There were two over-riding themes to the month – snowdrop walks and city sightseeing.
February is snowdrop month. I cannot resist the lure of a snowdrop stroll. And, even better, they often come as a package, with coffee and cake.
The granddaddy of snowdrop locations in our area is at Welford Park, near Newbury. If you want to see a woodland full of snowdrops this is the place to come. It’s also full of people. Luckily the snowdrops are fenced off to stop the masses trampling them.
There’s another side to Welford’s fame too as later in the spring it becomes the filming location for the Great British Bake Off. As befits the GBBO location I’m pleased to report I had an excellent piece of fruit cake after our walk.
The snowdrops on our next walk at Braziers Park are on a much smaller scale than Welford. More of a side show really. Braziers Park is a community run mansion house, once lived in by Ian Fleming. Nowadays the volunteers and long term residents look after 55 acres of land, maintain the house and host courses and events.
The guided tour around the house (yes, I counted these steps) provided an interesting peep into life at Braziers Park. I think perhaps I’m too happy with my comfortable life to consider alternative living these days.
Afterwards we walked through the gardens and woodland. An unexpected hail storm blew in so we hid behind trees whilst the icy white stones bounced around us.
Last but not least, we visited Milton Manor. There were only a few snowdrops left so the main attraction turned out to be more cake. And walking through a field with llamas in.
Dotted throughout the grounds are a variety of play areas, including home made forts and tree houses. I’m not sure Health & Safety would approve but the estate grounds offer a Famous Five type of existence for children. The ‘Teenagers only’ rope bridge looked great fun!
Away from the snowdrops we managed some impressive miles on our half term trip to Ghent in Belguim. We walked 18 miles during our two full days of sightseeing.
I’ve driven past Beacon Hill many times whilst travelling north on the A34, but have only just got around to climbing it. On the summit, at 860ft, is Lord Carnarvon’s grave. Together with Howard Carter he famously discovered Tutankhamun’s tomb in the 1920s. His subsequent death, from an infected mosquito bite, contributed to the story of the Curse of Tutankhamun. The summit offers fine views of Lord Carnarvon’s pile, Highclere Castle, better known to TV viewers as Downton Abbey.
After climbing Beacon Hill we attempted the High above Highclere Walk from the AA website. I’m a fan of the AA walk books but learnt the hard way that it’s best to take an OS map too rather than rely on basic diagrams. Yes, we got lost. On the positive side, it meant we walked further than I’d originally planned!
Chalk pits, Blewbury
Our final February walk was an after lunch stroll to the viewpoint overlooking Blewbury, a local village. A very muddy climb up past an old chalk quarry to a well placed bench. Our walk back to the village took us past a Grand Designs style house building project. Wow.
There are different ways to approach the 1000 mile target. Some participants count every step, others include only miles in walking boots. I’ve chosen to include all purposeful walks, including my lunchtime strolls along with more rugged mountain walks. I’m excluding the mundane miles; shopping, walking around the house or trips into town. No pleasure in those.
My challenge got off to a slow start as I only decided to take part halfway through the month. Whilst you can start anytime I decided to back date it to the beginning of January so that all my miles are completed in 2018. This gives me an average weekly mileage target of 19.25 miles.
I’m not a winter person so I always knew getting outside in January would be tough. Give me warmth and sun over drizzle, mud and grey skies. I also run several days per week so when I’ve got wet and cold once there’s less incentive to go outside again.
It’s therefore no surprise that most mileage in January came from my daily lunchtime and other regular walks. We walked longer routes at the weekends, although sometimes it was just a loop around a nearby nature reserve.
Favourite January walks
A couple of walks stand out. My favourite was a nine mile circular walk from Goring-on-Thames to Pangbourne. The outward route took us up onto the hills where we stopped for a winter picnic. Battling muddy woods, muddy farm tracks and muddy fields (spot a theme?) we dropped down to Whitchurch and on to Pangbourne for a reviving cup of coffee. We walked back to Goring alongside the River Thames, enjoying the late afternoon sunshine. It’s an area I often visit in summer to see the rare orchids at Hartslock Nature Reserve, but this time we kept to the Thames Path trail and didn’t deviate into the reserve.
In Goring we stopped briefly at George Michael’s house. The lane outside has become a shrine for his fans, with flags, photos and mementos left from all over the world. It’s an impressive display but I wonder what the neighbours think!
Another weekend took us from Badbury Hill to Great Coxwell Barn and back through the woods. It was a drab, cold and muddy day, made interesting with a visit to the 13th Century Great Coxwell barn. This huge stone barn still has its original timber framed roof and it’s amazing to think of all the historical events that have taken place in its 700 year life. More muddy farm tracks took us back to Badbury Woods. In May these are awash with bluebells and visitors. In January there are clusters of snowdrops. Not enough to bring the serious photographers out but they still brightened up the day.
Despite my efforts, January ended with a mileage deficit. I’m not too worried as I’ll catch up in spring. I’m looking forward to some warmer mud free walks!
It’s taken me three months to write up the final section of our 100 mile South Downs Way walk. Perhaps I left it this long so that I forgot about the decidedly autumnal weather we encountered.
In theory it was an easy 25 miles, split over three days, from Housedean Farm to the trail finish at Eastbourne. Rather than booking accommodation at either end of the route we based ourselves in a Premier Inn in Eastbourne. This gave us the opportunity to bribe the kids with big breakfasts each morning.
Unlike its hip neighbour Brighton, Eastbourne has a genteel feel, particularly out of the summer season. It was raining as we arrived but after a wet and windy wander around Eastbourne Pier and beach we discovered the great advantage of staying in a tourist town. Lots of different places to eat out!
The forecast for the next day was dry and sunny with rain and mist the following days so I decided we’d walk the last, most picturesque stretch, of the South Downs Way first. In some ways this was a great decision as we got to enjoy the fabulous coastal scenery between Alfriston and Eastbourne. On the flip side, it meant we finished our overall South Downs Way walk in horrible weather in Alfriston. A lovely village but not the grand finish I’d envisaged.
Day 1: Alfriston to the end of the South Downs Way at Eastbourne (10.5 miles + 1.5 miles to the Pier)
At Alfriston the South Downs Way splits with an inland route for cyclists and horse riders, and a rollercoaster cliff top route for walkers. Whilst the inland route offers the impressive Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure there was no chance I’d miss out on the coastal walk.
We set out from Alfriston following the river through the Cuckmere Valley towards Litlington. With the wind behind us and the sun shining it was perfect weather for a walk. Overhead we watched some late swallows who showed no signs of leaving for warmer climes.
Despite missing out on the Long Man we spotted an alternative chalk figure, a white horse carved into a hill across the valley. We walked through the picture perfect hamlet of West Dean with its duck pond and laboured up 200 steps through Friston Forest. From here we descended to the Seven Sisters Country Park and our first cafe stop.
We’d arrived at Cuckmere Haven, a geography teacher’s idea of heaven with its meandering river and oxbow lakes. We’d visited with good friends several years ago and I even wrote about it in one of my earliest blog posts so despite its beauty we didn’t hang around longer than it took to drink a coffee.
We ignored the flat path to the beach and headed up onto the cliffs. The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs, with peaks and dips between each. The walking was easier than I expected, undulating rather strenuous, although I did stop for a lot of photo breaks. It’s incredibly beautiful but all my photographs look identical – blue sea, white cliffs and green hills.
As we neared Birling Gap a crane loomed beside the cliffs. This section of coastline has suffered severe erosion over recent years, indeed thousands of tonnes of chalk collapsed last year between Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap. The crane was helping to move beach access steps which have been affected by the erosion. Sadly there’s not much that can be done for the remaining coastguard cottages, which are slowly being lost to the sea.
Birling Gap is on the tour bus circuit and we saw a lot of tourists on the cliffs either side. I watched in disbelief as one man crawled under a fenced off section of collapsing cliff to take photographs over the edge. There are plenty of signs around advising of the cliff dangers but they obviously didn’t apply to him.
Our onward route took us past Belle Tout lighthouse. In 1999 this lighthouse was moved, with hydraulic jacks and concrete beams, 56 feet back from the cliff edge. I remember seeing it on TV at the time, what an incredible feat of engineering! That said, the lighthouse wasn’t good at being a lighthouse (too prone to fog) and after a variety of lives is now a bed and breakfast.
Belle Tout was replaced by the better positioned Beachy Head lighthouse, although it was harder to see this from the cliffs. In 2013 it was the subject of a ‘Save the stripes’ campaign after Trinity House announced they could no longer afford to paint its red and white stripes and would be leaving the building to return to its natural stone colour. Campaigners successfully raised £27,000 and the lighthouse had its distinctive markings restored.
It’s not far from Beachy Head to the metropolis of Eastbourne. The South Downs Way route finishes at the bottom of a hill on the outskirts of Eastbourne. There’s an information board about the trail and a conveniently sited cafe but we decided to walk on into the town, pleased to have completed the walk in good time.
Day 2: Housedean Farm, near Lewes to Southease (7.5 miles)
The idea of walking over three days rather than two was that we could split one long day into two two shorter ones. Useful in case of inclement weather. After all, how wet can you get in an afternoon? The answer? Very, as we found out.
With only a 7.5 mile walk planned for our second day we had plenty of time to spare. We ate a leisurely breakfast before driving to Southease railway station. The hourly train pulled in just as we arrived and we managed to jump on. Phew. It was only as we departed the station that we realised the train was going in the opposite direction to Lewes. Whoops!
After an unplanned visit to Newhaven we eventually arrived in soggy Lewes. I hoped the rain would ease off in time for our walk but it showed no sign of abating so we ate a quick lunch and decided to head out. Boarding the bus towards Brighton we disembarked at Housedean Farm, where we’d finished after our walk from Truleigh Hill YHA.
I can barely remember the walk. With our hoods up we focussed on the ground in front of us. It was wet, windy and misty. There were supposed to be views. I didn’t see any. I attempted a few photographs but my phone got wet and gave up on me. It didn’t want to be outside either. My memories from this walk? The time we stopped for a chocolate break, a large field of pumpkins and crossing the meridien line. That’s it.
We perked up as we walked into Southease village. I’d parked in the YHA car park so it was only fair to give their cafe some custom. Despite being soaked the kids decided to stay outside and watch some cows being herded down the lane. I preferred to peel off my wet layers and drink coffee instead.
The day had one last sting in the tail. In my haste to return to the hotel I didn’t stop at the multi storey car park entrance barrier. I drove straight through and knocked it down. I have no excuse, I literally didn’t see it. The kids thought it was hilarious. The car park attendant wasn’t at all amused. I was the second person that day to knock it off. I retreated to my room with my tail between my legs.
Day 3: Southease to Alfriston, and on to Berwick (6.5 miles + 2.5 miles)
The downside of staying in a Premier Inn is that there’s no drying room for wet gear. Our waterproofs (I use that word cynically) and wet clothing hung from every hook and item of furniture. The kids had even attempted to dry their boots with the hairdryer. Still, it was our final day on the South Downs Way! Time to put on our walking gear for one last time.
Returning to the car park I hoped to avoid the attendant I’d upset the previous day. As I stood at the pay machine looking for my ticket I realised I hadn’t collected one the previous day. After all, I’d driven straight through the barrier, no ticket required. Oh the shame. I had to return to the attendant’s office, remind him about my misdemeanour and ask to be let out of the car park. Unlike the previous day he now found it hilarious. As did my children. Three months on they still comment on every car park barrier we approach.
We left our car at Berwick Railway Station and boarded the train back to Southease via Lewes. Fortunately the heavy rain had passed through but we were left with a misty drizzle and, at times, a fierce wind.
As we headed up Itford Hill we discovered the over-riding theme for the day. Cows. There were cows in almost every field. Huge beasts suddenly appearing in the mist on the path ahead of us. I’m not keen on cows but at least these were docile animals, more interested in grass than chasing walkers.
One benefit of the mist was that we didn’t see the radio masts on Beddingham Hill until we were almost next to them. I bet they stick out like a sore thumb on clear days.
Annoyingly the mist also meant we missed out on views down to the Seven Sisters and Cuckmere Haven. Instead we had to content ourselves with guidebook descriptions of all the things we couldn’t see.
On Bostall Hill we suddenly found ourselves buffeted by a strong wind. The kids had great fun being blown around with their jackets unzipped and arms up in the air like bats.
Just before reaching Alfriston we passed a large field full of horses. I mean full. Maybe fifty horses and ponies. All of whom hoped we had something to eat. They were out of luck.
Before long we were walking the final section of the track down into Alfriston. The end of our epic walk. I’m not sure what I expected. A congratulations banner strewn across the street? A welcoming party? Perhaps we should have told them we were coming. Instead we hung around the village centre for a while, hoping a bus would magically arrive and take us to our car at Berwick. It didn’t so we went for a celebratory cake and cream tea before walking back to our car at Berwick ready for the long drive home.
The great thing about staying in Eastbourne has to be the evening meals out. Over the course of our stay we ate at Pomodoro e Mozarella, Toreros Tapas and Half Man Half Burger and I’d happily recommend them all.
We stayed at the Town Centre Premier Inn in Eastbourne. You know exactly what you’re getting with a Premier Inn and this delivered it.
Trains and buses. There’s a lot of public transport options along this part of the trail which was great for us. We made use of the stations at Berwick, Southease and Lewes, along with buses from Eastbourne and Lewes.
After a summer break we returned to walking the South Downs Way with the children. We’ve already completed the sections from Winchester to Buriton and from Buriton to Amberley. This time our walk took us from Amberley to near Lewes, with an overnight stop at Truleigh Hill YHA.
Amberley to Truleigh Hill YHA (14 miles)
As with our other South Downs weekends the logistics of linear walks take some organising. This time we had an early morning drive to Three Bridges railway station where we left the car for the weekend. From Three Bridges we took a half hour train ride to Amberley, our starting point.
Unlike our previous visit the sun was shining and our feet and shoulders were fresh and ready for the walk. Amberley is evidently the prettiest village on the South Downs Way but it was too early in the morning to get distracted by tea rooms so we skirted the centre and headed steeply uphill to join the crest of the Downs.
The path continued upwards, passing the fenced off trig point on Rackham Hill. A while later we decided to take the diversion which avoids crossing the busy A24 dual carriageway and enters Washington instead. Although longer it allowed us a quick drink in the pub and the chance to refill water bottles.
Suitably refreshed we climbed again up to Chanctonbury Ring whose beech trees mark the site of an Iron Age fort and a Roman temple. Sadly much depleted by the great storm of 1987 there are several legends connected to them. Did you know you can summon the devil by running anti-clockwise round the clump seven times? Or that women can increase their fertility by sleeping beneath the trees for a night. Needless to say we didn’t try either of these.
Onwards towards the amphitheatre of Steyning Bowl, nicely framed by a field punctuated with sunflowers. In the far distance we saw the radio masts on Truleigh Hill, reminding us how far we still had to walk that day. We were also treated to views of the derelict Shoreham cement works. There are grand plans afoot to convert the works into an eco or holiday village, depending on which report you read. Until then it’s a blot on the landscape.
As we made our way down Annington Hill we were distracted by the sights and sounds of hundreds of pigs and piglets. Row after row of pigsties, full of sows lazing in the sun and piglets squeaking.
We crossed the road and climbed Beeding Hill, our last hill of the day. We met a couple of cyclists heading in the same direction and rather embarrassingly passed them on foot. In their defence it was a steep hill and perhaps easier to walk than cycle up!
The last mile or so was a long slog along the road to the Youth Hostel. Taunted by other guests arriving in their cars, and the cyclists overtaking us again. It was a relief to finally arrive at the YHA!
Overnight at Truleigh Hill YHA
This was the perfect location for our overnight stop. The building design was nothing to write home about but the hostel is right on the South Downs Way so no extra mileage required.
After a short rest we were picked up by friends for an evening meal and discovered that even though a pub is a couple of miles away as the crow flies it’s a whole lot further when you need to use the roads! After a twenty minute drive, via Shoreham, we arrived at the pub and decided the menu wasn’t for us. Fortunately the pub in the next village was more promising and, surprisingly, had availability on a Saturday night. An excellent evening of catching up with old friends ensued.
Back at the hostel we had a good night’s sleep and a reasonable breakfast. Although I do wish the YHA would stop offering powdered scrambled eggs at breakfast. Yuck.
Truleigh Hill YHA to Housedean Farm, near Lewes (15 miles)
After a short walk we finally got to pass the radio towers which we’d seen from far away the previous day. The site is a former air defence radar station and underground there’s a nuclear bunker and tunnels. From the looks of the web it’s a favourite for urban explorers, which always sounds like an exciting, if slightly scary, hobby.
From the escarpment we were able to look down to Fulking and realise just how close the pub was to the South Downs Way. If you’re walking that is.
Our route took in a couple of major attractions, the first being Devil’s Dyke. It’s a deep V shaped valley and, given its name, unsurprisingly home to more legends about the devil. It was a huge attraction for the Victorians with thousands of daily visitors at the peak of its popularity.
After Devil’s Dyke we stopped for a drink at the WildFlour cafe. Located in a small walled garden at Saddlescombe Farm I was surprised to find that the current tenants of the farm had until recently farmed just a couple of miles away from our home. Small world.
I had shown remarkable restraint at the cafe so whilst walking through the village of Pyecombe I bought some brownie treats from a street stall. We ate these whilst walking up through the golf course, keeping an eye open for stray golf balls.
At Clayton there’s the chance to detour slightly off route to see the Jack and Jill windmills. Jack, a tower windmill, is privately owned and unusual because of it’s male name. Evidently windmills are usually given female names.
Jill windmill was another casualty of the Great Storm when she caught fire as a result of her sails moving whilst the brakes were applied. Fortunately members of the local Windmill Society came to the rescue. Nowadays, Jill is owned by Mid Sussex District Council and open to the public on summer Sunday afternoons (although it was also open when we visited in the morning). Visitors can buy stoneground flour, or just sit and enjoy the sound of the sails moving in the wind.
Onto Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex. It’s a popular destination, evidenced by the overflowing car park and ice cream van. There were plenty of cyclists too who had struggled up the steep road from Brighton. Rather them than me!
The final part of the walk was a bit of a trudge into the drizzle. That type of rain that gets you wetter than you realise. We quickened our pace to escape the rain, trotting through the woodland and down the steep hill to Housedean Farm, and the bus stop. I was relieved to discover there were frequent buses on Sunday as I really didn’t fancy walking beside the busy A27 into Lewes.
From Lewes we hopped on the train to Three Bridges, and returned to our car. Only 25 miles left of the South Downs Way!