In case it’s not obvious from my blog I’m one of life’s planners. For me, planning a holiday is half the fun; I like to know where I’m going and what I’m going to do when I’m there. I’m not so good with spontaneity. But sometimes I manage to ditch the plan.
A couple of years ago we visited the ghost village of Imber which was requisitioned by the Ministry of Defence in the Second World War. Tyneham is a similarly abandoned village, taken over by the military in 1943 and used as a training ground for the D-Day landings. The Army compulsorily purchased the land after the war and its 225 residents were never allowed to return.
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 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.
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.
- 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.
Woo hoo, I’ve completed the first of my British bucket list challenges, a walk to the top of Box Hill in Surrey. At 224m Box Hill would be a mere pimple if it was in the Lake District but down in this part of southern England it’s one of the higher hills.
The first part of the walk, alongside the busy A24 dual carriageway, wasn’t the tranquil stroll I hoped for. However it was a necessary evil to get us from the railway station to the foot of Box Hill.
Fortunately, as soon as we stepped off the main road we were away from the traffic noise and fumes. Instead we faced a steady climb uphill, the wet chalk underfoot making for a gooey path. We stopped a couple of times, looking out across Denbies Wine Estate, the largest vineyard in England. The estate attracts around 300,000 visitors per year with a visitor centre, cinema, restaurant and art gallery all appearing to contribute to the wine making experience.
Further on the hill levelled out and we were able to see cyclists tackling the famous Zig Zag Road to the top of Box Hill. This hill climb has been popular since the 1880s but achieved widespread fame in the 2012 Olympics cycling road race events. Given its proximity to London its a cyclist’s mecca, and particularly appeals to a certain cycling demographic.
National Trust cafe and visitor centre
We reached the top of the hill pretty quickly. At which point I realised how busy the Country Park gets. Although most people seem to drive to the top and then go for a walk rather than tackle the hill from the bottom. I’m sure that’s cheating!
I can understand why though as this is where the visitor facilities are located; toilets, information kiosk and of course a cafe. Albeit one that was heaving with small children and middle aged men in tight cycling gear. We’d bought a picnic with us but I couldn’t resist sharing a brownie with the children. Followed by a flapjack. Both very tasty. As was the picnic that followed.
Natural Play Trail
After lunch we wandered over to the Natural Play Trail. Whilst the kids have grown out of more traditional playgrounds the National Trust encourages everyone, not just youngsters, to enjoy its Natural Play Trail. Think stepping stones, balancing logs and trees to climb. Not that I saw any adults climbing trees.
The kids enjoyed it for about five minutes. Until my son slipped and flew, rather spectacularly, backwards off a tree trunk. Luckily he only had his pride, mud and a sore shoulder to deal with. The perils of natural play!
With the playground out of favour we continued with the walk, heading towards Salomons Memorial.
Salomons Memorial isn’t the highest point on Box Hill but its viewing platform is a target for most visitors. The view stretches more than 20 miles southwards and commemorates the donation of Box Hill by Leopold Salomons (or possibly Salomon, depending on whether you trust Wikipedia or the National Trust).
Whilst I enjoyed the view the kids had a mad five minutes, chasing each other up and down the steep grassy slope. When they rejoined me we followed the route down off the hill through some wonderfully shaped trees. I’m glad we chose to descend this way. The 275 steps made it seem a lot steeper than the route up.
Down at the bottom we reached one of the highlights, stepping stones across the River Mole. I smiled when I read the stones were temporarily removed in World War II as an anti-invasion strategy. If an invading army was deterred by the lack of a few stepping stones I doubt they’d get far anyway!
Once safely over the river we rejoined the A24, following the traffic into Dorking. Box Hill might not be the most exciting or adventurous option on my bucket list but it’s a place I’ve wanted to visit for a while. A good choice to complete as my first challenge. Now, which one next?
- Box Hill is open to the public from dawn to dusk. The National Trust cafe, shop and discovery zone are usually open from 10am-4pm except Christmas Day. Check the National Trust website for full opening details and links to walks.
The short grey days of winter do their best to encourage hibernation. Or at least give the kids an excuse to spend all day indoors on technology. Instead I lured them out with the promise of a pub lunch. I may have forgotten to tell them about the walk afterwards but they’re old enough to realise this for themselves now.
Lunch at The Bell Inn, Aldworth
I generally prefer cafes to pubs for lunch (more chance of cake) but I make an exception for the Bell Inn in Aldworth. This tiny traditional freehouse epitomises the classic English village pub; it even has a cricket pitch out back.
Whenever we visit the pub is packed with locals, walkers and families. As you enter there’s a small serving hatch to place your order for food and drink. A room leads off to one side with several tables and a fireplace but we’ve never managed to get a seat indoors yet.
Instead, after placing our order, we retreated to the pub garden to find a seat. There aren’t many places I’d consider sitting outside in the depths of winter but this is one of them. Fortunately we had a picnic rug in the car so I popped back to get it to cover the wet benches.
The food is simple, cheap and delicious. A choice of soup, rolls or ploughmans; I opted for a cheese and onion roll. The warm buttered roll arrived with a huge chunk of cheese, half an onion and various accompaniments. I don’t drink beer but the pub’s local ale offerings are evidently excellent.
Before leaving I squeezed back through the pub to pop to the Ladies. Compared to the men’s open air option this was luxury, although the plumbing looked circa 1930s.
A circular walk from Aldworth to Ashampstead
I had bought my trusty OS map with me so put together a circular walk of sorts, taking us from Aldworth to the next village, Ashampstead, visiting their renowned churches. The area is wonderful for walking with the Ridgeway and many downland options nearby. We were short on daylight though so only had time to squeeze in a couple of miles.
St Mary’s Church, Aldworth
St Mary’s Church is famous as the home of the Aldworth Giants, nine stone effigies of the De La Beche family. The family were local landowners in the 14th Century and were supposedly all over seven feet tall! Sadly the effigies were damaged during the Civil War so many sport broken limbs.
The church is also notable for its thousand year old yew tree. When I mentioned this to the family I was met with howls of despair. A few months earlier we had driven ‘halfway across France’ (so they say) to look at a thousand year old oak tree, which had rather underwhelmed them. The yew tree made even less of an impression than the oak. But at least we hadn’t made a special journey just to see it.
On to Ashampstead
Our onward route to Ashampstead wasn’t the best. It started out well with a muddy wander through the woods. Lots of pheasant feeding stations. Along with pheasants. Always ready to cause a heart attack by unexpectedly flying out of the undergrowth.
The downside was the road walking. There aren’t many direct routes, solely using footpaths, between the two villages so we resorted to using country lanes. These were nice enough and easier walking than mud. But the drivers were making the most of the open road, whizzing by us with little space to spare. Not the relaxing walk I was hoping for.
It was a relief to walk on footpaths again as we arrived in Ashampstead. Fun to spot this re-purposed telephone box cum library too. I’m glad the village managed to keep hold of it when so many are sold off to private owners.
St Clement’s Church, Ashampstead
I’m not a churchgoer so it’s pretty unusual for me to visit one church, let alone two in one day! But I’d read about the medieval wall paintings at St Clement’s Church and decided a visit was worthwhile. Probably painted by a monk in the 13th Century they were covered up in the 16th Century and only discovered again in the late 1800s when some plaster fell off the wall.
Some of the paintings were hard to make out but when you consider they’re more than 700 years old it’s an achievement they’re still there.
I was taken by the wooden bell tower too. I’m sure that when I had an I-Spy Churches book back in the 1970s, a wooden tower would have been worth a few more points than the common stone one!
With only an hour to go until dusk we didn’t hang around on the way back. Although some of the route was through woods we still had to contend with the roads and I didn’t fancy being caught out on them in decreasing light.
Walking back towards Aldworth we passed Beche Farm, once the site of the De La Beche family castle. Nothing remains these days, the only evidence of its existence being a silver seal which was dug up and donated to Reading museum. Onwards past Aldworth’s second pub, The Four Points. How does a village with only 300 inhabitants support two thriving pubs?
Back into Aldworth and the treat of some chocolate chip shortbread that I’d left in the car for our return. You didn’t really expect me to complete a walk without cake did you?
- The Bell Inn is closed on Mondays, with the exception of Bank Holidays. Bar food is served at lunchtime and early evening on all other days.
- I wouldn’t recommend our particular walking route! If you’ve got a day to spare the circular route from Goring along the Ridgeway is good. Alternatively grab the OS map and devise a longer route that avoids the roads where possible.
There are so many places I’d love to visit around the world but I don’t have the time or money to travel extensively. Fortunately there’s lots to see and do in the UK so I’ve created a bucket list which will keep me busy for the next few years.