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 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,

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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

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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).