Chuck Anderson walks us through the South Downs.
After wandering 100 miles westward along the south coast of England, the South Downs Way terminates at Winchester. It’s an easy walk along the top of the downs, though you have to cross four steep river valleys. A determined young walker could do it in four or five days. My wife and I both carry bus passes and there was the British weather to contend with. It took us four months.
From Eastbourne we bent into a stiff, wet westerly over a series of chalk slopes called the Seven Sisters. Our legs counted eight, or perhaps seven plus a half-sister. It was cold enough in April to wear gloves. Rape was in bloom in the fields, lambs skipped about, larks sung and orchids, cowslips and harebells bobbed in the short grass. We crossed the river Ouse at Southease, where Virginia Woolf walked into the water and visited her weekend hideaway, the Monk’s House, with its enchanting garden of magnolias and masses of waving tulips.
Ditchling Beacon is famous for its views, but leaden cloud obscured all except landmarks as close as the Jack and Jill windmills. Heavy rain pursued us up to the rim of Devil’s Dyke, an impressive dry valley. Chanctonbury Ring is where, in 1760, a naturalist planted a ring of trees on top of an Iron Age fort. Many of them blew down in the 1987 gales, but it is still an impressive and allegedly haunted site.
In the charming village of Amberley our room at a pub offered a view of the Wild Brooks, a protected grazing marshland. The next day we trudged into a force eight gale which knocked us sideways. The path through the woods was littered with stout branches, so we kept a wary eye on the twisting limbs overhead. While we sheltered in the lee of a string of three tumuli called ‘The Devil’s Jump’ a crash in the forest started the cattle. A tree had blown down.
We deferred the final stretch to Winchester – two 13-mile days – till the weather forecast was more encouraging, but summer was running out: we were too late for swifts, and the swallows were ominously collecting on the power lines. The fields were golden with stubble and some blackberries were already sweet. Partridges startled us, whirring up at our feet.
Old Winchester Hill is a spur of the downs which was used for burials in the Bronze Age and fortified in the Iron Age. Now it was a mass of wild flowers. The views were fantastic, even on a cloud-chased day. We lay back in the sun for the first time, not as we had hoped dozing on sheep-bitten grass sprinkled with cowslips, but on flints among groundsel and ragwort.
Long before we reached Winchester we could hear the traffic on the M3. One hundred miles in four months. Possibly a record for dilly-dallying; traversing the gentle South Downs way had turned into an epic of endurance. We rewarded ourselves with an overnight stay at the delightful Wykeham Arms. As we poured our tea it started to rain outside.
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Chuck Anderson is a writer of books, plays and television.