“So, why did you want to go walking at this time of year?”
I was on my third train of the morning, 2 hours behind schedule due to delays and cancellations, and the man in the seat opposite who had been eyeing my big rucksack for the last 10 minutes had started interrogating me about what I was up to.
“Well, I like walking at all times of the year. Just need a few more clothes now…”
The man remained unconvinced, but wished me well.
I had 4 days to play with at the end of November, and originally was planning some kind of high level variant on the Cumbrian Way in the Lake District, but the forecast was terrible so decided to stay further south where there was promise of some sun. South to the South Downs Way in fact! I’d done a section from Winchester to near Peterborough before, so looked at the other end of the trail: Amberley to Eastbourne.
Amberley to Truleigh Hill
A key thing about walking this time of year is the shortness of the days. My two hour train delay had cut into the precious daylight time. After a quick foray into the Riverside Tea Rooms to get some cake for later, I picked up the South Downs Way.
I soon went past the High Titten wild camping plot, which I’d been in two minds about whether to get the train down the night before and camp there. It probably would have worked out better. There’s no facilities, but a 3 sided barn for shelter if needs be and some level grass!
The path climbed gently, then steeply, towards Rackham Hill. The highest point on this trip would be about 240m, but over the 4 days the ascent added up to 2650m of climbing, so it wasn’t exactly flat. Once up to the ridge, the trail undulated along next to farmland, with fantastic views over the flat fields to the north, and the rolling downs to the sea. At periodic intervals the trail would drop down to a road pass or a river, with an inevitably steep climb back up the other side.
After a quick scamper across the A24, it was back up to the tops. I only read about it afterwards, but apparently if a women sleeps under the trees at Chanctonbury Ring (a raised clump of trees) she can increase her fertility. Damn, missed my chance.
As the path left the confines of a fenced-in trail heading towards a road, I passed a stone memorial. I like reading the inscriptions of memorials, on walls or benches often, and imagining the life of the person it is dedicated to. On a whim I turned back to read the plaque, as it was a quite incongruous fenced off structure at the edge of a field in the middle of nowhere. It was “in loving memory of a Sussex farm, Walter Langmead 1905-1989”. My brother had got into researching our family tree a while ago, and my mum’s family are Sussex farmers, and the Langmead name seemed familiar. I messaged them the photo and it turns out Walter was the cousin of my great grandmother. Small world!
The sun was getting low in the sky at this point, but I could see the radio masts on the hills across the river which was where the hostel I was aiming for was. I was carrying all my camping gear, and a bivvy bag, telling myself I could wild camp somewhere if need be, but a room was much more appealing, particularly as I knew it was forecast to rain heavily that night.
The descent down was through a pig farm, with the pigs in pens according to their age. They got younger as I progressed through, with the last few sections having tiny piglets. They were larking around just like lambs – lambs who like to play in mud. A flock of starlings had been growing in size overhead for a while, and I was treated to a spectacular murmuration on the way down.
After crossing the river and another A road, it was a 2km climb to the hostel, with a purple sunset to distract me. With my food and water my backpack weighed around 15kg, and after doing 24km at a bit faster pace than usual due to the later start, my feet and legs were feeling it! I made it to YHA Truleigh just as my vision was starting to get worse. I got a dorm room (to myself as the only woman staying in the hostel) for the pricely sum of £9. Camping would have been £12.
Truleigh Hill to Southease
I was slightly dubious about today. As most of the conveniently located campsites were closed this time of year, my options for breaking up the walk were more limited. My A goal for today was YHA South Downs, in Southease. My B goal was getting to the A27 then getting a bus to Brighton for a hostel. My C goal was Blackberry Wood campsite near Streat, which would involve deviating from the trail, but was about half the distance to the YHA.
I thought the YHA might be a bit too far, but there was another walker in the hostel who said he was going for it too, which reassured me, and we figured it was about 16 miles. After some porridge, and slapping some compeed on a couple of blisters, I set off walking at about 7.45, as it was getting light enough to see properly. Another guy at the hostel last night had warned about some aggressive cows on this stretch that he’d had to detour around, which didn’t thrill me. But he also said he got lost on the SDW, so I was taking his warnings with a pinch of salt. The SDW may well be the best signposted trail I’ve walked.
The temperatures had dropped since yesterday, but it was also much less windy, so as long as I kept moving I was fine in my t-shirt and jumper. As I got near Devil’s Dyke the terrain confused me and I had another look at the map. From my cursory glance earlier (and ignoring the give-away name…) I had taken the contour lines to be a large hill, rather than a large ravine.
I paused in Saddlescombe, discovering the slice of caramel shortbread from the cafe yesterday that I hadn’t eaten yet. A mountain biker came whizzing down the field, slowing to exchange quips about how beautiful a day it was. He assured me the cows were fine. As typical, the cows and their calves were right on the trail, but they barely glanced at me as I climbed up through them. Cows can be kind of cute when they’re not trying to stampede you.
Another dip to Pyecombe and scramble across an A road, then up through a golf course. I was just thinking “this hill could do with a bench at the top” when lo and behold a bench and table appeared, from the golf club to walkers. Much appreciated.
Near Ditchling Beacon two dog walkers exchanged glances as I drew closer.
“Are you doing the South Downs Way?”
I confirmed I was, and they were planning on doing it next year so we had a little chat whilst I drooled over their dog. As we were parting, a runner came back the other way and slowed down to walk with me.
“Are you doing the South Downs Way? Did you do a lot of training for this?”
“Er, actually, this is my training for something else,” which is quite hard to say without sounding arrogant. We talked about the Te Araroa for a bit, which got her very excited.
“Right, well. Do you want my mars bar?” I wasn’t going to say no to free food.
I was flagging a bit, and the mars bar came in very handy when I reached Housedean Farm campsite (closed) with a sign that said 6.5 miles to Southease, and I realised I had drastically miscounted how far today’s leg was. As there was still 3 hours of daylight left, I didn’t really consider getting the bus to Brighton, and carried on.
The climb back up the other side wasn’t overly steep, but it curved around a valley, meaning you head in the wrong direction whilst seeing your destination. My ascending speed would accurately be described as plodding. Or trudging, maybe.
The walker from the hostel last night appeared behind me. I admit I was quite envious at that point of his tiny day rucksack as he used hostels and B&Bs for all accommodation and food. The descent down was on a long tarmac path which was destroying my feet. That, combined with the stunning view of the sun on the sea, and the social awkwardness that can only arise when two people in the middle of nowhere are walking similar speeds but 20m apart, triggered me to take a moment’s rest and let him overtake me.
Further on the descent, I passed a signpost signalling the Meridian Line of the western and eastern hemispheres. I then got so excited about a proper signpost that said ‘To the Pub’ that it took me five steps to remember that wasn’t the way I actually needed to go. After a very steep descent to Cricketing Bottom, it was a bit of a slog out of the valley to cross the river, and the trainline, before finally reaching the YHA, again just as it was getting dark.
My feet were in tatters; I was wearing my ‘proper’ walking boots, which whilst on balance I was glad for as my feet were dry and warm, I hadn’t missed the blisters. The soles were also very sore, which given the thicker sole of the boots compared to my Inov8s I was surprised about. I booked a dorm room (£11, again turned out to have the room to myself) then devoured a cup of tea and piece of coffee cake.
I was knackered, but also beaming. I had been walking from 7.45 to 4.15, which was pretty much all of the daylight hours available, which I thought was quite cool. I mapped out the distance and it turned out to be 20 miles. I drained my blisters then hobbled over to the self catering lodge to make dinner (hot chocolate as pudding). I was in bed by 8.30pm.
Southease to Exceat
I hadn’t put much thought beyond reaching the YHA, so once there looked at my options for the remainder of the walk. It was about 20 miles to Eastbourne along the Seven Sisters route. The northern route was shorter, but I wanted to go along the cliffs. Whilst I had proved I could walk 20 miles in a day, I didn’t really want to do that again today. Given the weather was set to remain clear for both days, I decided on splitting it in half at Exceat and getting the bus to Seaford for a B&B which I booked last night. The temperature had dropped again and thoughts of camping were pushed to the back of my mind. My camping gear was now just training weight.
As I only had 10 miles to cover, I didn’t get up before dawn like the last two days. It was still frosty when I did get out, but the sun was softening the ground again. It was another beautifully cold day, and I took a staggering number of very similarly looking pictures of blue sky and green fields.
I dropped down into Alfriston just after 12 and liked the idea of a pub lunch. I had a little nosy round and Ye Olde Smugglers Inne was just opening up. It was a lovely quirky country pub, and Christmas had exploded inside. The ceilings were covered in red and green garlands, with fairy lights strung about, and they were bringing down decorations from the loft. Very good sausages and mash.
After a brief, very muddy valley walk by the river, there were a series of 3 hills which the trail went directly up and over. In Westdean, just as I was considering I should write an appreciative note to the National Trails officers for their excellent signage, I spied a lost-looking couple with similarly sized backpacks as myself.
“Are you doing the South Downs Way? Can you tell us which way to go?” I had to restrain myself from pointing at the signpost. They had come from Eastbourne but their phone with maps on had died, and they weren’t sure when the trail split in two (it’s Alfriston) and they’d got confused by signs for the Vanguard Way. I pointed them in the right direction and assured them to trust the signs.
With one last little hill to conquer, I dropped down into Exceat and the Seven Sisters Country Park. There was a bus every 10 minutes between Eastbourne and Seaford, so I wasn’t waiting long.
I settled into my B&B room for the evening – which had a much less comfy bed at £40 than the YHA ones.
Exceat to Eastbourne
A full English breakfast was included in the price so I forwent my porridge and ate in the dining room. I then discovered buses on Sundays are only every 30 minutes, but soon I was back on the trail for the final 10 miles to Eastbourne. It really was a rollercoaster along the cliffs. There were no huge climbs, but a constant rolling of ups and downs.
I stopped for elevenses at the National Trust centre in Birling Gap which was delicious. Had to fit a cream tea into this trip somehow! From then on the trail got busier with day walkers and tourists from Eastbourne, but it was another gorgeous day.
Eventually I crested the last hill and Eastbourne came into view. After a few days of rural villages, it didn’t look particularly attractive, but I enjoyed the walk along the beach promenade in the late day sun. I wasn’t in a rush to get the rail replacement bus service out of town, so sat on one of the many benches lining the sea wall and tucked in to an apple flapjack.
“Have you walked from Brighton?” a woman asked as she walked past.
She did a comical double take and stopped for a quick chat.
Once I started to get cold from sitting still, I ambled off in the direction of the train station and headed home.