The final wooden signpost lay just ahead of me. Just behind it, dozens of people were tucking into sandwiches and ice creams at a cafe, enjoying the late September sunshine. None of them really gave me a second glance.
Unbeknownst to them, I within the last few metres of walking the South Downs Way, a 100mile (160km) long distance trail in southern England.
It seemed almost anti-climatic, the signpost signalling the end of such an unusual week in my life located right next to people doing very ordinary Saturday afternoon activities. Almost anti-climatic but also somehow very appropriate – I was, after all, returning to my ordinary not-walking-15-miles-a-day life.
Winchester to Eastbourne on the South Downs Way
The South Downs Way is one of the UK’s National Trails. The Downs themselves are a series of chalk hills located along the southeastern coast of England, first rising near the city of Winchester and ending dramatically at the English Channel just before Eastbourne.
Growing up around Winchester and going to university near Eastbourne means that this area holds great significance to me. Walking the South Downs Way then seemed like the perfect choice for my first solo thru-hike. And for many reasons, as I will explain, it was.
Not only was the South Downs Way a great choice, but I really lucked out on the weather too. One week of walking in the UK and only a few drops of rain total. I carried a rain jacket for over 100 miles and did not use it once. Something quite rare by any kind of British standards…
Walking the South Downs Way – Starting in Winchester
Beginning at the outskirts of a Winchester suburb, the South Downs Way starts somewhat auspiciously. For one thing, I first had to cross a six-lane motorway. There was, of course, a bridge, but it was a trailhead like any other I’ve come across in recent years of hiking in Canada. I started to relax more when the low hum of traffic finally disappeared.
While the South Downs Way is not a wilderness hike by any means, it surprised me how quiet this ‘heavily populated’ area actually was.
Over the next seven days, I crossed more roads, passed by houses, spotted castle ruins from afar, walked through a pig farm and a handful of homesteads. I walked in fields filled with sheep and cows, along hedgerows, on a two-thousand-year-old Roman road and more.
None of it was really what I was used to, but, as it turns out, different can be fun. Especially when it also involves having a few pints of beer at a village pub after a long walk.
Counting the miles on the South Downs Way
Walking the South Downs Way was more of a challenge than I thought. Not quite a walk in the park as I imagined (pun intended), I actually had to take an overnight break on day two. At the time I felt like a failure, but if I hadn’t, I don’t think I would have been able to eventually finish.
One of my mistakes was trying to walk 40 miles within the first two days. It was logical at the time as per the plan I’d set out but 20 miles on the first day was a rough way to start.
I was lucky enough not to be doing the whole 100 miles on my own. I was joined for two days by my mother, who (I think) enjoyed the experience much more than she anticipated. Company really made the time on the trail fly. We experienced the luxurious side of British hiking and stayed both a B&B and a pub.
There really is something so satisfying about enjoying a beer after a long day’s walk (or several cups of tea and a cake in the case of our B&B stay). As much as I enjoy camping, I couldn’t help but be a little converted. I think the steaming hot post-dinner bath each night helped too.
A trip down memory lane
The final three days of walking the South Downs Way were the most thoughtful ones for me. Finally, I could see the high rise apartments of Brighton, my birth town. Brighton was also the last place I lived in the UK, over 5 years ago now. Between me and the city was the University of Sussex, my primary reason for moving to Brighton.
A few hours later, Newhaven was in sight, a rough-around-the-edges town where I’d once worked. Later still, I had a welcoming view of Seaford, another work location but also the long-term home of my paternal grandparents. Beyond it, was the British Channel, surprisingly blue in the sunshine. The last three years of my life in the UK in just one panorama.
The trip down memory lane didn’t end there. The South Downs Way travels directly through the pretty village of Alfriston, a place with many fond memories of Sunday lunches and winter walks. From here, I detoured off-trail into Seaford to stay at a friend’s house.
24 hours later I was again in Seaford, this time toasting the end of my hike with friends at a pub. A post-hike celebration like none I’ve experienced before!
Hiking the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head
The final day’s route, Seaford to Eastbourne, took me over the famous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs. 8 miles in and on the summit of the third Sister, my knee started to protest. It had been threatening to give up for days. In addition to a tricky knee, I had several enormous blisters that threatened to pop every step.
Just behind me, I noticed a friendly couple I had met a few times over the last week. With their support and company (thank you so much Patricia and Brian!), we flew through the remaining Sisters and before I knew it, I could see the red and white striped lighthouse just below Beachy Head.
The highest chalk cliff in Britain, I have visited Beachy Head many times over the years. Reaching the top of the Head is where the South Downs Way ended for me; a favourite childhood location made all the better by walking all the way from Winchester to see it.
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One half of the Canadian/British couple behind Off Track Travel, Gemma is happiest when hiking on the trail or planning the next big travel adventure. JR and Gemma are currently based in the beautiful Okanagan Valley, British Columbia, Canada