The South Downs Way makes a good introduction to walking for children for several reasons.
- Because many road and rail routes cross the Way, it can easily be broken into short stages.
- The weather in Sussex and Hampshire is as good as any in Britain.
- For almost its whole 100 miles, the Way follows the scarp slope of the South Downs, giving good views in all directions.
- Gradients are gentle yet there is a clear impression of height.
- The Downs are chalk hills, so much of the Way rarely gets muddy (though for many children that may not be not a bonus!).
This is one of my favourite bookmarks! It only shows though the seaward variation out of Eastbourne; there is also an inland loop through Jevington to Alfriston, which I walked (on my own) in 2017 for completeness’ sake.
Towns, villages and country
Two contrasting towns form the start and finish: Eastbourne and Winchester. The one a creation of the dicovery of the merits of sea-bathing two centuries ago, the other woven in to the ancient history of England, in which even its splendid cathedral is still a newcomer.
The two county seats of Sussex, Lewes and Chichester, lend their influence to the Way, and are well visible, but both are skirted, as is Sussex’s modern city, Brighton & Hove. So unspoilt are the South Downs that there is scarcely a duff settlement anywhere in 100 miles, despite the best efforts of infilling. East Dean and Alfriston get us off to a good start, but if anything these are misleading; for relatively few settlements are encountered directly.
There’s a simple reason for this. Wherever it can, the Way follows the northern scarp of the Downs, by definition its highest part. With chalk hills especially, that essential for habitation – water – lies below the scarp. So what you will find is that the villages lie a mile or two from the Way, often to the north. It tends to mean that this is where refreshment lies too, though there are some good pubs to seek out directly on the Way.
Transport and accommodation
Eastbourne and Winchester both have main rail stations with regular services to London. Winchester is also on a cross-country route to the midlands. Southease and Amberley stations are right on the Way. You cross over the main lines to Brighton and Portsmouth – literally over, both are in tunnels where the Way would cross.
There are many useful bus services, including routes to Beachy Head, Alfriston, along the A27, A23 (Pyecombe), A24 (Washington) and A29, Devil’s Dyke, Cocking, South Harting, Buriton, QE Country Park (seasonal) and Exton.
For many stages we used public transport out of and back to London. Sometimes we had lifts, for example en route to family trips to Matthew’s grandparents, who lived a couple of miles south of Devil’s Dyke. Only twice did we stay overnight on the Way – at the splendid Gumber Bothy, and one pub night in Buriton. However the SDW is well supplied with accommodation, including youth hostels still, as well as many B&Bs and grander places in most of the villages along the Way, and in all the towns within easy reach.
While we were walking the Way, the first murmurings of a campaign to have the South Downs confirmed as a National Park were stirring. They finally bore fruit in 2009, and with luck the character of this delightful region will now be secured for future generations. Rather depends though on intrusions like fracking, now permitted in all national parks by a Tory government act of 2014, being prevented by public will.
Walking the South Downs Way
Skip to the Jevington loop
Tuesday 9 April 1996: Eastbourne to Birling Gap, and on to East Dean, five miles (four on SDW)
At the offical start of the walk on Eastbourne’s outskirts, we were waved off by Matthew’s grandparents. Many walkers start at the town pier, but this would have added two miles along the prom. The day started very misty and the two lighthouses of Beachy Head and Belle Tout loomed out to us. I even needed to take a reassurance bearing away from Belle Tout! But the sun broke through on the mile inland to East Dean – a diversion with two good reasons: we needed the bus back, and there is a super pub on the village green, where we took a coke (Matthew is 7) and a pint (Peter is 45) in blazing sunshine.
Saturday 13 July 1996: Birling Gap to Exceat, four miles
This is one of the most famous walks in southern England, across the chalk cliffs called the Seven Sisters. Whether far out to sea or inland through the denes, there is always interest in the views, and firm grass forever underfoot. There was a visitor centre at Exceat Bridge which included a live insect collection that Matthew enjoyed. We were given a lift to Birling Gap to start, and then bus from Exceat, which is on the main A27 road.
The Seven Sisters
Exceat visitors’ centre
Sunday 18 August 1996: Exceat to Littlington, two miles
We made this short stroll into a family day out, with Matthew’s mother, brother and grandmother – three generations! Although short it’s quite hilly for little ones. It goes through Friston Forest, the first stretch of woodland on the Way – there is very little more until Amberley is reached.
Saturday 22 March 1997: Littlington to Southease, eight miles
Matthew, now 8, took some convincing that he could walk this far! Alfriston is a useful walkers’ stop in the Cuckmere valley, one of the main villages on route. We spent half an hour on a picnic lunch at Firle Beacon. There is a little station at Southease, from where we took the train back to the grandparents at Hove.
Saturday 25 October 1997: Southease to the Newmarket Inn, seven miles
Matthew, who had reached 9, had been studying river features at school (and some years later, went on to study A-level geography), and the River Ouse at the start showed off plenty of them. There were tiny spiders in the hedges on the hill above Rodmell, whose webs span out in the breeze across the track. When we stopped to pause at the top, the flap of my rucksack was full of the creatures. Very spooky. This section ends at the Newmarket Inn on the main A27 road; it was later de-pubbed into a fast food location, but has since bucked the pub closure trend and re-opened.
Monday 25 May 1998: Newmarket Inn to Ditchling Beacon, five miles
Not a difficult stretch, although almost all uphill, but we took it very easily. Barbara met us at the car park at the Beacon, otherwise it’s a steep downhill walk to public transport.
Saturday 8 August 1998: Ditchling Beacon to Devil’s Dyke, seven miles
This was a hot day. We spend time exploring the ‘Jack and Jill’ windmills at Clayton and enjoyed cool lemonade in a cafe on the Way at Pyecombe before tackling the stiff climb up to Devil’s Dyke. Matthew, aged 9 now, did find this hard going so we took plenty of breaks. It would probably have been better to do it on a cooler day. There was the promise of ice cream and a pub lunch at the Dyke hotel though, and we finished off the day with an open-top bus ride along the Dyke road to his grandparents’ house.
Saturday 7 November 1998: Devil’s Dyke to Botolphs, five miles
Matthew, now 10, for the first time genuinely found the walking well within his physical capabilities. Helped, no doubt, by a broad and easy stage, which when not level or slowly rising is inclining significantly downhill to the floodplain of the Adur where it finishes.
Sunday 28 March 1999: Botolphs to Washington, 6 miles
We had time to spend at Chanctonbury Ring, an evocative place, just before the drop down to the A24 where Barbara would meet us. Some children playing near us at the Ring lost a tennis ball which we later found and kicked all the way down the hill – and so returned it to some very surprised owners!
Saturday 30 October 1999: Washington to Amberley, 7 miles
We averaged well over two miles an hour for the first time. If nothing else, the walk shows that Matthew is growing up – he is now 11. No doubt in a few years another walk will plot his father’s decline! (Fast forward 14 years to Cornwall.)
Eastwards to a storm, above Amberley
Near the close of this walk, from Rackham Hill, is one of my favourite views in all England, looking across the Arun valley to the very different wooded downland above Chichester, where I went to school.
Friday 23 and Saturday 24 June 2000: Amberley to Cocking, 5 miles (4 on Way) and 9 miles (7 on Way)
The direct route is eleven miles – quite a hike for many adults. We chose to break the walk at Gumber bothy, a National Trust camping barn at an isolated farm one mile off route. The track to Gumber from the SDW at Bignor Hill is along the old Roman road of Stane Street – Matthew enjoyed following in Roman footsteps, ‘leftius rightius’, and indeed the whole overnight experience (boosted by our evening barbecue). Much of the second day was through woods, where we estimated Matthew’s stride length – a very decent 67 double strides per 100 metres: mine is 57 to 60.
Westwards, from Littleton Down
Saturday 4 August 2001: Cocking to South Harting, 8 miles (7 on Way)
The walk, nearing the end of Sussex now as Matthew nears 13, continues through one of the least populated parts of south-east England. There are a few hamlets at the foot of the downs, and a few more hidden away to the south, but none more than a few houses until the Way comes close to the village of South Harting – big enough to boast (then; not now) two pubs and a few shops.
The pub at Buriton
Monday 3 and Tuesday 4 June 2002: South Harting to Exton, 4 miles (3 on Way) and 14 miles
First, a short step to Buriton in which Matthew, now 13, showed off how fast he could walk. Nothing his dad couldn’t cope with though. We stayed overnight at the Master Robert Inn so we would be well placed for tomorrow’s long day. There was a big village celebration at the squire’s house – just like old times. It wasn’t for us, alas.
At Matthew’s age I knew the West Sussex downs well, but barely ever strayed over the border. So this was new country to me. The county boundary is in the right place, for the Hampshire downs have a different feel to those of Sussex. The clear scarp slope is gone, after some seventy miles. This stage still has its unity though: it is essentially three hills, first Butser Hill, then the ridge around Wether Down, and finally Old Winchester Hill. Different to Sussex, but equally as good.
The end. For him.
Saturday 19 July 2003: Exton to Winchester, 12 miles
Matthew, 14, has spent half his life walking the 100 miles from Eastbourne; now, on a sunny summer’s day, it is all over. There’s a sharp climb soon after Exton, where Matthew is still some way behind in the heat, but that quickly passes. With a fairly late start that day thanks to the infrequency of the bus from Petersfield, the Millbury’s Inn comes at the right time for lunch; I thought it was perhaps the best pub on the whole Way. Oil drilling is a surprise, but it it is nothing to the great despoilation of the motorway driven through Twyford Down, so apparent at the last. But the green by Winchester Cathedral is a place of resort on a day like this, and it’s all smiles for the final photograph.
The Jevington loop
Tuesday 18 July 2017: Eastbourne to Alfriston (and on to Berwick station), 13 miles (eight miles on SDW)
It had nagged me, over the years: had I (we) completed the South Downs Way, or not? We had chosen to walk out from Eastbourne along the cliffs, like virtually everyone else; but the SDW has an alternative, inland. The two routes are complementary. Other than the cliff section, the SDW is on bridleways, and so is bike- and horse-friendly, and hence the inland route is the only alternative for riders using those means of transport.
So that I could claim my SDW completion with clear conscience, I decided to go back and walk it many years later. It’s a grand route, much quieter, heading quickly north onto the Downs and then turning in a quarter-circle slowly west.
Heading north from Eastbourne
The route comes down from the hills once, to the village of Jevington, which has a super pub that was very welcome on a warm and close day. Beyond, the SDW crosses Windover Hill, with Deep Dean, a superb example of a dry Downs ‘hanger’, to the south. Alfriston is then entered by the Cuckmere valley, rejoining the cliff route. The village has few buses, and none convenient to me, so to reach transport home I walked the five miles to Berwick station. It’s fine, if a little unexciting, to Berwick church, but thereafter the A27 has to be crossed, sunflower fields obstructed the path, and the route beyond them is none too clear. Just as well I had no need to rush.
Descending to Jevington
The hanger of Deep Dean