An easy train journey deposited us at Amberley railway station directly opposite the Amberley Museum. So, before even slipping rucksacks onto backs, it was time for a break of a couple of hours. It was near mid-afternoon before we joined the South Downs Way proper, heading towards Coombe Wood on a warm, humid afternoon with rain threatening.
The combination of waymarks and clear track made navigation a doddle even when mist descended and the only sights and sounds were each other and the tread of boots on the firm, flinty chalk track.
On towards Bury and Westonbirt Hills with a steady though undemanding climb before the track contoured around and dropped into a little valley – open downs and hidden bottoms galore – before climbing up Bignor Hill. This switchback is typical of this section and adds variety to the walk with changing vistas, woodland skirting and traversing and variation in walking on a broad track, sometimes grassy and at other times flinty underfoot.
Ancient earthworks abound along the route and, on the far side of Bignor, a modern ‘Roman’ signpost with embankment beyond reminds us that we’re near the Roman road of Stane Street which linked Chichester and London.
It’s easy to overlook ancient sites marked on the map as they blend so well into the landscape looking like folds in the land rather than places of worship or living thousands of years ago. Nearby, the National Trust has a camping barn at Gumber Farm but our B&B beckoned so it was onwards along broad farm tracks and the woodland edge of Burton Down.
Up the steepish hillside – or downside? – beyond Littleton Farm, we were near to Crown Tegleaze, at 830ft the highest point on the Downs. This modest high point belies the undulating nature of the Way and the occasional long views from what seems ‘on high’ along the scarp edge.
Memorable names abound – Scotcher’s Bottom, Stickingspit Bottom – encouraging ‘Just William’ schoolboy humour and the fabrication of extra names to suit. A long stretch of dark and somewhat gloomy woodland coincided contrarily with the sun finally bursting through the clouds and we welcomed the Way’s emergence on the edge of the woodland and a steady descent towards Cocking, tea, supper and bed.
Passing Cocking’s four-square Norman church, we emerged into the village proper by the post office and stores with pub and our night’s lodging all within a short stone’s throw. Not a bad day and countryside that has an ancient feel to it, overlaid with the hand of Man or, rather, interwoven into the very fabric of the land.
Despite the proximity to centres of population, there had been an airy, empty feel to many sections and, in the woods and bottoms, it seemed there wasn’t a soul for miles around. The firm chalk track made for a bit of a pounding underfoot but the firm surface made the walking easy and it took little imagination to conjure up images of our forebears making the tracks their highways for similar convenience.
An early healthy breakfast and several cups of tea set us up for a dash up the main road – in the rain – to rejoin the Way. It was a miserable morning and all the positive thoughts in the world couldn’t dispel the drizzle, mist and gloomy woodland as we rose over Cocking Down. We know, however, that if you get on and walk, one of two things happens. Either you get used to the wet and don’t mind it or the sun comes out.
On the other hand, if you decide not to walk, then the sun will burst forth when you’re committed to doing something less active and rewarding. In our case, the sun struggled for a while and then burst through the clouds and we were surrounded by steaming land and mists swirling from the woodland’s edge.
The plateau that runs on from the steep climb from the A286 drops gradually overall, cutting through woodland and across open downland before climbing up Pen Hill. With the sun shining brightly over the broad green valley of Millpond Bottom, it was time for a break and to air off hot feet. The steep dip beyond and sharp climb to Beacon Hill looked like being the most demanding section so far, albeit only a few hundred yards.
A group of mountain bikers rattled down the hill and took an age to climb up to us. The first people we’d met that day, their first question was ‘Where’s the nearest pub?’.
Fortunately, the Way skirted Beacon Hill so we were spared the uphill slog and contoured around, skirting the outer earthworks of an Iron Age fort, before entering the broad dry valley of Bramshott Bottom.
The obvious route through a notch in earthworks was a red herring as the Way turns sharply westwards up over Hartings Downs with extensive views over the scarp edge villages below. Loads of people picnicking at the car park by the minor road were somewhat of a shock after the loneliness we had enjoyed for a while but they were soon left behind as we embarked on Forty Acre Lane towards Hundred Acres with the Song of Tigger on our lips.
Sunwood Farm once represented the end of the South Downs Way before it was extended to Winchester and the road walking was a bit of a trial. We planned to split from the route to take the Milky Way path – honest – into Buriton.
More prosaically, it was marked ‘Cart Track Buriton’ and had been well-hammered by off-road vehicles making the walking awkward at times. Nonetheless, we struggled through it before rejoining the road and the final slog into the village and a cup of tea, slice of cake and a hot bath at our B&B.
In the morning, bright sunshine fought valiantly with banks of white cloud before we disappeared into the womb of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Criss-crossed with trails for walkers, bikers and riders, we expected to see people galore but instead were surprised by four deer who sprinted across our track – probably as surprised as us.
On through the park centre where we were able to check bus times into Petersfield and on up Butser Hill before dropping back to the road and bus to the rail station.
Harvey Maps produces a map of the complete route in strip panel form. Although the route is waymarked throughout, it’s useful to know just where you are at any time! With accommodation mostly off the route, Ordnance Survey maps are useful for planning and getting on and off the route as required.
© John Traynor – from the Journeys Of A Thousand Words series