Walking the South Downs Way with children: Part 2 Buriton to Amberley

Welcome to the second instalment of our South Downs Way walk. At the start of April we walked the first stage between Winchester and Buriton. Rather belatedly I’ve written up the next section of the walk, which took us from Buriton to Amberley.

This time our dependence on public transport was even more complicated than before. Mainly because I’d booked an Airbnb room in Petersfield. Not an ideal location given the walk route and dearth of weekend public transport, but it was the only place with triple room availability. (Eagle eyed regulars may notice the absence of a child on this walk; my daughter was away at Scout camp).

South Downs Way: Day 3 – Cocking to Buriton (11 miles + 3 miles to Petersfield)

Our day started with a drive to Petersfield, a bus to Midhurst and another connection on to Cocking. From here we’d walk the route (in reverse) to Buriton and on to Petersfield. The one benefit of our public transport shenanigans was that we only needed to carry provisions for the day, no need for overnight gear.

Walking up Cocking Down, South Downs Way
Walking up Cocking Down, South Downs Way

With temperatures forecast to reach 28C I’d remembered water bottles, hats and suncream. At 9am the sun was already hot; how would we cope in the hours ahead?

When we finally stepped off our second bus, near Cocking, we were in for a weather shock. The sun had been replaced by drizzle and mist. And it was cold! OK, perhaps not Arctic conditions but we were dressed for summer. As were most of the other walkers we saw shivering in shorts and vests.

Devil's Jumps round barrows
Devil’s Jumps round barrows

We warmed up a little with a long steady climb up onto the Downs. Our first stop was the Devil’s Jumps, a series of five Bronze Age mounds. Local folklore suggests the devil used to jump between the barrows; strangely this story is also attributed to similarly named burial mounds in the next door county.

Near Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way
Near Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way

We continued onwards towards Pen Hill. Given the weather it was typical that our guidebook was full of praise about the extensive views we would see that morning. From Chichester cathedral to the Isle of Wight. Not to mention the sunlit glades we were going to walk through. Instead we walked under dripping trees, views completely obscured by mist. As we walked near Monkton House we heard the distant sounds of peacocks through the gloom.

Walking towards Beacon Hill (in the mist)
Walking towards Beacon Hill (in the mist)

We climbed Pen Hill (splendid panorama from the crest, evidently) and traversed around Beacon Hill. Although it’s possible to take a shortcut over the next summit, Beacon Hill, it’s not strictly the South Downs Way so we kept to our longer route.

Misty Millpond Bottom, South Downs Way
Misty Millpond Bottom, South Downs Way

After lunch, we headed uphill again, tackling Harting Down. Past Harting we found ourselves on a quiet road bordered with a long row of copper beech trees. I don’t think I’d registered the existence of different coloured beech trees beforehand but everywhere I go now I see them.

Orchids at Coulters Dean Nature Reserve
Orchids at Coulters Dean Nature Reserve

Just before Buriton the track passes close to Coulters Dean Nature Reserve and I couldn’t resist a short detour to go orchid spotting. The rest of the family don’t share my passion so they took a break. If only they knew what they missed! Hundreds of orchids cloaking a realitively small patch of chalk downland. I was in heaven.

The ducks thought they'd get fed!
The ducks thought they’d get fed!

As we arrived in Buriton the sun finally broke though the mist. We sat by the village pond and teased the ducks before tackling the last three miles (off the official trail) to our evening accommodation in Petersfield.

South Downs Way: Day 4 – Cocking to Amberley (12 miles)

After an overnight stay in our first ever Airbnb we left early to drive to Midhurst, our car parking spot for the day.

From Midhurst we returned by bus once more to the car park near Cocking. There was no repeat of the previous day’s weather. Instead we were greeted with glorious sunshine.

The start of our fourth day on the South Downs Way
The start of our fourth day on the South Downs Way

Our day started, as usual, with a climb. That’s the thing about the South Downs. The villages and facilities are generally off the route so walkers will often find themselves adding an extra mile or two (down and up) to gain access. Still, what’s an extra mile or two when the views are so lovely? Ask me that again at the end of the day!

Plenty of flint in the fields on Westburton Hill
Plenty of flint in the fields on Westburton Hill

Much of the morning’s walk took us through or beside woodland. We found more burial mounds on Heyshott Down. Whilst on Graffham Down we passed several meadows protecting chalk downland (and yes, more orchids).

Lunch stop after Bignor Hill descent
Lunch stop after Bignor Hill descent

Later on we walked across large open fields, full of flint. I don’t envy the farmers growing crops around here. We followed an old Roman route, Stane Street, towards Bignor Hill. I was sorely tempted to detour off to Bignor Roman Villa.

That’s my only regret with our tightly co-ordinated weekends. Losing the ability to head off the track and visit nearby villages and attractions. Of course, there’s plenty to see on the route itself. But how I wanted to visit the villa!

Looking back towards Westburton Hill
Looking back towards Westburton Hill

We ate our lunch sitting beside the path. People watching. The South Downs Way was much busier than on our previous weekend. Aside from the ubiquitous cyclists we were in awe of a group of army lads carrying a 16 stone dummy on a stretcher and bemused by an elderly backpacker pushing his dog in an all terrain buggy.

Single poppy on the South Downs Way, near Amberley
Single poppy on the South Downs Way, near Amberley

The last stretch was a race against rain clouds. Unusually for the SDW we found ourselves following a tidal river embankment. With impeccable timing we managed to reach Amberley just as the heavens opened.

The gathering clouds! View from Westburon Hill
The gathering clouds! View from Westburton Hill

From Amberley it was a short train journey to Pulborough and a long wait for our bus to Midhurst. The rain turned torrential and I thought of all the people still out walking. Whilst we sat in a cafe, eating cake and staying dry!

More info:

  • We relied on the Cicerone Walking the South Downs Way guidebook. It’s perfect for us as it describes the route in both directions.
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Lavender fields and a cold war bunker, near Broadway, Worcestershire

The kids could barely contain their excitement when I told them we were going to visit a lavender field. Followed by a Cold War bunker. A strange combination perhaps but as they’re only a few miles apart I thought it was the perfect opportunity to visit two more places on my UK bucket list.

My youngest stated he’d prefer to stay at home on the Xbox and the eldest asked why we couldn’t just go to Thorpe Park instead (like normal people). Surely, I suggested to them, it’s more fun to experience an authentic Cold War bunker….

Cotswold Lavender Farm, near Snowshill

Lavender fields have become a ‘thing’ in the last couple of years. Similar to bluebell woods. Everyone jostling to get a photo of their loved ones sitting amongst the flowers. But there’s a reason for their popularity. They’re incredibly photogenic!

Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill
Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill

Cotswold Lavender is open from mid-June until the flowers are harvested in early August. We visited the first weekend in July, a good but busy time to choose.

Our visit began with a walk past some of the 40 different varieties of lavender grown at the farm. Ranging in colour from pale lilac to a dark purple I never realised there were so many different varieties.

We progressed to walking around the main fields. These were planted with homogeneous dark purple bushes; very pretty but I couldn’t actually smell any lavender.

Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill
Cotswold lavender farm, near Snowshill

Regardless of the smell the bees were loving the flowers. It was great to see, and hear, so many varieties. The fields were literally buzzing.

Visitors are free to walk as they wish around the fields. It was lovely to have this freedom but I would have liked the option of a guided tour to learn more about the farm.

Wildflower Meadow, Cotswold Lavender
Wildflower Meadow, Cotswold Lavender

Almost as photogenic as the lavender field was the wildflower meadow. The reds, yellows and blues of once common flowers nodding in the breeze. My enjoyment tinged with the sad recognition that I haven’t seen a single wild cornflower this year.

Cotswold Lavender, near Snowshill
Cotswold Lavender, near Snowshill

We ended with a trip to the gift shop and cafe. I resisted all of the lavender perfumed and flavoured items in the shop. But not the lavender brownie in the cafe. Although we played it safe and bought a non-lavender cake too just in case it tasted awful (it didn’t).

Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower

After lunch in Broadway we drove onto Broadway Tower. We climbed the tower a few years ago but missed out on its underground attraction, a restored Cold War bunker.

Climbing down into the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower
Climbing down into the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower

The bunker is a few minutes walk from the tower. Accessed via a ladder, down a 14 foot shaft, this is not for those with a fear of heights or claustrophobia. We descended one at a time; the family next to us helpfully shouting up encouragement to their children. Along the lines of “It’s a lot harder than it looks!”

Climbing down into the Cold War bunker at Broadway Tower
Climbing down into the Cold War bunker at Broadway Tower

Once we’d all descended our guide explained that the bunker was built in the late 1950s and operated until 1991. It formed part of a nationwide monitoring network of bunkers, all built to the same design and equipped with state of the art (as was) detection facilities.

The bunkers weren’t designed to protect occupants from a direct nuclear hit. Manned by volunteers from the Royal Observer Corp their aim was to help determine the location of bombs and direction of fallout.

Inside the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower
Inside the Cold War bunker, Broadway Tower

We listened to a short recording as our guide pointed out the various pieces of equipment. I was strangely excited to see a nuclear warning siren!

In addition to the scientific instruments the room was kitted out with bunk beds, a separate toilet and sufficient food and water for three weeks. Minimal privacy though, you’d get to know your fellow workers very well.

I’m sure my kids thought this was all ancient history but I was a teenager in the 1980s and remember the threat of nuclear war. The bunker provides a fascinating insight into the Government’s emergency plans and precautions. Although with hindsight I do wonder how effective they’d be.

Despite the kid’s grumbles both loved the Cold War bunker, a definite hit. As was the lavender brownie!

More info:

  • Check the Cotswold Lavender Farm website for exact opening dates. Entrance is £3.50 for adults and £2.50 for children aged 5-15 yrs.
  • Entrance to the Cold War bunker is by guided tour only. These generally run hourly throughout summer weekends. There’s a maximum of 12 people and a minimum age of 12 years, tickets cost £4.50 per visitor.

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Untold Morsels
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Orchid spotting at Homefield Wood, Bucks

My family doesn’t share my love of orchids. Or, more specifically, the walks spent looking for them.

Back in mid-May we visited the BBOWT reserve at Homefield Wood in Buckinghamshire. Although relatively small it’s one of only three sites in the UK where military orchids flower, a good enough reason to drive an hour to reach it. Or at least I thought so!

Military orchids, Homefield Wood
Military orchids, Homefield Wood

The reserve is a short walk through the Forestry Commission’s woodland. As we arrived the military orchids were immediately visible in the meadow, along with other chalk loving plants. Aside from the flowers, the most impressive sight was the number of bees, insects and butterflies flying and buzzing around the grassland. Something that is sadly lacking on my local farmland walks.

However, despite the rarity of military orchids (in the UK), they weren’t my favourite find.

Fly orchid, Homefield Wood
Fly orchid, Homefield Wood

I preferred the fly orchid. Although it was only when another visitor pointed one out to me that I realised I’d already walked past several without realising. It might have been hard to spot but it’s easy to identify. Why? The fly orchid, erm, looks like a fly!

Common twayblade, Homefield Wood
Common twayblade, Homefield Wood

Alongside the fly orchids I found common twayblade. Compared to other orchids it’s nondescript so I didn’t mention it to the family. If they’re not excited by colourful orchids how would I interest them in this one?

Walking through Homefield Wood
Walking through Homefield Wood

The family had skulked off into the woods at this point. My other half looking for birds, my son and daughter taunting each other with sticks. I remained in the meadow, chatting to a couple of visitors laden with expensive looking camera gear.

Military orchids, Homefield Wood
Military orchids, Homefield Wood

They told me most of the military orchids were in another field, a short walk away through the wood. I headed over to find a much larger patch, some roped off to protect them from human feet. Volunteers cleared this area several years ago allowing the orchids to flourish and conservation work looked ongoing. Thanks to these efforts over 700 military orchids were recorded on the reserve in 2016.

Walking back to the entrance I detoured into the woodland to find my last orchid of the day, white helleborine, growing under the beech trees. I strolled happily back to the car to find the family waiting, bored, hot and only placated by the promise of an ice cream.

If you, unlike my family, are interested in orchids you might also enjoy reading my posts about Hartslock and Warburg nature Reserves.

More info

  • Homefield Wood is 2.5 miles from Marlow. It’s not the easiest reserve to find so follow the directions on the BBOWT website.
  • I highly recommend Peter Creed’s ‘Guide to finding orchids in Berkshire,  Buckinghamshire and Oxfordshire’.
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A Mother’s Day walk from Watlington, Oxfordshire

What would your perfect Mother’s Day look like? Mine would start with breakfast in bed followed by a walk and picnic. Later on the children would complete the housework with not a moan or groan to be heard. Likelihood of this happening in our family? Zilch. But at least the walk and picnic happened!

Along the Ridgeway, Watlington

Our walk began in the small market town of Watlington, at the foot of the Chiltern Hills. It’s home to some interesting looking independent shops (OK, it has a chocolate shop) but the shops were closed on Sunday and the town deserted.

Watlington is also home to the actor Jeremy Irons. I saw him here a few years back; out riding a horse and accompanied by a couple of dogs. He greeted us cheerfully but I didn’t recognise him; fortunately my fellow walkers did!

There was no sign of Jeremy on this walk. Surprisingly, for such a lovely spring day, we saw very few people.

Walking the Ridgeway, near Watlington
Walking the Ridgeway, near Watlington

From Watlington we joined the Ridgeway National Trail, our local long distance path. We walked for a mile or so between fields and the edge of woodland, listening to skylarks and spotting the first butterflies of the year. A little further along we left the Ridgeway and walked through fields of lambs. Although inquisitive and playful they ran to their mums as soon as I attempted to photograph them.

Lambs near Aston Rowant reserve
Lambs near Aston Rowant reserve

Aston Rowant National Nature Reserve

I’d checked the map for possible picnic sites before leaving home. We were following a walking trail leaflet but I decided a diversion was needed for a good lunch stop. The viewpoint on top of Bald Hill, which forms part of Aston Rowant Nature Reserve, was slightly off route and, of course, uphill but proved the perfect location. Although my son wasn’t enamoured with the climb and announced he’d eat at the bottom instead.

Walking up Bald Hill, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve
Walking up Bald Hill, Aston Rowant Nature Reserve

Despite my son’s protestations we set out our picnic on the summit. Thanks to my daughter we enjoyed a special Mother’s Day picnic that was a more elaborate affair than our usual sandwiches, with quiche, dips, homemade sweet potato crisps and fruit kebabs.

Picnic on Bald Hill, near Watlington
Picnic on Bald Hill, near Watlington

Rather incredibly, the M40 splits Aston Rowant Nature Reserve in half. If you’ve ever driven from Oxford to London along the motorway you’ll have passed through it at Stokenchurch Gap, usually signalled by red kites flying high above the traffic.

Red kites were reintroduced here in 1989 and are a huge success story. They’re now widespread across Oxfordshire and the surrounding counties with more than 1000 breeding pairs recorded. Ironically we didn’t see a single kite as we ate our picnic.

Instead we sat on our peaceful hilltop and watched the mesmerising stream of motorway traffic, wondering where everyone was driving to. How happy we were not to be in a car!

Aston Rowant nature reserve
Aston Rowant nature reserve

After lunch we walked downhill to rejoin the trail. I’m glad we visited the reserve; great views are an important part of any walk for me and Bald Hill was well worth the climb. Dare I say the walk would have been a tad boring without it?

Lewknor village

We crossed the road into Lewknor and walked through the village, resisting temptation to stop for a drink at the Leathern Bottle. Many of the houses in Lewknor and the small hamlet of neighbouring South Weston are constructed from brick and flint which is abundant in the Chiltern Hills. I love this style of building; a pity we live in a 1960s house.

Back on farm tracks we passed near to Model Farm. Its imposing chimney harks back to the days of steam power but the farm also has a more controversial recent history. In 1999 it was one of the UK trial sites for genetically modified crops. That’s until protestors converged on the farm and destroyed the GM oilseed rape crop!

A boy, a stick and a stream!
A boy, a stick and a stream!

The fields around here were also used as the filming location for the 2014 war epic Fury, starring Brad Pitt. I wonder if he fought in the same area as the GM crop protestors?

St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

There were more signs of spring in Pyrton where the churchyard is famous for its spring daffodil display.

St Mary's Church, Pyrton
St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

The weekend before our visit was Daffodil Sunday when, in addition to visiting the daffodils, there’s afternoon tea on offer in the village hall; something to remember for next year.

As we walked around the churchyard my son spotted a headstone for a young sailor lost in the 1914 sinking of HMS Aboukir. Just as sad was his brother’s gravestone next to it; another casualty of World War I. A sobering reminder of the importance of European unity.

Daffodils at St Mary's Church, Pyrton
Daffodils at St Mary’s Church, Pyrton

Back in Watlington we looked in vain for an open cafe. We were out of luck. Thankfully our drive home took us past a waterside cafe where we stopped for a break. Along, it seemed, with half the population of Oxfordshire!

  • We followed the Watlington to Lewknor and Pyrton walk with a side diversion into Aston Rowant Reserve. The main walk is flat and six miles long. The diversion up and down Bald Hill adds about one mile.
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