It’s taken me over 3 years to finish the South Downs Way. In 2015 I spent a day running/walking from the start in Winchester (I couldn’t find the actual start, so started from the cathedral) to the edge of Queen Elizabeth Country Park (QECP) before getting the bus to Petersfield and the train home. Last November I walked from Amberley to Eastbourne, staying in deserted youth hostels in the low season. This weekend I walked from QECP to Amberley to join up the sections.
I stayed in Petersfield on Friday night to enable getting to QECP at a reasonably early time on Saturday. The first bus from Petersfield to the park wasn’t until 8.20am so I had time for a massive breakfast in bed at my B&B. Public transport home from Amberley would go on late into the evening but I was aiming for the 9pm train at the latest. QECP to Amberley is approximately 24 miles, so I was pretty confident I’d make the train.
It’s not the longest or hilliest I’ve walked in a day, but I was mindful of pacing. I’ve joined the Long Distance Walker’s Association (LDWA) and entered the Herts Stroller in August, a 53 mile jaunt around Hertfordshire within 22 hours. I’ve not really walked to time before, so I was keen to see how I felt if I could keep a pace on the South Downs Way.
I walked into town and got the bus down to QECP. A man holding a South Downs Way guidebook, wearing jeans, got off too, but we went in opposite directions. I started up the hill in QECP, passing lots of runners milling around before the start of a parkrun. The hill was neither too steep not too long, and I relished being in the forest whilst I could – today was going to be a scorcher, and most of it was exposed.
I had a frankly ridiculous amount of food in my bag, which combined with 3 litres of water, overnight things and layers (why did I bring layers? It was the middle of a heatwave!) didn’t make my bag the lightest, but it wasn’t too noticeable. Though I probably could have left the waterproofs at home.
The trail wriggled it’s way east, rollercoasting up and down small climbs. The man in jeans came striding up behind me. “Ah, you were on the bus! I went the wrong way…” We chatted for a while, but he was aiming to get a 2pm bus out of Cocking, as they were free for him up to a certain time. I didn’t know if he was retired or had been given the freedom of a city, but I wished him good luck as he sped off into the distance.
I didn’t take my first break for almost 3 hours, mostly because I was trying to find somewhere out of the sun. I sat on the ground, funneling flap jack and trail mix into my mouth as I checked the map. The South Downs Way is mostly byways or bridleways so tends be a pretty decent path, and this section was a lot of flinty or chalky tracks. A surprising number of mountain bikers whizzed by, who were all courteous and shared the trail.
As I descended to the cross roads above Cocking, I was growing slightly wary of my water. Between QECP and Amberley the SDW goes through no villages and no rivers. I thought I could ration 3 litres to last the day, but man it was hot. So I was a very happy hiker when the farm the other side of the cross roads hosted a SDW tap, and had a little shop. I put my bag down on a picnic table and refilled all my bottles.
“I, uh, saw your ice cream sign?” I inquired, daring to hope.
“Oh, hello!” She seemed a little surprised to have a customer, but soon warmed. “Yes, we’ve just finished packing the salted caramel tubs.”
I put up the umbrella shade over the picnic table, and tucked into my ice cream and apple juice, and a rather warm sandwich I’d bought last night. As I packed up I went to refill my bottles again, and got talking to a man out on a circular route. Wary of being out in the sun all day, I took off my hat and ran it under the tap, then dunked it on my head. The cold water ran down my back and front, streaming off my eyebrows.
“Now that is a very good idea!” I grinned at the man as he went to do the same, and then I headed up the next hill. Cocking was about half way to Amberley, but I was getting mixed up between kilometres and miles. My brain is a mess of units – I measure my height in feet and inches, my weight in kg, cycling in miles, paddleboarding and running in kilometres, and walking in both miles and kilometres. I will often distract myself up big hills trying to work out converting between them.
As the SDW tends to stay to a line of hills surrounded by flat land, the views were hazy but wide. A lot of yellow and brown fields. And the sea! Hadn’t thought I was close enough. For about 1 km the SDW ran parallel, about 100m away from, the West Sussex Literary Trail. I was intrigued by this arrangement. The WSLT merged with the SDW before and afterwards, but decided to strike out on its own for this section.
As I descended to the next A road, two farmers were herding their cows down the hill. I asked if I should wait but she said it was fine to go through. I gave them a wide berth. I took another snack break at the bottom of their farm in the shade, and read the information signs. I like it when farms tell you what they produce and who for – the cows I walked through had their milk sent to M&S. It provides some connection from source to mouth that I think a lot of people switch off.
I was making pretty good time and crossed the last A road for Amberley’s valley to come into view. I saw the London-bound train pull away, and as there was only 1 an hour I sat in a field at the top of the hill and looked out across the valley whilst cramming trail mix in my mouth. This was my third time on the SDW, and a third season. The first time had been spring, with lush green grass and mud. The last had been the start of winter, with short days and bare trees. Now it was the middle of summer with cracked earth and yellow fields. I enjoyed walking one trail through the seasons and seeing the land change, finding comfort in the cycles of life in perpetuity.
In the end I only made the train with a few minutes to spare; it was further than it looked and my legs had seized up after sitting down. I’d walked the 24 miles in 9.5 hours, which I was pretty happy with as I never felt like I’d been rushing. But this had required no navigation and was all in daylight, so how the Herts Stroller is going to go is anyone’s guess! I can but try.