In July I undertook my first long distance adventure of the year – an 8 day hike along the length South Downs Way, a spectacular walking and bike-packing trail in southern England.
What is the South Downs Way?
The South Downs Way (SDW) is a national trail which follows the course of the South Downs National Park in South East England, starting from Winchester and running roughly due east, ending at the foot of the Downs in Eastbourne, West Sussex.
The name ‘Down’ originates from the Old English word ‘dūn’ meaning hill, and the Downs themselves are a series of hills that run the entire length of the park.
The Downs were formed millions of years ago when this area was under the sea. As the tiny marine life died they fell to the sea floor and released calcites, a mineral that is the build block of sedimentary rocks such as limestone and chalk.
The downs was originally a long dome like ridge of rock, however erosion split the North and South Downs into two distinct areas and glacial and river erosion led the to formation of the valleys between the Downs.
A few facts:
- The South Downs Way was the first bridleway national trail in the UK, officially opened in 1972
- The total climb along the route is 4,150m
- The highest point on the route is Buster Hill at 270m
- The route has recently been voted the 10th most beautiful hiking trail in the world.
The route mostly sticks closely to the top of the steep northern escarpment that runs the length of the Downs, offering breathtaking views throughout the majority of the 100 mile route.
It follows the path of the Old Drovers trails, which have been used for at least 4000 years, due to the difficulties and dangers of navigating the muddy clay paths of the Weald below.
Transport in & out
Both ends of the route are served by nearby train stations at Winchester and Eastbourne, each offering direct trains to London. There area also a number of train stations nearby if you want to do the route in sections – at SouthEase station the SDW runs right across the station platform!
The route has been popular with section and thru hikers for many years, but more recently has become immensely popular with cyclists, especially bike-packers.
Winchester has numerous camping shops and supermarkets to stock up with supplies before the start of the route. There are also plenty of pubs and cafes along the route to grab food and beverages, although some of the cafes don’t open until 10am and many country pubs shut between 3pm and 6pm for an afternoon break. There are also a number of villages just to the north of the route which you can detour to, though this will usually add an hour or so to your day’s walking.
Ramblers Coffee Shop, one of the small pop-up cafes on the top of the South Downs Way
Water supplies are almost non-existent on the top of the Downs (with the exception of the odd café here and there) so you should plan to carry enough water to last you for the whole day’s walking. There are no reliable streams on the top of the hills, due to the porous chalk, with most streams being winterbourne in nature. Also a large part of the downs is arable farmland, so pesticides and fertilizers are likely present in what little water you might find.
Fortunately there are water supply points in the valleys between each of the Downs from which you can draw water, so make sure that you always top up before the next hill. I tended to find that each hill seemed to run about 6 to 7 miles before descending into the next valley and so the water supplies made great rest points.
There are numerous options for accommodation along the route, including B&Bs, hotels, camping and bunk-houses. If you are travelling in the summer months and not taking a tent then it is pretty much essential to book ahead and stick to a well planned itinerary. If you are happy to camp/wild-camp if necessary then you can just turn up and wing it like me – just make sure that you have enough water to cook dinner and have spare for the next leg.
The path runs almost entirely along well marked chalk and flint paths, so even in heavy rain they are easily manageable, though the chalk can get slippery under foot when wet.
Day 2 – Meonstoke to Harting Downs
Day 3 – Harting Downs to Cocking
Day 4 – Cocking to Amberley
Day 5 – Amberley to Trueleigh Hill
Day 6 – Trueleigh Hill to Howsdean Farm
Day 7 – Howsdean Farm to Alfreston
Day 8 – Alfreston to Eastbourne