The South Downs Way: Day 5 – Pyecombe to Southease 

22nd April 2016 (15 miles + 1 mile)

The sun absolutely refused to shine today but, given the good weather I’d enjoyed since Winchester, it would be unreasonable to grumble.

I grumbled unreasonably.  You see, today’s walk would lead me along a stretch of the South Downs Way I know very well and I wanted to show it off at its best: all blue skies; stark, white clouds and distant views of the sea.  But sadly, under a thick grey mantle, the light was rubbish for photos.  Oh well, you’ll just have to take my word that from Pyecombe to Southease, the SDW is more dramatic and beautiful than my photographs allow.

After a hearty breakfast (of … muesli) and a half-hour drive from home, Jim dropped me outside Pyecombe church at 8.30.  We bid each other a tearful farewell – for at least eight hours – and I marched away, staunchly not looking back.

My morning’s initial climb to the top of the Downs was easier than usual;

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if across a golf course.

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I dislike walking on courses; especially so after hard, white, spherical missiles have twice whizzed by my ear on earlier walks.  Don’t always assume, as I did, that players will wait for you to pass, even on a public footpath, before teeing off.

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Flowering gorse, in the absence of sunshine, lit up the way ahead and soon I thankfully left Pyecombe Golf Club behind … without injury.

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As I was now returning home each evening, I carried only a small knapsack and felt remarkably light on my feet, nimble even, without my heavy rucksack.

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A sign reminded me where I had come from and where I was going, if not who I was – which would be increasingly handy the older I get.

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Sign-posting on the ‘Way is excellent and especially so on this bit. Your sense of direction and path-finding skills would need to be pretty dire to go astray.  Worse than mine even.

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The nearer I drew to the coast, the more wind-sculpted trees I saw.

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It looks as if these hawthorns have been bent over by the prevailing south-westerlies running in off the sea.  They haven’t really: new growth and buds on the windward side are damaged and stunted, whereas on the leeward they are more protected.  When I first learnt that, I remember finding it quite interesting but it probably isn’t.

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Downland turf, close-cropped by sheep, is probably the nicest, softest walking surface and a blessed relief if your feet are sore.  When I started distance walking as a teenager, I assumed that blisters and bloody feet were an unavoidable consequence; but actually they were caused by not very good boots.  Modern boot design is taken for granted nowadays but as I can’t remember the last time I suffered a blister, I think it bloody marvellous.

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After about an hour, I reached Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex (248m).  In the ’90’s, I volunteered as a South Downs Ranger and spent a Sunday or two each month on conservation work: clearing paths, pulling up ragwort or “scrub-bashing”.  I also attended various courses and learnt about honeypot sites, of which Ditchling Beacon car park is a good example: it attracts many visitors who mostly don’t stray more than a couple of hundred yards from their cars.  Compared to surrounding areas, honeypots suffer heavy erosion of grass and adjacent footpaths, higher levels of litter and dog mess too.  Generally, I speed by them (unless there’s an ice-cream van).

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I crossed the Brighton-Ditchling road to follow the obvious, straight path towards Lewes and left behind the few dog-walking honeypotters.

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I’ve walked this length of path countless times; usually on Sunday afternoons with friends and family; or alone with my dogs in a vain attempt to tire them out.

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Two and a half miles east of Ditchling Beacon, the SDW turns sharp right toward the coast.  It’s at this way-marker that over-nighters for Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, can leave the SDW and march straight on.

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There’s no denying that today’s weather was the least satisfactory of my six days but despite the forecast, it didn’t rain.  And to cheer me up, I was looking forward to meeting my friend John.  Though we were at school together and have been friends for 40 years, I’d barely seen him since the Millennium.

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On the skyline, halfway between the hump of Kingston Hill and the masts near Woodingdean, was the spot where we’d arranged to meet.

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I passed some rare distance walkers but they didn’t stop to talk; only greeting me with a muttered hello or a tired smile, before disappearing over the near horizon. I guess they were on an outward bound course … whilst looking like they rather wished that they weren’t.

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As well as being a relatively short day, there are only two significant climbs.  And here is the second – a sharp drop to cross the A27 and then straight back up again, past triangular Newmarket Plantation.

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The main Lewes to Brighton dual-carriageway is very busy but a short detour leads to a footbridge and a non-life-threatening crossing.

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I had only 6½ more miles before the railway halt at Southease but first that climb up to Newmarket Plantation and Kingston Hill.

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The path wended (good word) through blackthorn blossom;

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and began the long, if fairly easy, climb

past New Barn in the valley of Loose Bottom: a lovely example of a flint Sussex barn, built at an intriguing angle.

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At the top, and a little after midday, I sat on a tussock and waited for John.  He soon appeared and after plenty of arm thumping and back slapping, we fell into easy conversation and, distracted, I took fewer photos still.

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We walked along to Kingston Hill (that isn’t us) to look out over the Ouse Valley, with Mount Caburn on the left and Firle Beacon directly ahead.  The South Downs Way goes over the latter and I would stand by its trig point tomorrow.

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We didn’t have far to go now: a stretch of concrete path toward Newhaven;

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a brief pause from chatting to snap the view over Kingston village with Lewes beyond

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(or, if you prefer, in muddy colour);

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and passed the Greenwich meridian line, about which I can’t think of anything to say.  It is what it is.

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At about 2pm, we descended off the Downs into the village of Rodmell;

and a long-anticipated, late lunch stop at the The Abergavenny Arms.  Rodmell doesn’t sit on the SDW but I think this slight diversion is better than the designated path, and the pub is a very good one.  If you’ve time, and it’s open, Monk’s Housethe home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf – is nearby and perfect for whiling away an hour.

John and I stuffed ourselves rigid with haute cuisine (ham, egg and chips for me) and over two pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, we easily solved most of the world’s problems.

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Afterwards we waddled on for the final mile, passing a show-off display by this male kestrel.

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St Peter’s, Southease

Southease church is one of only three in Sussex with a round tower.  (The other two are close by: in Piddinghoe – a couple of miles downstream – and Lewes).

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Each year, the village hosts the Southease Open Gardens Fete.  There are five gardens to explore and cake in abundance, with all proceeds going to the upkeep of the church.  It is an archetypal English afternoon and a fine day out.

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Shortly after leaving the clutch of cottages about the church, a bridge carried us across the Ouse.  It was at this bleak spot that Virginia Woolf’s body was eventually found, three weeks after her suicide by drowning.  I never cross it without sparing her a thought and suppressing a shudder at her awful, final state of mind.

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On a lighter note, Southease Station is just beyond the bridge and the natural end to this section of path.  Hourly trains run north to Lewes and Brighton; or south to Newhaven and Seaford.  Alternatively, there’s the brand new Youth Hostel South Downs nearby.  I waved goodbye to John as he disappeared on a train to Brighton, and hopped on my own train southwards, followed by a mile’s walk to my front door.

If today’s weather had been a sombre disappointment, tomorrow’s final leg to Eastbourne would compensate with a return to sunshine.  The last day on the SDW is a grand finale and one of the finest of any National Trail.  Near perfect weather would make it finer still.

And I managed some better photos too.

The South Downs Way: Day 4 – Amberley to Pyecombe

(21st April 2016 – 20 miles)

Yesterday had been a long, tiring day’s walk but today would hardly be any easier.  Once again I had twenty miles to conquer and once again I was marching against the clock.  I’d arranged a 5pm rendezvous with my partner Jim at Pyecombe – from where he’d pick me up, drive me home, dine me, wine me and drop me back off the following morning.  All for free.  If for the rest of my Sussex trek, I’d sleep in my own bed I’d also forego any more cooked breakfasts: an almost fair trade-off.

And so, over my final full English of the trip, I chatted to a Canadian who was also walking the ‘Way … or rather he had been until his hip packed up.  Now, unable to walk any distance, his baggage-transfer company ferried him and his luggage from one night’s stop-over to the next.  I felt sorry for him (if trying not to show it) and enthused about the free rides and all that spare time in which to hobble about at his leisure.  I barely convinced myself let alone him … and silently resolved to undertake as many long distance walks whilst I am still physically able.

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Primroses outside a cottage garden

As I walked away from The Sportsman Inn at 9 o’clock, Sussex was clear and bright;

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Thatched house, Amberley

and at the half-way point of my 100 mile walk, I felt in pretty good shape.  No bad aches, no pains, no gripes, no blisters.  Why, I almost felt young again.

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I strolled back to the quiet village of Amberley, stopping off at the community-run Amberley Village Stores to stock up with lunch and important snacks.

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As on almost every day on the SDW, my morning kicked off with a steep climb

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to regain the crest of the Downs.

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I paused to watch a herd of cows enjoying their silage.  Cows are so very interested in seeing a new face, it seemed churlish not to repay the attention.

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As I climbed, the view to the north opened up over Amberley Wildbrooks (the undeveloped flood plain of the Arun) with The Sportsman Inn, detached from the village, easily visible (the red-tile hung building just left of centre).

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Over my shoulder, to the right sat Amberley itself and far off the line of Downs I’d followed for three days.  Plenty more of those ahead.

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Soon, and with the aid of my telephoto lens, I looked down on one of England’s finest Elizabethan houses, Parham House.  The house and gardens, which I’ve visited two or three times, are beautiful and certainly worth seeing – but maybe not when walking the ‘Way.  As it sits at the foot of the escarpment, a detour will demand a stiff climb back … and you’ll have climbs aplenty on this leg without adding even more.

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Yellowhammer

I fell into a comfortable, fairly fast pace with skylarks and yellowhammers singing me along,

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(if sometimes getting underfoot); groaned at a sharp descent and climb to cross the A24;

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topped up my bottles at fairly regular water taps (with helpful mileage to the next one);

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and passed newborn lambs that made me smile.

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A little after midday, I reached an iconic landmark of the South Downs Way  – the Iron Age hillfort of Chanctonbury Ring.  It is the trees rather than the fort which make Chanctonbury famous and they are down to one man, Charles Goring.  In 1760, as a young man, he planted a thick copse of beech trees on the fort, watered them regularly and, as he lived into his 80’s, watched his trees grow almost to maturity.

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When I first walked the ‘Way in 1985, Chanctonbury Ring was visible from miles away.  Sadly, the great storm of 1987 flattened most of the copse and though it has since been replanted, it’ll be many years before the fort regains its distinctive crown.

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Chanctonbury Ring before the 1987 storm

Here’s a copy of my Kodachrome slide from ’85, showing how Chanctonbury should look and hopefully will again.

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Some of the original trees are still standing (these above are on the extreme left of the 1985 photo) and this grouping reminded me of a favourite painting:

Nash, Paul, 1889-1946; Wood on the Downs

Photo: Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums

Wood on the Downs by Paul Nash.  Nash’s oil on canvas is of beech trees at Ivinghoe Beacon on another chalk long distance footpath, The Ridgeway.  But where it was painted hardly matters; it could be any beech hangar on any chalk downland in England and for me it epitomises the South Downs and Chanctonbury in particular.

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I sat on the earth ramparts, took a selfie, tried to ignore the lifeless body lying nearby and munched my lunch.  The fort is said to be haunted by all manner of beasties and Lucifer himself hangs out here.  True.  Local legend tells that if you run around the Ring seven times, backwards (!?), the Devil appears and offers you a bowl of soup.  Which all sounds terribly tiring for small reward and so, as I had sandwiches, I didn’t bother.

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My Trailblazer guide, has this line “(Chanctonbury) may be a beauty spot by day but it takes a brave person to spend the night there” which made me feel terrifically heroic.  You see, I’ve camped within the trees of the fort.  I’d walked almost thirty miles from Telscombe youth hostel and by the time I reached Chanctonbury, I was the walking dead.  I put up my tent, and too tired to eat, crawled inside and fell fast asleep.  Perhaps ghosts, witches and even Old Nick were cavorting about outside, but if so I was too tired to notice and they kindly didn’t disturb my sleep.

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The view eastward was of another distant line of Downland.  I would walk all of it before the Way turns south and runs toward the sea.

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More sheep, more lambs, more sun, more photos; the afternoon wore pleasantly on.

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Above the village of Steyning, I looked across the valley of the River Adur to my next target – the masts on top of Truleigh Hill.

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I passed the biggest, free range pig farm I’ve ever seen,

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enjoyed an excited, squealy welcome from the ill-fated residents

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and descended to the Adur valley.  With eye-watering house prices hereabouts, I’m surprised when I see a derelict building, but a bit pleased too: barn owls and bats need somewhere to nest.

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I can’t resist a sneaky peek into a garden just to see what’s what but in this case it was hardly worth the while.  I didn’t loiter

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and arrived at a sign showing that I’d completed a solid 60 miles since my morning croissant in Winchester.  The remaining 40 miles I’d complete by the day after tomorrow.

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I crossed the coffee coloured Adur, knowing that I had yet another steep climb ahead:

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this one straight to the top of Truleigh Hill.  I took a deep breath, eased my rucksack, muttered a rude word and started the long climb.

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Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel

But actually it was fine and lifted me quickly to Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel.  It’s not a building of great beauty but has the good grace to obscure itself with mature trees.

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Which is more than can be said for nearby buildings and fields.  I’ve wild camped here too – out of necessity as the sun sank.  It is a soulless, unkempt area for a National Park

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full of decaying, can’t-be-bothered-to-dispose-of caravans, machinery and rubbish. Oh well, one day somebody might bother.

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Brighton and Hove

From Truleigh, my old home town of Brighton is clearly visible though the SDW gives it a wide berth, some six or seven miles to the north.

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At Fulking Escarpment I fished out my black marker pen (it wasn’t me really and besides it’s not funny)

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and settled down on another irresistible bench with views over the Weald.

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I had saved an Amberley shop treat for a moment such as this: A & R Baileys Champion,  Award Winning Pork Pie.  It was.

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Truleigh Hill

The path on this stretch is hard, flinty and blinding in sunlight but perfect for a decent walking speed

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The path leading to Devil’s Dyke

and, keeping an eye on the time, I raced on toward my Pyecombe rendezvous.

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But first, another hillfort and this one is impressive: Devil’s Dyke.  So which blithering idiots decided to build an ugly great pub and car park right on top of it?  Right on top of one of the finest Iron Age sites in Sussex.  Grrr.

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The actual Dyke is a long, dry valley, stabbing deep into the Downs.  It was dug by the Devil (him again) as a channel through the Downs to allow seawater to rush in and flood all the churches in the Weald.  Or it was carved out by immense flood waters after the last Ice Age, when deep snow fields on top of the Downs melted.  You decide.

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Devils Dyke Hilfort

The Dyke and escarpment form a chalk spur on which the fort was built and no wonder: it is a brilliant defensive site with extensive views across the Weald to the north.

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The SDW dropped once more to cross the Brighton-Poynings road at Saddlescomb Farm before the day’s final climb

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and the final sprint.

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Before descending to the A23 and Day’s End, I swivelled to appreciate the country I’d crossed today.  In the near distance sits Devil’s Dyke; Truleigh Hill with its masts is behind; and furthest away the once very distinctive beech trees on Chanctonbury Ring.

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After 20 miles in about 7½ hours (and a little weary), I crossed the A23 to reach poor Pyecombe.

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Church of the Transfiguration, Pyecombe

Once a pretty downland village, Pyecombe had the misfortune of lying on the main Brighton to London road.  What was once a cart track is now the very busy A23 and not a peaceful bedfellow.  I was half an hour early, so I walked up to the church before settling down outside the pub, The Plough Inn.  As I savoured a cold celebratory lager, and waited for my lift home, I thought back to the last time I’d supped here in 1985.  I’d sat outside, bootless, sockless, fixing plasters on angry blisters and raw, bloody feet.  31 years ago, eh?  I’m virtually a Plough regular.

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The South Downs Way: Day 3 – South Harting to Amberley

(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.

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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.

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Horse chestnut leaves

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.

South Harting, South Downs Way

South Harting

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).

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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.

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A bench, sited by a genius, delayed me even more

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before I struck out on fine open Downland

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on soft, perfect-walking turf.

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31 done, 69 to go

Regular mileposts gave me a running tally of miles covered, and miles still to do.  Almost a third done!

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As well as long miles there were plenty of stiff descents and climbs today

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but on day three, and getting into my stride, I didn’t find them too onerous.

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Recently harrowed fields glowed with emerging wheat

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and eastwards I had a clear view of the scarp edge receding into the haze.

German pilot memorial, South Downs Way

“In Memoriam Hauptmann Joseph Oestermann Pilot 1915-1940”

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).

Devil's Jumps, West Sussex

Devil’s Jumps

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.

Marks memorial, South Downs Way

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.

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Yellowhammer

There were no people on this quiet section of the SDW but plenty of bird-life,

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a herd of fallow deer and the irritating scream of peacocks from nearby Monkton Estate.

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Leaving the woodland of Monkton, I also left the heavily wooded half of the Way:

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the rest of my walk would be more classically rolling Downland.

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As the day wore on and with such good weather the path became busy

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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.

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A fine April is probably the perfect time to walk the South Downs Way with fields of dandelions,

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daisy lined paths,

Skylark

and the constant trill of skylarks.

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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.

cocking-village

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.

chalk stone Andy Goldsworthy

Chalk Stone by Andy Goldsworthy

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.

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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 hours.

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But I still took plenty of photos: the view back to Cocking Down;

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synchronised grazing;

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gentle spring sunlight;

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solid English names;

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the way ahead;

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first beech leaves;

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and a distant strip of English Channel.

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At 3.30 I got my first glimpse of Amberley and the half way mark on the ‘Way.

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But it was just a glimpse and I had a further long fall and climb on the path

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River Arun

before finally crossing the River Arun an hour later

Pied wagtail

with a pied wagtail close encounter.

Amberley castle

Amberley castle

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.

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Amberley village

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 Amberley, I discovered that my stop for the night was still another half mile beyond the village.

The Sportsman Inn, Amberley

Hot and bothered, I reached The Sportsman Inn, booked in,

Amberley wild brooks

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.

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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.

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