Walking the South Downs Way with children: Part 1 Winchester to Buriton, Hampshire

Back in January I picked up Country Walking’s guide to Long Distance Paths. It was the perfect antidote to a wet New Year’s Day. I’ve always had vague plans to walk a long distance path but the logistics and lack of spare time put me off. However when I realised we could walk the 100 mile South Downs Way in four weekend stages I immediately started planning.

Fast forward three months and we’ve completed the first two days. How did we get on?

Winchester to Petersfield by bus

Most people start their walk in Winchester and head east, or in Eastbourne and head west. We did a bit of both due to the lack of public transport on Sunday. After parking in Winchester we caught the bus to Petersfield and then walked back to the city.

The downside? The number 67 bus takes 1 hour 20 minutes to reach Petersfield; twice the time it took us to drive to Winchester. At least we had an in-depth tour of the local villages en route!

Petersfield to Buriton (2.5 miles)

From the bus stop in Petersfield’s town square it’s a couple of miles to the South Downs Way (SDW) at Buriton.

I didn’t have a map for the walk to Buriton, relying instead on information I’d screenshot from the web. Fortunately it was a straightforward route following another long distance path, The Hangers Way. Or at least I thought it was. Turns out we didn’t end up on this at all but somehow took another route to the same destination. Don’t tell the family!

Buriton duck pond
Buriton duck pond

Buriton is a picture perfect English village with a 12th Century church, two pubs and a duck pond full of huge fish. It would have been lovely to sit beside the pond but time was already against us. We’ll be starting at Buriton when we walk the second stage so maybe next time.

South Downs Way: Day 1 – Buriton to Exton (12 miles)

From Buriton we picked up the trail into the wooded Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Despite lots of trail options it’s impossible to get lost as there are SDW signposts every 100m or so. Maybe they heard I was navigating?

The woods were busy with walkers, cyclists and a horse riding event. My son, who isn’t keen on horses, was some way back chatting (well, bickering) with big sister. Imagine his horror when several horses appeared, cantering along the path behind him. Big sister stepped up onto the bank out of their way. However he decided to run and catch up with us! I can still see the look of terror on his face as he sprinted towards us, closely followed by three horses. Fortunately they passed without incident but he’s even less of a fan of horses now.

By now the combination of our drive, bus journey and walk to join the South Downs Way meant it was already lunchtime. We’d bought a picnic which we supplemented with drinks from the conveniently located visitor centre cafe.

Climbing Butser Hill, Queen Elizabeth Country Park
Climbing Butser Hill, Queen Elizabeth Country Park

After lunch we crossed under the A3 and headed to the summit of Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way. We last visited Butser Hill several years ago when we watched egg rolling on an Easter Monday.

Near Whitewool Farm
Near Whitewool Farm

As we climbed the chalk hill towards the radio masts on top there were great views back of the A3. Supposedly of the Isle of Wight too, but I could only make out the sea. And traffic.

Summit ticked, we followed a quiet road and track for a couple of miles along a broad ridge with views across the Meon valley.

Near Wether Down
Near Wether Down

It wasn’t long since our earlier coffee break but I’d already planned afternoon coffee at the Beech Cafe, part of the Sustainability Centre. There’s hostel accommodation here too; albeit not the most aesthetically pleasing. This, in part, is because the site was once home to HMS Mercury, the Royal Naval Communications and Navigation School.

Meon Springs fly fishery
Meon Springs fly fishery

We walked on, through the ripening oilseed rape fields. At one point there were rain clouds in all directions except the way we were walking. Not just any rain clouds either. Torrential downpour clouds.

They looked particularly ominous as we neared Meon Springs fly fishery. It was a beautiful spot, complete with refreshment shed, but even I couldn’t justify another break.

Old Winchester Hill Nature Reserve
Old Winchester Hill Nature Reserve

Instead we took the uphill path towards Old Winchester Hill. I was keen to visit this Iron Age fort as it’s on my UK bucket list. So why was I underwhelmed? Perhaps it was the threatening clouds or the knowledge it was already 5pm and we still had a couple of miles to walk; we didn’t hang around. Maybe one day we’ll return and explore at leisure.

We upped our pace off the hill, trying to outwalk the rain. This was successful but meant there was no time to enjoy the trail which follows a pretty stream into Exton. Instead, relief as we reached the village knowing our first day was complete.

Overnight at Corhampton Lane Farm B&B

Corhampton Lane Farm B&B was exactly what we needed at the end of our walk.

The B&B is located in Corhampton which is slightly off route but the owner, Suzanne, picked us up from Exton.

Corhampton Lane Farm B&B
Corhampton Lane Farm B&B

As we walked into the house Suzanne pointed out a lemon drizzle cake for us to help ourselves to. We were eating out in less than an hour so I actually bypassed the cake. Completely out of character I know. Instead we sufficed ourselves with hot drinks.

Our family room was generously sized with its own private bathroom. Most importantly, from the kids perspective, it had Kit Kats on the tea tray and Wi-Fi!

Dinner at The Shoe Inn, Exton

I’d tried to book a table at the local pub, The Shoe Inn, earlier in the week only to be told it was fully booked. Thankfully Suzanne was one step ahead and had already reserved us a table. Phew! Even better, she kindly dropped us in and picked us up from the pub later that evening.

The Shoe Inn, Exton
The Shoe Inn, Exton

The food was excellent. I chose spaghetti with wild garlic, goats cheese and pesto whilst my other half opted for a pie. The kids ate from the children’s menu as the portions were huge. Our desserts included panna cotta, ice creams and crumble, albeit this was slightly let down by the incredibly sweet fruit.

South Downs Way: Day 2 – Exton to Winchester (12 miles)

After a good night’s sleep we fuelled up with breakfast. Once again Suzanne drove us back, this time to the local village shop so we could buy snacks for the walk ahead.

Shortly after leaving Exton we tackled the main climb of the day. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky as we walked to the summit of Beacon Hill.

Near Wind Farm
Near Wind Farm

A little further along we found the first bluebells of spring; pretty impressive for the start of April.

We stopped for a late morning drink at The Milburys Pub. I wasn’t impressed with the service; smiles and pleasantries were in short supply but it was lovely to sit outside in the sun.

Lunch stop on the South Downs Way
Lunch stop on the South Downs Way

Leaving the pub behind we walked for another couple of miles before stopping next to an old barn for lunch.

Afterwards we walked over the wide open Gander Down. This was my favourite part of the second day despite it coinciding with my son having a grumpy moment (or two).

This section of the SDW was by far the busiest. I hadn’t fully appreciated the SDW is also a bridleway (with some diversions). Cyclists easily outnumbered walkers. That was until we passed a huge group of scouts and cubs on an afternoon hike.

Walking over Gander Down
Walking over Gander Down

The natural amphitheatre of Cheesefoot Head is a couple of miles from Winchester. I’d hoped to find an ice-cream van in the car park but no such luck. Cheesefoot Head is probably most famous as the location where General Eisenhower addressed the American troops before D-Day. Although I prefer its alternative claim to fame as a crop circle location.

Arriving into Winchester, via a footbridge over the M3, was an anti-climax. It’s usually the start or finish of the SDW but for us it was just the end of the second day. Although it was the perfect weather for a celebratory ice cream before our drive home.

Celebratory ice cream in Winchester
Celebratory ice cream in Winchester

How did the kids do?

A couple of people have asked how the kids coped with the walk. As they’re 14 and 12 years old they’re both capable of walking the distance, particularly as we already walk a fair amount anyway.

It wasn’t all plain sailing though. Our feet were hurting at the end of the second day and the last couple of miles were hard-going for all of us. We walked a total of 15 miles on day one (or 42,566 steps according to my son’s Fitbit). Day two felt longer although it wasn’t. I don’t think we’d have coped well with a third continuous day of walking.

In addition to sore feet there were also sore shoulders. I’d overseen the rucksack packing but a few extras were added to my daughter’s bag. And, being a teenager, she wasn’t going to listen when we suggested taking things out!

As always, snacks and brief stops worked wonders for all of us.

More info:

  • I found the Rambling Man’s blog of his South Downs Way walk invaluable as he also breaks his walk down into public transport stages.
  • We used the Cicerone guide ‘Walking the South Downs Way’ as it describes the trail both west to east and east to west. It includes OS maps of the trail but have a back up plan if you need to walk off trail e.g. for public transport or accommodation.
  • We stayed in the family room at Corhampton Lane Farm B&B which is perfectly set up for walkers.
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10 ideas for family Boxing Day walks in southern England

Boxing Day is the obvious day for a family walk over the Christmas period. It’s a great opportunity to get outdoors, blow the cobwebs away and walk off some of the excesses of the previous day.

We’ve walked all of the routes below with the children, most are 5 miles or less and linked to the relevant blog post. I’ve indicated below places that will be open on Boxing Day but it’s always safest to fill up your flasks and pack some turkey sandwiches just in case.

Lastly, excuse my fluid interpretation of ‘southern England’. It covers central southern England, with a nod to the counties on either side (Somerset and East Sussex). London somehow made it into the definition too!

1. Avebury stone circle and West Kennett, Wiltshire

Avebury
Avebury

Arguably one of the finest prehistoric walks in the country. A 5 mile AA route discovering the stone circle at Avebury, West Kennett Long Barrow and The Sanctuary. The stone circle is always open from dawn to dusk but the associated National Trust visitor centre and cafe will be closed on Boxing Day.

2. A walk from Regent’s Canal to Camden Lock, London

View along Regent's Canal
View along Regent’s Canal

A short gentle city stroll along Regent’s Canal, suitable for all ages. Wander past expensive houses, see the aviary at London Zoo and wonder what it would be like to live on a houseboat.

3. Lepe Loop, Hampshire

Lepe seafront
Lepe seafront

I’ve found a cafe that’s open on Boxing Day! The Lepe Country Park cafe will be open from 10am-4pm and is a great place to start your walk along the south coast. We followed the Lepe Loop which includes a lovely stretch along the shorefront.

4. Bath skyline walk, Somerset

Bath skyline trail
Bath Skyline trail

A varied walk around the outskirts of Bath passing the National Trust Prior Park Landscape Garden (open, including Tea Shed, on Boxing Day). Elsewhere on the walk you can play on the Family Discovery Trail on Claverton Down and enjoy Bathampton Wood.

5. Imber village, Salisbury Plain, Wiltshire

Imber village, Salisbury Plain
Imber village, Salisbury Plain

Looking for something completely different? The military training village of Imber is open to the public on Boxing Day (and until 0800 Thursday 5 January 2017).

6. Winchcombe to Belas Knap, Gloucestershire

Winchcombe walk
Winchcombe walk

There are many walks to choose from around Winchombe, as befits its ‘Walkers Welcome’ status. The walk up to Belas Knap is a great option for first time visitors with lovely views and a hill to get your heart rate going!

7. Seven Sisters Country Park, near Seaford, East Sussex

From the top of the Seven Sisters
From the top of the Seven Sisters

Definitely a walk to blow away cobwebs. Best for older children as there are steep hills and cliff edges. Park at the Visitor Centre and walk the South Downs Way over the Seven Sisters cliffs. It’s likely to be very busy, but there’s a good reason for its popularity – the views are stunning!

8. White Horse Hill and The Ridgeway, Oxfordshire

Our favourite local walk. Park in the National Trust car park and head up to the chalk figure on White Horse Hill. From here walk past Uffington Castle (grass mounds only) on to the Ridgeway and turn right. You can either follow a circular route back to the car or, if you want a longer walk, carry on along the Ridgeway to Waylands Smithy, a Neolithic burial long barrow.

9. Great Bedwyn and Wilton windmill walk, Wiltshire

Wilton Windmill
Wilton Windmill

An easy 5 mile walk along the Kennet and Avon canal, past Crofton Pumping Station and Wilton windmill. The windmill itself won’t be open but you can visit the outside at any time and use the picnic benches.

10. Hurst Castle, Hampshire

Hurst Point Lighthouse
Hurst Point Lighthouse

A bracing walk along a shingle spit to Hurst Castle, a coastal fortress built by Henry VIII. I’ve cheated a little by including this walk. The castle is actually closed on Boxing Day but open from Tuesday 27 December to Monday 2 January. If you can, it’s worth waiting the extra day to visit the castle.

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A family walk around Lepe Loop, Hampshire

“Are we near the sea yet?” my son asked as we drove into the beach car park at Lepe Country Park. “Er, yes, look in front of you”. To be fair, the drive down hadn’t provided any of the tantalising sea glimpses that normally precede arrival at a beach. But now the Solent sparkled just a few metres away from us.

Walking towards Watch House, Lepe
Walking towards Watch House, Lepe

The weather forecast was perfect for a weekend outing to the seaside; a day out to capture the remnants of summer. The busy car park informed us we weren’t the only ones with this idea. Although we were missing one essential item, a dog. You cannot take a dog onto Lepe family beach during the summer months. But from the start of October everyone brings their pooches for a paddle!

Family tradition dictates that we start our days out with a visit to a cafe. Fortunately Lepe had a beach cafe, albeit heaving with ramblers, families and day trippers all making the most of the autumn sun. We shared a couple of slices of cake, fuel for our morning walk.

Lepe Loop

Our route for the day was the 5 mile Lepe Loop. The circular trail runs west along the beachfront before heading inland along footpaths and gravel tracks. It’s an easy route to follow, both in terms of terrain and navigation. The walk is marked throughout with Lepe Loop signs.

Turnstone on Lepe beach
Turnstone on Lepe beach

As we set off along the seafront a small flock of turnstone ran back and forth, flying off whenever we got too close only to land again a few feet in front of us. They entertained us for quite some time and I even managed a couple of photos during one of their rare standing still(ish) interludes.

The Isle of Wight looked deceptively close. So close that if it wasn’t for the busy shipping channel you could almost imagine swimming over (well, not me, I’m a terrible swimmer). There were a couple of hardy swimmers taking a morning dip closer to shore. Evidently the sea is at its warmest tempersture in late summer but rather them than me.

Walking along Lepe beach
Walking along Lepe beach

Along the waterfront we found clumps of pampas grass. I hardly see them nowadays but I’m old enough to remember when every house in the 1970s had a clump in the front garden. Although in my naivety I’ve only just discovered that it was evidently a signal for couples who enjoyed other activities too!

Lepe Lighthouse

Our route took us past the small, but perfectly proportioned, lighthouse. It’s officially a Millenium River Beacon, and looks much older than it actually is. Only built in 2000 its job is to steer seafarers into the Beaulieu River fom the busy Solent.

Around Lepe lighthouse
Around Lepe lighthouse

We coincided our walk with high tide so followed the detour onto a country lane near Inchmery House. As we walked past we were intrigued by the extensive CCTV signs. Minutes later a police car cruised slowly by so we decided it was time to Google the owner. This turned out to be the historian and TV presenter Dan Snow. Just as interesting were its former owners, mercenary Simon Mann and the Mitford and de Rothschild families. If walls could talk!

Picnic site on the Lepe Loop
Picnic site on the Lepe Loop

Although high tide scuppered plans to eat our picnic on the beach we managed to find a spot on the edge of the salt marsh at the junction of the high and low tide routes. With the warm October sun shining on us and calm water lapping at our toes it was an idyllic place.

Living inland, the huge appeal of walking the Lepe Loop was the first mile or so along the waterfront. Whilst the remainder of the walk was pleasant enough I can trek through fields and along tracks almost any day. That’s my excuse for realising I’d taken lots of photographs of the beach, but none of the rest of the walk!

View from Lepe Country Park over the Solent
View from Lepe Country Park over the Solent

D-Day at Lepe

After the main walk we wandered east along the beach to look for the World War II remains. The beach was used for loading heavy equipment in preparation for the D-Day invasion, and some of the structures are still visible. There’s an information board that explains the various items; the rusty platforms below are known as dolphins and were used to help load the departing ships.

World War II ruins, off Lepe beach
World War II ruins, off Lepe beach

We also found chocolate bars. Don’t get too excited, they’re made of concrete and although they appear to be modelled on Dairy Milk they were actually used to stengthen the beach so the tanks could be loaded onto the departing ships.

Elsewhere in the park there is a Cold War underground monitoring bunker which is being restored. Strange to think that when I visited Lepe as a child this was probably in use.

Returning to the car park we stopped for a while to watch a huge container ship manoeuvre itself out into the Solent from Southampton. It dwarfed the Isle of Wight Red Jet ferry and reminded me just how busy this stretch of water is. Although perhaps quieter than our M3 journey home!

More info

  • We followed the route in the Lepe Loop walking leaflet. Available via the online link and as a printed copy (costs 50p) at the visitor centre in the car park.
  • It cost £6 for a day’s parking at Lepe Country Park. It’s cheaper out of season although Hampshire County Council still classify October as summer. There’s a cafe, small visitor centre and toilet facilities.
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Exploring Roman Silchester, Hampshire

For many years I’d planned to visit one of the archaeological dig open days at Roman Silchester, just north of Basingstoke. The dig that Reading University organised every summer for the last 18 years. Until 2014. The archaeologists have evidently discovered all they need to know about Silchester and the dig is no more.

However, the small matter of a missing hole in the ground didn’t deter us from visiting the site. It’s still open for all to explore, even if it is mostly left to your imagination. This is not a place to visit for above ground ruins (apart from the walls). Do go if you’re happy to imagine and wonder what things may once have looked like.

Mortimer to Silchester

St Mary's Church, Mortimer (left) and St Mary the Virgin church, Silchester (right)
St Mary’s Church, Mortimer (left) and St Mary the Virgin church, Silchester (right)

Our exploration started from the railway station at Mortimer. I’d planned a walk from Mortimer to Silchester and on to Bramley railway station to get the train back home.

From the station we walked down past St Mary’s Church and then followed a small brook. Although the banks were overgrown there were several places where you could access the stream. It was lovely and clear, very inviting on a warm summer day. The summer sun had bought out masses of butterflies and insects, with chirping grasshoppers all around.

Stinking chamomile (I think)
Stinking chamomile (I think)

Leaving the brook, we cossed the railway line and walked a short distance along a quiet road, onto the Devil’s Highway. This is a Roman road that leads up to Silchester. Nowadays it runs through a field of linseed; very pretty blue flowers but no insects anywhere. The last part runs through a cattle field; we skirted around the edge rather than take the footpath through the middle of the herd. We were ready to jump over the fence if needed!

Silchester – Calleva Atrebatum

The Roman town of Calleva Atrebatum was built on the site of a previous Iron Age settlement. The town was a major trading centre with local goods, such as chariot gear, exchanged for slaves and metals.

Our first stop was the amphitheatre. It is hard to believe that upwards of 4500 spectators once packed into the relatively small arena. Nowadays only the flint walls which supported the seats remain. A small track runs around the top of the seating bank.

Roman amphitheatre, Silchester
Roman amphitheatre, Silchester

We ate our picnic lunch overlooking the amphitheatre before following the walls around the site of the Roman town. The town was designed on a grid system, the layout determined from aerial pictures taken during a dry summer. It included public baths, the forum basilica, temples and housing.

Roman excavation site, Silchester
Roman excavation site, Silchester

This is where the recent archaeological action took place. From 1997-2014 the Town Life project excavated one block known as Insula IX. This area contained high status housing, a fact that archaeologists have determined from the presence of exotic plants such as figs in the cesspit soils. Nowadays the area has reverted to scrubland; you wouldn’t know it was a dig site without the sign.

Silchester was abandoned in the fifth or sixth century and unlike most other Roman towns in the area wasn’t settled on again. The present village of Silchester was built in the 17th Century on a site to the west of Calleva Atrebatum.

Crossing the alpaca field, near Silchester
Crossing the alpaca field, near Silchester

Silchester to Bramley

Leaving Silchester we took our first ever footpath through an alpaca field. The kids were desperate to stroke them but they wisely stayed on their side of the field.

The best laid walking plans sometimes go wrong. After passing the pretty church at Silchester we were supposed to follow the Brenda Parker Way through a field. However, faced with head high bracken and knee high stinging nettles and thistles we decided to give it a miss. Future walkers take note!

The route from Silchester to Bramley
The route from Silchester to Bramley

Instead we walked along a quiet country lane to the next hamlet, Three Ashes. Picking up another footpath we found ourselves walking towards a huge electricity sub-station with pylons and wires humming overhead, not the most scenic sight. It wasn’t all bad though; after walking through a couple of arable fields we found ourselves in cool woodland. A welcome relief from the overhead sun!

Walking through the wheat fields, near Silchester
Walking through the wheat fields, near Silchester

Our walk had one last sting in the tail. We were desperate for cold drinks when we arrived in Bramley so I popped into the bakery opposite the railway station to buy some. As the crossing barrier gates came down I realised there was no footbridge to access the railway platform. We had to watch from behind the barrier, with some annoyance, our train arrive and depart without us. Aargh!

Despite the nettles, electricity pylons and missed train we had a very enjoyable walk. At some point we’ll head to Reading Museum which has a dedicated Silchester collection. This includes artefacts recovered from the site, including the famous bronze Silchester eagle, stone sculptures and gold jewellery. Perhaps we’ll visit in winter when I can look back and remember the warmth of our summer walk!

More info

  • Silchester is open all reasonable hours; there is no entrance charge; further details on the English Heritage website.
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