South Downs Way, England

A superb walk across the downs - 160 km, 9 days

Walking along the Seven Sisters on the South Downs WayBRITAIN'S SOUTH DOWNS WAY WALK is open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. It runs for about 160 km between Winchester and Eastbourne following the rolling chalk downs of Sussex and Hampshire. The route follows prehistoric droveways that have been in use for at least 6,000 years, and numerous Bronze Age round barrows decorate the trail. The Way begins in Eastbourne, passes the villages and towns of Alfriston, Kingston, Clayton, Bramber, Amberley, Cocking, Buriton, Exton and finally Winchester.

KEV REYNOLDS wrote one of the original guidebooks ‘The South Downs Way: Eastbourne to Winchester’, which is a useful illustrated book, with line-drawings, detailed maps and route directions. This guide, along with a suitable walking map will see you right for the walk.

THE SOUTH DOWNS WAY ROUTE is 160 km long and for those contemplating this trail for their walking holiday in England, a certain amount of planning is required. Although the path is well marked, the English weather is unpredictable and needs to be catered for.

Majestic walking on the Downs Proposals to create a national park for the South Downs date back to the 1940s. However, it was not until 1999 that the idea received firm government support. After a public enquiry that took place between 2003 and 2009, the government announced its decision to make the South Downs a national park in 2009. The South Downs National Park finally came into operation in 2011. 'Downs' is from Old English dün, meaning 'hill'. The word acquired the sense of 'elevated rolling grassland' around the fourteenth century.

GENERAL INFORMATION ABOUT THE WALK: South Downs Way Route: Starting from Eastbourne, the 160 km trail wends its way westwards and ends at Winchester, King Alfred’s Saxon capital. Walking over the rolling cliffs of the Seven Sisters is a pleasure. There’s an exhilarating sense of space on the Downs. The track dips down into valleys and passes through the woods and fields of the Weald.

General walking route of the South Downs WaySOME HIGHLIGHTS: Beachy Head and Seven Sisters chalk cliffs Cuckmere valley – classic river meanders down to the sea Devil's Dyke - an impressive dry valley carved out in the Ice Age Chanctonbury Ring - Iron Age hill fort and Roman remains Amberley village and Wild Brooks – a picture postcard village overlooking the Arun flood meadows Uppark House - 17th century stately house, the childhood home of HG Wells Old Winchester Hill - Iron Age hill fort and National Nature Reserve The Meon villages - attractive old villages along the river Meon Winchester City – first capital of England.

WALKING ROUTE PLANNER: The number of days required depends on how fit and how quickly or leisurely you want your walking holiday to be. Work out the average number of kilometres you are prepared to do in a day, taking into account the landscape and the town or village in which you will end your day. It's also nice to plan on arriving a little earlier in a village if there are interesting attractions you may like to visit, such as in Amberley or Winchester. We did the walk in 9 days, however it's also possible to do it in about 7-8 days.

LUGGAGE TRANSFER: This efficient service is readily available and can be organized through a number of tour operators on the ‘self-guided’ itineraries.

YOUR COTSWOLD WAY ACCOMMODATION: This is usually in B&Bs or inns and should be booked in advance.

FOOD: Mostly good quality traditional English food is served up at B&Bs and village inns and there are wide choices in their menu. Cider and ale are common. Most B&B owners can cater for vegetarians or people with other food preferences if given sufficient notice.

WHEN TO GO: The northern Spring or Autumn seasons are recommended as accommodation is easier to obtain and the tourist numbers are lower.

WALKING GEAR: Good walking boots and socks are critical. Your shoes should have been broken in. Also important is what rain gear to take. Make sure it’s made from a breathable material.


ITINERARY for the South Downs Way - 160 km

The following is an outline of the 9-day walk itinerary that we chose. We decided on this itinerary because of the reasonable distances and the available accommodation.

  • Where to Start: Eastbourne, England.
  • How to get there: London’s Victoria to Eastbourne - train takes 90 minutes.
Walking itinerary: 9 days (we recommend an extra day at Winchester)
  • Day 1. Eastbourne to Alfriston (17.5 km). Walk up to Beachy Head cliffs, Then up and down over the “Seven Sisters” chalk cliffs, when the scenery changes at Cuckmere Haven. Here the Cuckmere river meanders down to the sea. Walk up the valley and across hillside footpaths to Littlington with its attractive tea shops before walking to Alfriston.
  • Day 2. Alfriston to Kingston (19 km). Up onto the high Downs reaching a high point on this section at Firle Beacon. Across farmland to the River Ouse near Rodmell. A little further on is the Frog firle YH. Rodmell village has a pub and the “Monk’s House, where Virginia Woolf used to live. A little futher to Kingston.
  • Day 3. Kingston to Clayton (13 km). The trail climbs above the historic town of Lewes. This section is the highest part of the Downs. We pass over the highest point on the route at Ditchling Beacon 248 m. Eventually, passing lark filled skies, the white “Jack and Jill“ Clayton windmills greet us on our descent down to Clayton.
  • Day 4. Clayton to Bramber (13.5 km). The route ascends and descends via the “Devil’s Dyke” – said to be the World’s largest chalk dry valley. We then walk on through the parish of Upper Beeding to drop down to the Ardur River Valley. Another stretch of The Downs with great views down to the villages below and ancient features such as tumuli burial mounds and cross dykes are seen.
  • Day 5. Bramber to Amberley (21 km). There's a steep climb up to the fascinating Chanctonbury Ring – a Bronze Age hill fort settlement. The Way then drops steeply and then climbs once again for the leg above the town of Storrington, where beautiful Downland trails or a minor road from Chantry Post, can be used to make a pub diversion to this town. The trail continues over fields and through sections of forest to reach and descend to the attractive village of Amberley.
  • Day 6. Amberley to Cocking (18.5 km). You could also climb up to a point from where it is about 1/4 mile off route to the highest point on the South Downs at Crown Tegleaze at 253 m. The path continues across the Downs, soon entering a dark and muddy woodland before descending to Cocking Hill, and then into Cocking village.
  • Day 7. Cocking to Buriton (17.5 km). Walking along woodland trails. Features such as the Devil’s Jumps tumuli; a group of large ancient burial hillocks. There is also Beacon Hill, an Iron Age Hill fort that you can pass over on the trail. Next, the attractive village of Harting with its impressive looking coppered church spire and then Buriton, an attractive village with a series of ponds.
  • Day 8. Buriton to Exton (21 km). Through Queen Elizabeth Country Park with a café. next, up Butser Hill with Bronze Age field patterns. Over The Downs into vast farmland and wooded countryside, and a steep climb up to “Old Winchester Hill,” a National Nature Reserve and Iron Age Fortress from where the Isle of Wight can be seen on a clear day. To the Meon Valley villages, first which is Exton.
  • Day 9. Exton to Winchester (19 km) - your destination! We walk past the Meon Valley villages of Corhampton and Meonstoke and over fields until we see Winchester in the distance.
  • How to get back from Winchester: Take a train from Winchester to London’s Waterloo (1 hr).
Our Take:
Starting from Eastbourne, you get an early chance to walk across the famous chalk cliffs (Seven Sisters). Then up through the rolling downs, past villages and towns. You finish at ancient Winchester, full of sites to visit (including Winchester Cathedral) and an easy place to get back to London from. The walking on this 160 km journey through southern England is fabulous, so remember to bring your camera. Be prepared for rain and the wonderful walking. The path is well sign posted. A wonderful walking holiday for those yearning for gentle, yet impressive scenery.