WE WALKED IT OUR WAY
The SOUTH DOWNS is one of England’s epic walks. Barnaby Rogerson and Mary Miers walk from St Swithun’s tomb to The Old Man of Wilmington, from Winchester to Eastbourne along a hundred miles of the South Downs Way
This article was published in COUNTRY LIFE, June 29, 2011; You can read a longer version of this article here
The South Downs stand like a line of gigantic, beached whales guarding the southern foreshore of England. Rounded and rolling, they merge into each other to create a series of graceful forms - green hills composed of vast banks of chalk threaded with seams of flint, which now and then are exposed to reveal the pure white dash of a track, a flint mine or quarry. Among the great joys of this landscape are its hidden combes and bournes or ‘bottoms’ (dry valleys), glorious beech hangars and clumps of ancient yew. Modest in height, yet possessing an undeniable grandeur, the Downs can be bleak, but even when the prevailing wind blows sudden, violent storms across the summits, they are never forbidding. Scored by river valleys – the old north/south trading routes - the Downs were never a frontier but a pastoral range and crossing place, their easy gradients, dry tracks and firm grasslands making them a natural highway for man and his herds.
The South Downs Way is a long-distance footpath which snakes across these uplands, linking a series of drove roads and tracks in a trail that can be either 99 or 109 miles long. Officially opened for business in 1972, it’s a work in progress and a near miraculous and beneficial instance of long-term central planning. The various Hampshire and Sussex county authorities have worked patiently with land-owners, farmers and residents to create the best route possible, branching out at times to offer different routes for walkers, riders and cyclists, through woods, into hillforts and across downland turf, or making do with comparatively dull stretches of graded forest track and tarmac road. It’s not perfect yet, but still a laudable achievement.
We found we could do 19 miles in a day, but our feet suffered if we kept this pace up for more than two days. Downland turf is marvellous to walk on, but the flint-surfaced farm tracks are harder than tarmac. In conversation with other walkers along the way, we agreed that 12-15 miles a day is the right pace if you want to keep going the whole way for seven days, with a day off to rest the feet and do a bit of sketching and sightseeing.
With the exception of the downs behind Brighton, this whole glorious sweep of southern England felt virtually empty as we passed just a few dozen – and, on the earlier section, hardly any – people each day. Of those we did encounter, we found they came in five recognisable identities, almost as regular in their habits and dress as our other habitual companions: the twittering skylarks, cooing wood pidgeons, slow-cruising buzzards and sqwarking crows.
First in number were locals, usually with their dogs, coming by car to a favourite beauty spot for a circular walk. Next were the mountain bikers, usually young men in groups of three or four, who proved to be universally charming once you got used to the alarming insect-like look of their black sports gear, aero-dynamic helmets and dark glasses. We decided to strike a positive blow, against the traditional frost between walkers and bicyclists, by holding gates open for them. Then there were the chatty squads: scouts, cadets, kids after their ‘D of E’ gold medal, mums on a charity walk; we even spotted half a dozen Gurkhas doing the whole thing at a even trot and 70 members of 4 Para on a ‘forty mile afternoon stroll’.
The ‘whole-wayers’, we found, were often alone, male, and possibly over-equipped with maps, carbon-fibre sticks and back-packs (though a more flamboyant member of this usually self-reliant species did loom out at us from the mist one day, calling for directions in an American accent, equipped with nothing more than a hat). Lastly there were those like ourselves who balance the joys of walking with picnicing and pubs, discovering historic sites and secret places, and searching out exhilarating views. This group tends to cheat a little. Not by missing out any of the route - indeed we probably do more, searching out ‘diversions’ - but by breaking up the Way into enjoyable sections and making use of local taxis to get to somewhere comfortable at the end of the day.
Despite the publicity surrounding the opening of the South Downs National Park in 2009, the Way remains pleasantly amateur – and long may it remain so. There’s no organised trail of hostels and camp sites, no central museum, starting arch and finishing gate, wardens or purveyors of commemorative badges and T-shirts. Instead, we stumbled across quiet evidence of real work – replanted native woodlands, reclaimed pasture, repaired styles and handsome oak signposts. (A first call, if funds ever allow, must be to provide tunnels or footbridges to ease the terror of crossing several perilous main roads).
Our first, and most important piece of advice is to walk the exact reverse of the suggested route. Start off at Winchester, and the landscape will become progressively grander as you head south-east towards the English Channel. We made a formal start of things at Winchester Cathedral, kneeling in prayer beside the Saxon bishop St Swithun (himself a great walker) before eating our breakfast picnic in the cloister and winding our way past Jane Austen’s house and a fragment of Roman wall to circle St. Giles Hill, seat of the greatest wool fair in medieval England. And then we were off – up via Cheesefoot Head and onto Gander Down.
Fourteen miles on, having taken in the gorgeous view from the Meon Valley’s Beacon Hill, our day’s walk concluded at the Shoe Inn in Exton, followed by tea and local Saxon history with a retired admiral before being whisked off to stay with Barnaby’s mother in her 16th century cottage beside the Meon. For supper she baked us ‘travellers trout’ wrapped in an old newspaper.
Day Two saw us, equipped with the lone of her lurchers, striding across the Celtic fortress dykes of Old Winchester Hill, and up to Butser Hill fort above Petersfield. Here we found Rose Baring and her daughters, Molly and Hannah cuddled up with another lurcher, all awaiting us with a picnic. It was a nineteen-mile day before we stopped above South Harting and hobbled downhill to find the White Hart Inn. The following morning we were driven off the Downs by the most appalling weather but were mightily cheered-up by taking shelter with the Boxer family at Pound Farm above Midhurst. They took us sodden walkers in without so much as a blink of the eye and included us in a very late, hospitable Sunday lunch party.
We began day four back on Harting Down and walked all the way to Amberley, a wonderful 19 miles with hardly a soul in sight, through Graffham Down, across Stane Street, the London to Chichester Roman road, and onto Bignor Down, before dropping into the Arun valley. There we hit hospitality gold in the shape of Bill Forse in his ancient open top sports car. Bill is something that only Britain can produce: vet, traveller, writer, bon-viveur and farmer. Not only did he give us lifts, beds and breakfast, but he also threw a dinner party in our honour and, next morning, introduced us to Britain’s only practising Anchorite, who lives in the churchyard on his farm.
Day Five was shorter than normal, for breakfast at Bill’s was too interesting to hurry, but we headed east along the Downs for eight miles to Chanctonbury Ring, site of an Iron Age hillfort where the ancient fertility ritual of running seven circuits continued into modern times as a folk tale. There we were joined by the Rogerson girls and their friends for a picnic among the crown of beeches first planted there in 1760. From there we made a three mile diversion to see the best hillfort of them all, Cissbury Hill, with its view of the Channel and its outworks all dotted with the bowls of collapsed Neolithic flint mines. At the end of our day, we laid out a Moroccan rug, boiled up some water in the Kelly Kettle and enjoyed an al-fresco tea party.
We started back at Chanctonbury Ring on day six, having flagged down a taxi outside Worthing station. On the way, our tattoed driver treated us to very different view of modern south coast life with a riveting first hand account of the doings of the local Mafia, which easily live up to the adventures of their smuggling forbears.
Up we climbed through ancient beech trees and then headed east over Anington Hill, catching occasional views of Lancing Chapel and the ruins of Bramber castle guarding the Arun valley. Our picnic spot, was idyllic, beneath a lone hawthorn tree, brilliant with pink and white blossom of the may flower, whilst the ancient pasture was flecked with yellow cowslips and the odd wild orchid. The three months of spring is the perfect season for a long walk, safe in the knowledge that you are not spoiling anyone’s sport, for the shooting season is over by February, and you have the chance of catching first the bluebells, then the cowslips then the wild garlic. Then on after lunch, taking in the views from the summits of Edburton, Pirching and Fulking Downs before we reach the magnificent hillfort at Devils Dyke. Part of the charm of these ancient fortresses, is that their detailed history has been blown to the winds. Instead one is left free to imagine a succession of independent Celtic chieftains jostling for leadership of the great tribes in the centuries before the Roman conquest. The hill forts were places of refuge in times of warfare, but also sacred places in their own right, where horse races would be celebrated, and the herds driven past the sacred bonfires that marked the four seasonal festivals such as the Beltane of May and Lughnasa of mid-summer.
Some 16 miles east of the Ring, we met up with Mary’s uncle Tim Ireland at the Plough Inn at Pyecombe. Tim’s ancestors have farmed in Sussex for 500 years and he put his local knowledge to good use by taking us off to have supper at the Shepherd and Dog at Fulking, a lively village pub, and then put us up for the night in the hamlet of Edburton at the foot of the Downs. The following day we were joined by our old friend, the antique dealer James Graham-Stewart, who drove us back to Pyecombe. Limping a little in his wake, we made our way through a thick ‘sea-fret’, which soon burned off to reveal a famous pair of windmills and the spectacular, Weald-embracing views from Ditchling Beacon and Blackcap.
After climbing the long ridge of Newmarket Hill, we made the slow descent to the enchanting hamlet of Southease, with its Saxon church and rose-bowered graveyard. A local taxi-man once again enabled us to touch the local gossip, whether it was the rivalry between the Lewes bonfire clubs or the importance of the 13th century battle of Lewes. He also enabled us to reclaim our car and so drop in on an evening debate at the literary festival held in the gardens of the ravishing Bloomsbury shrine, Charleston, and then to enjoy an excellent pub supper at the Cricketers Arms in Berwick – which reminds me of tip number three: always try and drink Harveys of Lewes best bitter whilst walking the Downs.
Starting out early on day seven from the banks of the Ouse, we rattled off the names of the six rivers that break the lines of the Downs - the Itchen, Meon, Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere - followed by the Six Rapes of Sussex - the castles at Chichester, Arundel, Bamber, Lewes, Pevensey and Hastings fortified by the first Norman Kings. But enough of sixes. As we ascended Itford hill the views got better and better. From the ancient tombs on Beddingham hill and Firle Beacon we could look down over Charleston farm and the grounds of Firle Place, the Gage family seat (it’s currently undergoing restoration but normally opens to the public). Thence across Bostal Hill to drop down on the bewitching little village of Alfriston, complete with bookshop, antique shop and tearoom to die for – plus a range of other places to eat, drink and stay.
Normally one would follow the Cuckmere river to the great white sea cliffs of the Seven Sisters, surely one of the iconic landmarks of England. Glorious as this route is, we decided to take the inland track in order to find the Long Man of Wilmington tucked into the ancient pasture of Windover Hill. He is the real thing, a true and mysterious slice of our ancient religion, to be counted alongside the Cerne Abbas giant and the White Horse of Uffington. The Christian monks of the priory at his feet thought he depicted a pilgrim on his way to Rome (like the good friend of Alfred’s, St Swithun, with whom we started our journey). It is now thought to be Bran, the mythical Celtic High King of Britain who was set a series of tasks, just like Hercules, that would end with his sacrificial death. This great white figure looks down on the ruins of Wilmington priory from pasture seamed with warrens and flecked with orchids.
Then south-east to the hamlet of Jevington, which has all that a passing walker requires: an interesting old church, a restaurant and a tea-garden right beside the path. With the wind now howling across the Downs in the full force of a south-westerly, we were fair blown along the last few miles of turf, before suddenly catching site of the sea, the sprawl of Eastbourne tucked into the foot of the Downs and the turrets of Pevensey Castle.
We had walked every last step, powered by the hospitality of family and friends, assisted by the politeness of strangers. The South Downs Way can never claim to be an ancient pilgrimage route, like the North Downs that links Winchester to Canterbury, let alone the truly ancient Ridgeway route that brought Neolithic pilgrims to Avebury, yet it is one of the great pathways towards understanding the heart and soul of England.
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by Barnaby Rogerson