It was some 60 million years ago that great chalk deposits on the seabed bulged up into a great dome, the crest of which eroded over time to leave two chalk masses which form the North and South Downs. When the first settlers arrived on the Downs some 6,000 years ago, they and their descendants preferred the drier, safer hills to the swampy Weald below. Thus originated the long, unerring tracks over the South Downs, which were to be used by generations of settlers, including Bronze Age traders who used them for the transport of minerals such as jet and gold, and the Romans, who fully exploited the downland routes as a vital link between the rest of Britain and mainland Europe. Now, with the flat lands of the Weald somewhat more hospitable than they were, the Downs have become ideal for recreational use.
Facts about this South Downs Walk
Designation: National trail.
Length: 99 miles (main route) or 96 miles (via alternative bridleway from Alfriston).
Start: Winchester, Hampshire.
Finish: Eastbourne, East Sussex.
Nature: A well-defined route along the chalk ridges of the South Downs with spectacular views to the sea and across the Weald.
Difficulty rating: Moderate.
Average time: 7–9 days.
The South Downs Way is the perfect walk for those with little or no previous experience of long-distance walking. There is good access to all parts of the route by road and public transport, accommodation is plentiful throughout and, although there are some strenuous climbs, it is reasonably easy to accomplish, with well-signposted and well-defined paths and tracks. On days of clear visibility the march across the chalk downlands of Hampshire and Sussex, described by Kipling as ‘our blunt, bowheaded, whalebacked Downs,’ brings massive rewards. From this platform of chalk you can gaze across the English Channel towards France, across the endless patchwork of fields, forests and villages of the Weald, or perhaps down to the great valleys of the South Downs, with their lovely rivers – the Arun, the Adur, the Ouse and the Cuckmere – that have cut through the soft downland chalk. You can enjoy the multitude of bird, insect and animal life on the Way, which may include skylark, linnet, yellowhammer, corn bunting, Adonis blue butterfly, rabbit, common shrew, harvest mouse, brown hare, badger, and of course the famous black-faced Southdown sheep. You can gaze down at the chalk grassland, bedecked with squinancywort, knapweed, wild thyme, vetch, trefoil and speedwell. Whilst looking groundwards you may find a shallow depression of chalk or clay constituting a dew-pond, of which there are many on the South Downs, created to provide drinking water for sheep. You can descend to a multitude of delightful villages with their solid Norman churches, indicative of the commitment of the Normans to Christianity after their invasion, and the cottages of that vital local building material, downland flint. Indeed there is so much to see off route, including a wealth of fine churches and other historic buildings, that copious detours are to be recommended in order to get the best out of what the Way has to offer. A further advantage of a detour to a small town or village is that, having gained a hearty appetite by the satisfying march along the roof of Hampshire and Sussex, you can enjoy a drink or a meal at one of the many pubs and tearooms that are available.
Most of the guidebooks describe the route from east to west. My opinion, however, is that the walk works far better in reverse. The prevailing wind will be on your back, and there is something rather special about ending at the seaside, in the delightful and hospitable town of Eastbourne. It has to be said that the final few miles of the main route, across the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs and past Beachy Head, are as thrilling a climax as can be imagined.
Winchester to Exton (12 miles) via Chilcomb
ENJOY: Winchester, Cheesefoot Head, Lomer, Exton
The walk starts at Winchester, the ancient capital of Saxon England, and worth a day of any walker’s time. Anyone entering the city from the east cannot miss the massive statue of King Alfred, who was largely responsible for Winchester’s prominence in pre-Norman times. The city’s chief glory however, is its cathedral, begun in 1079 and, at 556 ft end to end, one of the longest in Europe. It is renowned for its magnificent chapels and medieval wall paintings. Nearby is a thirteenth-century deanery and a Pilgrims’ Hall where pilgrims lodged in the Middle Ages on their way to Canterbury. You will not have been the first walker to set off from this city on a long journey eastwards.
The Meon Valley railway
Opened in June 1903 and closed in February 1955, this picturesque line linked Alton with Fareham. The hilly terrain meant that construction was not always straightforward and a number of navvies were killed or injured in the building work. Drunken fights were commonplace and it is reported that one very drunken navvy was stripped of his clothes and thrashed by his mates with stinging nettles.
The Way uses metalled roads to head eastward out of the city and, having crossed the M3, sets off into the countryside. Close by is Twyford Down, scene of bitter protests as the M3 was being built. Indeed, traffic noise seems to dominate as the Way follows a fieldedge path eastwards, then turns left onto a metalled road that enters Chilcomb, a pretty village with an early Saxon church. After leaving Chilcomb you carry on along a metalled road, turning left to join a track, climbing all the time. Proceeding over Telegraph Hill, from which Winchester can be viewed, the Way crosses the busy A272 and reaches Cheesefoot Head (3.5), the first significant viewpoint of the walk, with fine vistas across Hampshire. It is the site of a great natural amphitheatre and it was here that General Eisenhower addressed the Allied troops in 1944 before the D-Day landings. From Cheesefoot Head the Way descends, heading north-east, then turns right onto a track and strikes south-eastwards across Gander Down. The A272 is crossed again, and good firm tracks are followed southwards and uphill to reach Milbury’s, a popular pub whose name is presumably derived from the ancient burial mound known as Mill Barrows, lying immediately to the south. The Way turns left at the crossroads by the pub and follows a hilltop road, rounding Kilmeston Down. Good views are available from here towards Hinton Ampner House, a rebuilt eighteenth-century manor house close to Cheriton, the site of a major battlefield in the English Civil War.
For a couple of miles you lose the views as you join a track to head south-eastwards towards Beacon Hill. The highlight here is Lomer, the site of a lost medieval village, and its picturesque pond immediately adjacent to the path. Then suddenly, by Beacon Hill, the ground seems to fall away; the Way turns right then left along metalled roads and plunges off the plateau and steeply downwards, offering splendid views to Old Winchester Hill and the Meon valley. Exton (12), in this valley, is a village with an attractive church and pretty cottages, while the Meon is a lovely chalk stream, praised by seventeenth-century angling author Izaak Walton for its fishing.
The Big Walks of the South
Extract reproduced with permission from the chapter on The South Downs Way in The Big Walks of the South by David Bathurst (Summersdale, Paperback, £8.99). This book and its companion book, The Big Walks of the North are available through all good booksellers or by clicking here.
Read part two of this guide to the South Downs Way – Exton to A286 for Cocking (22.5 miles) via HMS Mercury, Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Uppark and Didling Hill.Last modified: June 10, 2021