(20th April 2016 – 20 miles + 4 additional miles)
Today was my longest and toughest on the SDW and, as I’d also arranged an early supper date with my sister, I was marching against the clock too.
I woke early, packed, demolished a grand breakfast, paid my bill, pulled on my Meindl boots and was climbing back to the top of the Downs by 8.30.
It was a glorious morning and the woods were ripe with the scent of wild garlic. The forecast gave sun all day and I wanted to cover a good few miles whilst it was still cool.
Didn’t really happen: the light was so perfect and new plant growth so fresh that I stopped repeatedly to take photos and drink in this first rush of spring.
At the top of the climb, and back on the trail, I looked down over South Harting, the church and my B&B. Both the pub I’d visited the night before and the village shop are owned and run by the villagers. The same is true of the shop in Amberley and it is now a common way of keeping rural businesses open. And good job – my walk would have been all the poorer without the pub and these two village shops (with their award-winning pies).
My eyes drifted to the left and over the wooded hills I’d crossed the day before to, far off, the mast on top of Butser Hill. I’d sat there at lunchtime yesterday and it always surprises me how much ground one can cover on foot in just a few hours.
A bench, sited by a genius, delayed me even more
before I struck out on fine open Downland
on soft, perfect-walking turf.
Regular mileposts gave me a running tally of miles covered, and miles still to do. Almost a third done!
As well as long miles there were plenty of stiff descents and climbs today
but on day three, and getting into my stride, I didn’t find them too onerous.
Recently harrowed fields glowed with emerging wheat
and eastwards I had a clear view of the scarp edge receding into the haze.
Shortly after entering Phillis Wood, I passed the easily missed memorial to Joseph Oestermann. He was the pilot and only fatality of a Junkers 88 shot down by an RAF Hurricane in 1940 and, given that his mission was to bomb airfields during the Battle of Britain, I find it moving that passers-by and locals still respect his resting place. (The Hurricane pilot was shot down later the same day but, after ditching into the Channel, he survived).
A little further on and I paused again at The Devil’s Jumps, a 3000-year-old barrow cemetery. Disconcertingly, a clean-cut, bloodless deer’s foot lay on the path … which unsettled me somewhat if adding nicely to the silent and eerie atmosphere.
At my feet and almost invisible, I noticed a small weathered plaque inscribed with the words, “Mark liked it here 23 July 1960 – 20 April 1998”. For the second time in half an hour, the simplicity and understatedness of a memorial moved me.
There were no people on this quiet section of the SDW but plenty of bird-life,
a herd of fallow deer and the irritating scream of peacocks from nearby Monkton Estate.
Leaving the woodland of Monkton, I also left the heavily wooded half of the Way:
the rest of my walk would be more classically rolling Downland.
As the day wore on and with such good weather the path became busy
and I smiled at how some people would avoid saying hello by suddenly and intently studying the ground before their feet or staring pointedly at some fixed point on the horizon as they passed me. I tried not to take it personally.
A fine April is probably the perfect time to walk the South Downs Way with fields of dandelions,
daisy lined paths,
and the constant trill of skylarks.
Regularly checking my guidebook, I knew when a descent from the High Downs was imminent … but often the steep reality was more disheartening than I’d supposed, as here coming off Cocking Down.
8 miles from South Harting and about 13 miles from Amberley, the village of Cocking – half a mile off the trail – is a popular stop-over on the South Downs Way. I had considered spending the night there on this trip but it didn’t fit comfortably enough into my six-day schedule. I have wild-camped on the Downs above the village in the past … after a slap-up feed at the village pub, The Bluebell Inn.
In 2002, the British artist Andy Goldsworthy set a series of 14 chalk boulders linking the South Downs near Cocking to West Dean, though this one on Cocking Down is the only one I saw. Initially, Andy thought they would weather away within a couple of years but at this rate, they’ll be around for centuries.
With my eye on the time, I set a fast pace and at one point had to politely, persistently back away from a very chatty walker who otherwise would have carried on talking for days.
But I still took plenty of photos: the view back to Cocking Down;
gentle spring sunlight;
solid English names;
the way ahead;
first beech leaves;
and a distant strip of English Channel.
At 3.30 I got my first glimpse of Amberley and the halfway mark on the ‘Way.
But it was just a glimpse and I had a further long fall and climb on the path
before finally crossing the River Arun an hour later
with a pied wagtail close encounter.
Though I have been to ‘Amberley’ before, I hadn’t quite realised that what I think of as Amberley – where Amberley railway station lies – isn’t Amberley. The station is actually in Houghton but the village of Amberley is about a mile to the north, past the castle.
My sister was arriving on the 6.30 train and I’d arranged to meet her in the pub next to the station. I thought I still had plenty of time but when I finally reached proper Amberley, I discovered that my stop for the night was still another half mile beyond the village.
Hot and bothered, I reached The Sportsman Inn, booked in,
glanced out of my window at the remarkable view over the Amberley Wildbrooks Nature Reserve, showered, dressed and charged breathlessly the mile and a half back to Houghton and The Bridge Inn rendezvous with my sister.
I arrived about ten minutes early, sipped icy shandy and fiddled with my phone. I took this selfie – which doesn’t accurately portray just how shattered I felt. It was a great choice of pub with superb food but I must have been somewhat delirious for, after that brilliant meal, laughs and chat, I offered to pick up the bill.
Too much sun and long miles must have fried my brain.