A beautiful roller coaster from city to sea.
A medieval city, a bustling seaside town, and rolling hills and countryside in between. The South Downs Way is more special than I thought…
Having lived in the south of England all my life, including the beautiful city of Winchester, I was looking forward to hiking the South Downs Way, its proximity to home making it a ‘must do’ on the hiking bucket list, but I was unprepared for just how much I would enjoy those chalky downs and the breath-taking landscapes along the way. My husband Tom and I spent an extremely soggy 7 days thru-hiking the SDW, but it was worth every squelchy step.
Starting in England’s old capital, the city of Winchester in the county of Hampshire, the South Downs Way is a moderate 100-mile waymarked path, and a National Trail, which leads you across the south of England to the coastal town of Eastbourne, in the county of Sussex.
This 100-mile trail traverses the South Downs National Park and can be walked in either direction, but many prefer to start in the city and hike to the sea, which is just what we did.
The route begins at the City Mill in the centre of Winchester, so once you’ve frequented the array of cafes, restaurants, shops, and bakeries to stock up your hiking stores you can begin your journey along the River Itchen and head out of the city, over the motorway and into the countryside.
Leaving the city behind you, all that lies ahead is the long and undulating’ rolling hills of the SDW, leading you past farms and through quaint villages.
Pass the fantastically named Cheesefoot Head, a large natural amphitheatre, take in the Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve, a Site of Special Scientific Interest with a Bronze Age round barrow cemetery and Old Winchester Hill, an Iron Age Hill Fort offering spectacular 360-degree views.
The route never fails to deliver far-reaching landscapes as you head towards Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way at 885 ft and then down to Queen Elizabeth Country Park and into the woods and through the village of Buriton.
Pass the Devil’s Jumps, one of the best examples of a Bronze Age burial formation in Sussex and then head down into Cocking (for food, and accommodation, if it’s required.)
The wildlife is abundant along the trail, from a great mixture of woodland and pastureland, ancient Beech trees and wild flower meadows, whilst there are many stiles to cross and grazing sheep and cows to meet along the way.
From Cocking the trail passes more Bronze Age ancient burial mounds as you head down to the River Arun and into Amberley, a perfect spot to stop if you need rest or refreshments with pubs and cafes, as well as a direct trail line to London.
Head up to Amberley Mount, and then to the myth-shrouded Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort consisting of a ring of Beech trees. Local legend claims it was ‘created by the Devil,’ who can be ‘summoned by running around the clump of trees seven times anti-clockwise.’ After which ‘the summoner will receive a bowl of soup in exchange for their soul.’ A tall order for a bite to eat for any hiker and one we most certainly avoided. (If one is that hungry, you can always head down to the nearby town of Steyning.)
The trail then takes you towards the Devil’s Dyke, the deepest and longest chalk valley in the UK, offering impressive views down the beautiful mile-long valley. Here, the 19th-century painter, John Constable, exclaimed that this spot offered “the grandest view in the world”.
Ditchling Beacon is then the highest point on the Sussex Downs at 813 ft, as the path flanks the quaint town of Lewes (with lots of pubs and restaurants) and then takes you along the most exposed section of the trail, past the South Downs YHA and onto the lovely village of Alfriston – a quaint old market town and one of the oldest in the county.
At Alfriston the trail heads towards the iconic Seven Sisters through Friston Forest and into the Seven Sisters Country Park. This footpath-only section that takes you right to the top of the breath-taking white chalk cliffs that form the Seven Sisters ‘roller coaster.’ Save some energy for this series of short but steep ascents and descents; although by this point you’ve already covered more than 90 miles so you can afford to take it easy and enjoy the view along this impressive clifftop.
At Birling Gap (a National Trust property) you can access the beach or enjoy a coffee at the National Trust café before the final stretch. Make your way towards the Belle Tout Lighthouse (now holiday accommodation) and then to the red and white striped Beachy Head Lighthouse which marks the start of the final climb, to Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in Britain, before the trail guides you on a beautiful coastal trail that finally reveals the sprawling seaside town of Eastbourne before you.
The South Downs Way is graded for walkers and cyclists so it’s never too arduous. The trail across the chalky downs is a mix of woodland bridleways, stony forest trail, chalk farm tracks and field, and has some country road sections.
Areas of the trail are fairly exposed so during the summer months make sure you have the appropriate kit to keep you protected, whilst during severe weather wind and rain can feel incessant on the ridge sections so be prepared.
Things to know before you go
- Food and refreshments – The trail offers lots of opportunities to stop for a rest and refreshments along the way; from Alan’s Coffee Van at Old Winchester Hill and the Beeches Café at the Sustainability Centre to Butser Hill with its ice cream hut and Queen Elizabeth Country Park café. Then there’s the Cadence Cycle Club, the YHA’s on route and all the quintessential village pubs dotted along the trail too.
- Public transport – Winchester and Eastbourne have excellent public transport connections, whilst there are also connections in some of the towns on route.
- Accommodation – There are plenty of hostels, bed & breakfasts, and campsites along the way to suit every budget.
- Resupply – Try to plan ahead, there may be lots of refreshment stops and villages but there aren’t many shops, so take this into consideration when planning your resupply.
- Water – Although a popular hiking and cycling route that has meant several taps have been installed on the way (close to National Trust properties, for example), if any are out of action you may need to find an alternative option.
- Dogs – Dogs are allowed on trail but must be kept under control, especially on exposed ridgelines and clifftops and around farm and pastureland where there are grazing animals.
Other things to do?
Winchester – A must-see city, make sure you have some time to spend here to frequent the great pubs and restaurants and take in the best of Winchester’s historic sites. The stunning gothic cathedral, The Great Hall – home to Kind Arthur’s round table and Jane Austen’s House.
Eastbourne – In Eastbourne you have the sea! As well as castles, art galleries and museums, then the nearby town of Brighton with its pebble beach and The Lanes, Brighton’s historic quarter. And if you wish to venture a little further, go to the town of Lewes, home to Lewes Castle and Anne of Cleves House.
We created a trail video of our South Downs Thru-Hike, you can watch below!