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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 out walk 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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.
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.