(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 train 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.
I’d delayed a decision on when to walk The South Downs Way. A stressful 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.
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).
A couple of weeks later, I stood at the path’s start by the Norman cathedral. Luckily, I had 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 to get underway. And champing on a croissant for breakfast.
Dodging early shoppers and important looking people going off to important jobs, I raised my hat to His Greatness and headed out.
I hadn’t been to 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.
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.
The M3 is a noisy full-stop to Winchester. Not much to see here, let’s move on.
My first destination, after crossing a couple of fields, was the pretty, little village of 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,
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).
I greeted the first swallows of the year,
admired a tree house I’d have killed for as a kid (still would)
and faced my first climb. With primroses.
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?
Probably all of those but no matter – it was also liberating, and springtime was some kind of wonderful with late daffodils
and vast fields of rape turning to flower.
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 was alarming, heart-thudding early climbs
but stopping to gaze back over Hampshire helped;
as did clicking at subtle hues of woodland (or any other excuse for a breather-pause).
I entered a well-remembered beech wood.
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?
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.
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).
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).
The path wound on through farmland
and along empty, meandering lanes
with an abundance of cowslips.
I stopped for a cheeky lunchtime pint at The Milbury’s pub. As I walked in, the barman made a weak joke. I laughed politely. I made a joke. Quite a good one actually. 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.
Other than walking the ‘Way, I don’t know Hampshire well but it does have good place-names; if lame-joke barmen.
I returned to quiet woodland, relieved at the lack of mud.
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.
I reached the top of Beacon Hill and set up my camera on the trig point. I have another photo of me facing the camera but there’s no need for that.
Directly ahead, on the far side of the Meon Valley, Old Winchester Hill blocked me from my pillow.
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.
I walked down into the village and marched quickly past the church (and past the pub even!) without pausing.
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.
Adjacent fields illustrate why I avoid walking the Way in winter.
At one point my boots disappeared into the sludge but this was the worst mud of my trip.
It is a steep climb to the top so, once again, I stopped often for a photo;
if only the vivid green of England.
At least with chalk and height, the path dried out
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?
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.
From the hill, I had a second valley to cross, via Meon Springs (with campsite, should you need it)
before reaching a sign pointing to my stop for the night – 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. I thought you ought to know that.
I arrived at the beautiful, C15th Ye Olde George Inn at 5.20 … and I would have liked the place much more if they had clearly stated their opening times when I booked and told them I would be arriving about five o’clock. Instead, the pub was shut and I couldn’t get into my room. I sat outside for forty minutes before my increasingly frantic knocking summoned an obviously irritated manager. Well, I was pretty irritated too. (Reading online reviews, I see that I’m not the first walker to arrive early, blissfully unaware of the strict 6pm opening time).
Later, smelling nicely of soap, I chugged fine ale and devoured the cheapest item on an expensive menu: an 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).
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).