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.

yellowhammer

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.

Amberley

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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The South Downs Way: Day 2 – East Meon to South Harting

(19th April 2016 – 12 miles)

After my disappointment at last night’s food, I charged downstairs for some serious, no-nonsense feeding … and this time I wasn’t disappointed.  The full English was generous; actually quite superb. and my liking for the ‘Ye Olde George Inn’ notched up two points.

East Meon

East Meon church

With a full stomach, at last, I stepped outside, buckled up my gaiters, pulled on my rucksack, loosened my belt a notch, rubbed some dried muck off my trousers and set off, whistling, to rejoin the South Downs Way.

East Meon (2)

East Meon

Today was my shortest leg.  Whilst accommodation on the trail is plentiful, it isn’t always perfectly spaced.  During the planning stage, my brain had throbbed over arranging six fairly equidistant stop-overs.  In the end I gave up – hence a long first day, this short one, followed by a long twenty-miler.

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By 9am I was back on the path with an immediate warm climb through woods;

to birdsong and wild-flowers.

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At the top, the trees thinned to reveal brilliant 360° views over Hampshire.  With a lot of sky.

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I was in high, bubbly spirits, slowly spinning to look about me when a fast shadow passed overhead.

Red kite South Downs

Looking up, a large bird of prey whooshed past again – a red kite.  In my excitement (I’d never seen a kite on the Downs before) I barely had time to focus my camera before the unhelpful one sailed away.  A party of three women ‘Wayers stopped to see what all my fuss was about but were visibly unimpressed when I told them.  (They lived in  Oxfordshire, where kites are two-a-penny).

Ram

I was in no hurry on this short day and walked slowly, meeting  the Most Impressive Ram Of The Day;

Fat Goose

and the funniest, loudest, most inquisitive, quarrelsome goose.  I rather fell for him … or her.

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The path carried me on through woodland and puddles and avoidable mud

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until I stopped at an unremarkable copse, just off the path.  It was here, eight years ago, that I slept after a long, long walk from Amberley and an increasingly desperate search for somewhere unobtrusive to pitch my tent.  My dog, Hobbes, grunted when I produced her blanket from the bottom of my rucksack and laid it at the foot of my sleeping bag.  (As usual though, by the morning she’d shimmied up and her nose touched mine).

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I used Trailblazer’s ‘The South Downs Way’ guidebook on this trip and liked it very much

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with its simply drawn maps

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but I prefer the Ordnance Survey map sections,

HMSO South Downs Way (1)

and beautiful illustrations

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in my treasured, much-used, 1979 HMSO edition.

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At Butser Hill, the highest point on the SDW, I stopped for my regular boot-selfie and a day-old sandwich from Winchester M&S.  It was OK with a slightly, not altogether unpleasant, fermented after-taste.  I’d tell you the filling but I can see your eyes glazing.

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As I ate, I watched a National Trust worker tending his flock and felt voyeuristic watching him though my zoom lens, if a little jealous too.

Buzzards South Downs

I walked down the hill to pass under the busy A3 and spotted two buzzards a couple of hundred yards away.  Slowly, I stalked closer but they flew off as soon as they saw the cut of my jib and before I could get too close.

Queen Elizabeth Country Park

A little later, I stopped at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park visitor centre for OK tea and OK cake and remembered how Hobbes and I had struggled to find enough drinking water during our adventure.  (Hobbes was happy to lap from puddles – me, less so).  We were only able to camp in 2008 when a kindly cyclist saw me banging my head against the centre’s dry tap.  He gave me his bottle of water and I was so grateful (at not needing to divert, by bus, off the path to fill my own bottles) I almost kissed him.  Only the look of alarm on his hitherto friendly face, stopped me in time.  Now, in 2016, there are several more path-side water taps along the SDW … and they all worked.

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The 600 hectare QE park is a mix of downland and one of the largest continuous areas of woodland in the south-east.  It also has  20 miles of paths; but the SDW is clearly signed and route finding straightforward.

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The ‘Way used to follow an unmetalled road used by cars (and still does according to my guidebook) but it now diverts to higher, quieter ground and for once, I was totally, gratefully alone.

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The Shipwrights Way?  The Staunton Way?  The Hangers Way?  England has such a rich choice of paths – many of which, like these three, I’ve never even heard of.

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The afternoon wound on as I left the Park behind and followed a broad track eastwards.

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With plenty of time, I stopped often to sit on the verge or a tree stump, to drink water, study my guidebook or eat an apple.  There are worse days to spend a sunny day in April.  The Hampshire Downs are more wooded than those of Sussex and whilst I enjoy sylvan walking, far-off views are often obscured and the true sense of rolling Downland is muted.

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At 3pm, I took a sharp left off the main Way and descended the scarp edge,

Wild garlic

past swathes of wild garlic

South Harting

to the village of South Harting with its beautiful verdigris church steeple

South Harting (2)

and handsome buildings.

The Ship Inn, South Harting

The Ship Inn, South Harting

The state of ‘The Ship‘ pub was alarming and I panicked at the prospect of a beer-less evening.  Thankfully, though ‘The Ship‘ has closed for good, ‘The White Hart‘ a little up the road is still open.  Tugging off my rucksack, I sat outside in afternoon sunshine with a pint of lager shandy and, of course, a packet of cheese and onion crisps.

South Gardens Cottage B&B, South Harting

A few minutes walk away is ‘South Gardens Cottage’, which might be the prettiest B&B I’ve ever stayed in.

South Gardens Cottage B&B

I loved my Enid Blyton room, and immediately felt at home in this fascinating C15th, gloriously old-fashioned home.  After a bath, (no new-fangled showers here) I returned to the pub for decent grub (no moans about portion size or overpricing, note) and to write up my journal.  I anxiously checked the BBC weather app for the days ahead but needn’t have worried.  The sun would be shining for a while yet and tomorrow I’d have a clear – if hot – 20 mile march to Amberley and the half way point of the South Downs Way.ave

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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).