The South Downs Way (SDW) is a 160km long trail from Winchester to Eastbourne (or vice versa) on the UK’s south-eastern coast. It was my first thru-hike and I walked the majority solo with two days accompanied by my mother. I did a fair amount of research for South Downs Way advice before the trip but still learned plenty while on the trail. If you’re considering walking the SDW yourself, here’s a headstart for your trip planning.
Most SDW walkers stay in hotels or B&Bs located just off the South Downs Way. I did a combination of camping, staying with a friend, one B&B and a pub hotel.
B&Bs and Hotels
Walking between B&Bs is a very comfortable way to complete the SDW as hikers do not need to carry much in the way of supplies or food. The downside is obviously cost, with the average B&B charging around £70-100 a night. While this cost does include a substantial breakfast every morning, it means the total for a South Downs walk via B&Bs is in the region of £1k.
Camping on the South Downs Way
Camping is a much cheaper option but comes with its own challenges. For one thing, there are few official campsites directly on the SDW (the Sustainability Centre, Housedean Farm, Saddlescombe Farm). Other campsites involve the same 1-2 mile (minimum) detour off the trail as B&Bs and hotels. In addition, I discovered that finding campsites at reasonable intervals along the trail was difficult. It is certainly not as easy for campers to keep even mileage every day as much as walkers staying in B&Bs can.
I did see the potential for wild camping but it was not something I wanted to do on my own. I only met one other party attempting to camp during my week on the trail (September 2016), so there wasn’t even much opportunity to join with others.
Avoid starting on a weekend
While at first glance there appears to be many B&B and hotel options around the trail, demand is actually quite close to supply at certain times. With many walkers setting out on Saturday with an 8-day itinerary, there are inevitable bottlenecks. Starting on a Sunday and aiming for 7 days, I caught up the large numbers of ‘Saturday starters’ on Tuesday. It was difficult to book B&Bs at the two locations my mother and I had picked for overnight stays due to the amount of these ‘Saturday starters.’
South Downs Way trail details
The South Downs Way is a National Trust maintained trail with no fees directly associated with walking sections or the entirety of it.
The SDW is a low difficulty trail. There are plenty of hills but there is nothing technically difficult about walking up and down them.
The main thing I was surprised about was the number of times I had to ascend 300m or so metres to a hilltop, just to immediately descend again on the other side. I had (wrongly!) believed that the majority of the Way would be walking along the top of a fairly flat ridge. This is mostly true for the section from Bramber all the way to the A27 and a few other short sections (e.g. Harting Down to Cocking) but not for the rest of the Way.
Finding the Way
The trail is well maintained with excellent signage along the route. The South Downs Way symbol (an acorn inside a blue arrow) was well used on gates and fences in addition to regular wooden directional signs at junctions. One in every ten of these signs would have the distance to and from the nearest locations on it (I wish there had been more!)
There were only a handful of occasions when I was confused about where to go next but was able to use my book and map to deduce the route. My map, by the way, was the Harvey’s South Downs Way: National Trail guide and it was really useful. I especially loved that it was waterproof and durable.
One important factor to note about the actual condition of the trail; a substantial amount of the surface is made up of sharp rocks. For this reason, I would highly recommend wearing a shoe with a thick sole (or substantial lugs). Those stones can be such a foot killer after hours of walking; it was such a relief to reach sections with grass or dirt instead of rock. Also notable alongside the sharp rocks, are sections with exposed chalk, which can be slippery in the morning and after rain.
There are around 20 places to get water along the South Downs Way. I carried around 2l of water and then topped up during the day as needed. There are more water taps and toilet facilities at the Eastbourne end of the trail, especially on and around the Seven Sisters.
Alfriston is the only town of any size that the Way actually travels through so a detour is required if any extra items are needed. Do not expect small villages close to the SDW to have many shops if any at all. I was surprised how limited these settlements were, usually only containing houses, a church and maybe a couple of B&Bs or pub. The one item I wish I’d had more stock of was plasters/band-aids like these Nexcare Blister Bandages. They stick and cushion really well.
The recommended time to walk the South Downs Way is 8 days, with an average of 12.5miles/20km a day. Of course, this figure is trail distance only as most walkers stay in accommodation located another few miles away from the Way. I personally walked 114miles/182km in the end.
8 days is a reasonable target for most people with reasonable fitness due to the low difficulty and excellent condition of the trail. I met a few people on the SDW who were stopping for pub lunches most days (usually off-trail) but they were particularly speedy.
South Downs Way safety
As a solo female hiker for the majority of the Way, I felt safe 99% of the time.
The main occurrence of feeling remotely uncomfortable was when walking on roads. There are few unavoidable 200-300m sections on my first day (Winchester to East Meon) that required walking directly on rural, single lane roads with no footpath. With the speed limit being 60mph/100km and with the presence of several blind corners, I really disliked walking these sections.
Aside from this, there were a couple of busy road crossings that were a bit intimidating, specifically the A29 near Amberley, the A42 south of Washington, the A283 south of Bramber and the A237 just north of Pyecombe. I managed to cross all of these safely but they required some patience.
Other people on the trail
The South Downs Way is a well worn multi-use path and, as such, it was unusual not to see other people at least every few hours. Traffic was, however, inconsistent; sometimes I would see dozens of people all at once and then no-one for hours. One specific day I saw less than five people all day. In comparison, the last day of my hike was a sunny and warm Saturday with seemingly hundreds of people exploring the Seven Sisters portion of the trail (arguably the most popular section).
Mobile signal was patchy throughout the Way. There were maybe a dozen times I noticed no connection at all on my phone. For the most part, I usually had one or two bars of signal.
Leaving the South Downs Way
There are opportunities to leave the Way and head for a nearby town every 4 or so miles. Civilisation is only two or three hours walk away at maximum. The trail winds its way directly through a number of farms and settlements and well as across some busy roads.