greatness and headed out.

Winchester (2)

River Itchen, Winchester

I hadn’t been in Winchester for 8 years.  On my last visit, I’d arrived on foot with my dog, Hobbes, after a two-day, 50 mile march from Amberley along the SDW.  We were both exhausted.  We’d wild camped the previous night and I carried a heavy rucksack full of tent, sleeping bag, cooking gear and dog food.  Hobbes carried a doggy grin.  Two days of sniffing fence-posts, flushing pheasant, chasing rabbits, snacking on questionable morsels found on the path, galloping ahead only to hare back again, had all been enjoyable but very tiring.  (And Hobbes had found things to do too).

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Coltishly, I quickly covered the first mile.   From my front door, I’d already walked two miles to reach the start of the path: 3 down only 99 – plus a few extra – to go.

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The M3 is a noisy full-stop to Winchester.  Not much to see here, let’s move on.

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My first destination, after crossing a couple of fields, was the pretty, little village of Chilcomb.

Thatched cottage, Chilcomb

To the unsettling WWII accompaniment of rifle fire (there’s a shooting range nearby), I strolled past thatched cottages, chatted to a very smiley woman,

Complyns, Chilcomb

Complyns, Chilcomb

and studied a B&B I had considered using.  Complyns is a good option – with great reviews – for shaving two miles off your first day (by travelling to Winchester the day before and walking here on arrival).

Swallow

I welcomed the first swallows of the year,

Tree-house, Chilcomb

admired a tree house I’d have killed for as a kid (still would)

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and faced my first climb.  With primroses.

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Day 1 on a new walk is often a little surreal.  Shouldn’t I be at work?  Or painting my new house?  Didn’t I look odd wearing gaiters and carrying a big rucksack?  Weren’t people unnerved when – on rounding a corner – they met me, chatting loudly to myself?  Or singing?

Daffodils

Probably all of those but no matter – it was also liberating, and springtime was some kind of wonderful with late daffodils

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and vast fields of rape turning to flower.

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I don’t train for long walks.  I just pack, go, walk … and to hell with blisters or physical collapse.  The upside is I suffered neither; the downside were alarming, heart-thudding early climbs

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but stopping to gaze back over Hampshire helped;

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as did clicking at subtle hues of woodland (or any other excuse for a breather-pause).

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I entered a well-remembered beech wood.

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I’ve only ever walked this particular length of path in bright sun and it sits firmly in my memory.  It’s a short, quite unremarkable stretch through beech trees but, I think, perfectly illustrates the look and feel of the SDW.  I mean, you want to walk down it, don’t you?

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As the day wore on, the sun hid and it grew cold.  Oh well, at least it didn’t rain.  Unbelievably, in six days of walking, in April, in England, it didn’t rain once.  Which was sort of freaky.

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One of many things I like about distance walking is solitude but this time, on the South Downs Way, I had precious little.  It was a rare hour if I didn’t meet a dog-walker, cyclist or rambler: the path was heaving (for a long-distance footpath).

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I liked the nebula of ivy growing within the frame of an oak … but have little else to say about it (except for the parked car just out of shot, in this secluded spot, with steamed up windows and two occupants.  I tried not to stare).

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The path wound on through farmland

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and along empty, meandering lanes

Cowslips

with an abundance of cowslips.

The Milbury's

The Milbury’s

I stopped for a cheeky lunchtime pint at The Milbury’s pub.  As I walked in, the barman made a joke.  I laughed politely.  I made a joke.  Pin-drop silence.  I mumbled for a packet of crisps too and retreated, sulkily, to the garden to sip my bitter.  It was unpleasant and I left it behind, barely touched.  (Which isn’t a regular habit and left me unsettled).  Crisps were OK.

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Other than walking the ‘Way, I don’t know Hampshire well but it does have good place-names; if lame-joke barmen.

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I returned to quiet woodland, relieved at the lack of mud.

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Bluebells were at their peak and I expected regular, huge swathes of blue in the days to come.  But, oddly, there weren’t: this smallish patch was the most impressive.

Walking Gardener

I reached the top of Beacon Hill and set up my camera on the trig point.  There’ s another photo of me facing the camera but there’s no need for that.

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Directly ahead, on the far side of the Meon Valley, Old Winchester Hill blocked me from my pillow.

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Below lay the village of Exton, 12 miles from Winchester and a natural stop-over for many South Down Way-ers.  But, on day one of six, it came too early for me: I had a further six miles before bed.

Exton Church

Exton Church

I walked down into the village and marched quickly past the church (and pub!) without pausing.

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The ‘path’ leading up to the iron-age hill-fort on Old Winchester Hill is actually a dry chalk stream-bed – only at this time of year it wasn’t dry.  Once, I splashed through ankle-deep water along here but this year there was enough firm ground to keep my socks dry.

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Adjacent fields illustrate why I avoid walking the Way in winter.

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At one point my boots disappeared into the sludge but this was the worst mud of my trip.

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It is a steep climb to the top so, once again, I stopped often for a photo;

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if only the vivid green of England.

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At least with chalk and height the path dried out

Herdwick sheep, Hampshire

and at the hill-fort, I met a flock of Herdwick sheep.  I love Herdwicks but it was odd meeting them in Hampshire, a long way from their Cumbrian home.  I’m not sure why they are here: perhaps they eat rougher, tougher vegetation than southern, soft-lad sheep?

Old Winchester Hill

Summit trig point, Old Winchester Hill

My partner and I camped here about 20 years ago, just below the summit.  We’d walked from Winchester, arrived after sunset, put up our tent and collapsed inside.  (In the dark we missed the notices forbidding camping). The next morning the views were outstanding – but the cropped turf formed such a comfortable mattress, we struggled to get out of our sleeping bags.   And later, as we packed up, we were distracted from the views by a gust of wind catching the tent and carrying it off down the hillside, with us in hot pursuit.  (And with that interesting tale told, I’ve exhausted my Old Winchester Hill anecdotes).

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From the hill I had a second valley to cross, via Meon Springs (with camp-site, should you need it)

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before reaching a sign pointing to my stop for the night – East Meon.

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East Meon

This handsome village, a mile from the path, dates from about 400AD and formed part of a Royal Manor belonging first to Alfred the Great and, later, William the Conqueror.

Ye Old George Inn, East Meon

Ye Old George Inn, East Meon

I arrived at the beautiful, C15th Ye Olde George Inn at 5.20 … and I would have liked it all the more if they had clearly stated their opening times when I booked and gave my expected arrival time.  I sat outside for forty minutes before my increasingly frantic knocking summoned an irritated manager.  (Reading on-line reviews, I see that I’m not the first walker to arrive early, blissfully unaware of the strict 6pm opening time).

Ye Old George Inn, East Meon (2)

Later, smelling nicely of soap, I chugged fine ale and devoured the cheapest item on an expensive menu: a still over-priced burger with a small, whimper-inducing number of chips.   I hate that.  Ordering a meal, when very hungry, only to be presented with a portion that only a 12-year-old with no appetite could find sustaining.  Calling it a ‘Gourmet Steak Burger‘ and serving the chips in a dinky, miniature frying basket didn’t transform it beyond countless others I’ve eaten either (though presumably it justifies charging £13.50).

Ye Old George Inn, East Meon (3)

Badly adjusted camera dials give my room the haunted look

After downing a second pint, and scribbling an ineligible something in my journal, I climbed back upstairs to sweet – if still hungry – oblivion.

Like many long-distance paths, the first day on the SDW isn’t an “Oh-My-God-It’s-So-Amazing” introduction.  But the South Downs Way had barely begun; and I  was excited at five more days along the crest of the Downs, to the sea.  (And the prospect of more food).

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8 thoughts on “The South Downs Way: Day 1 – Winchester to East Meon

  1. It still puzzles me how something can look like a gentle rise from a distance and then turn into a Hill once you start walking up it—worthy of the capital letter and a marker at the top and everything. Lovely post again, Dave. You have reminded me never to trust the word “gourmet”. If they have to tell you about it, then it just ain’t so. xS

    Liked by 1 person

  2. What a sad ending. After such a long day, to go to bed hungry. And to not have enough chips is a disappointment few of us could bare. You must be braver, cast care aside for your bank balance, and next time ask for an additional side portion of chips . It would be an excellent and subtle confrontation with their meanness. Or maybe have a pudding. Or an emergency bar of chocolate in your pack. But please don’t go to bed hungry again.
    I am wondering if we need to send you on an assertiveness course. To have been served a pint you didn’t like suggests it must have been off. Just politely take it back and ask them for another. I know this is hard when someone has rejected your joke, but these are serious matters. You owe it to the rest of us who care about beer.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thank you for sharing my pain, Charles. If I’d known the chip portion size when I ordered I would have ordered two extra lots! The puddings were £6.95 (from memory) and I couldn’t possibly prise my wallet open for those prices – and probably be served a small saucer of something or other in a raspberry froth or cappuccino puddle. You’re probably right about the assertiveness training but being English, far better to say everything is fine, then mutter darkly about how bad it was afterwards. D

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  3. I’m sorry you’re experience of Hampshire pubs has been so bad. I’ve noticed Hampshire fare is plainer than in Surrey, but not usually pricey either. I’ve been in Hampshire pubs with friendly staff, too.

    Did you know that Winchester used to be on Old Winchester Hill, but one night the fairies moved it to where it is now – according to the legend anyway.

    I hope you had better experiences of my home county for the rest of your journey.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hi Karin, it’s my own fault for booking into an expensive pub. It was very comfortable just not the sort of place that serves up mounds of food (which is what I wanted after a long day). All the other pubs I used on the walk did great, filling food which was cheaper too! Interesting tale re the fairies. I’d believe it too were they to return the city to the hilltop! That’d be impressive. D

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