The South Downs Way is an elevated, undulating, one hundred mile (160 km) path set entirely within the South Downs National Park. Stretching out along the chalky ridge, just above the popular seaside towns of both Hampshire and Sussex, it offers spectacular views over the English Channel and Isle of Wight to the south and of the Weald to the north. It also passes by Devil’s Dyke, made famous by the painter Constable when he declared it ‘the grandest view in the world’. Walking the trail gives a feeling of freedom and tranquility; it’s hard to believe that you are never far from the business of modern life. The trail, which is also a national bridlepath and cycle path, is very well signposted and also dog friendly and has a total elevation of 9104 ft. Mostly all off-road, its surface is usually firm and dry, when it does rain it drains quickly due to its chalky nature. Being in the south the weather here, is on average some of the best in the UK, although the ridgeline is very exposed in places with little to no shelter from the wind and rain. Being immediately on the coast the weather can change quickly so be prepared.
Beginning outside the City Mill in Winchester, the Saxon capital of old England, this ancient route follows old droving roads created when cattle and goods were taken between market towns, before finishing at Beachy Head, Eastbourne. Along the way, there are many historical features, such as Saxon churches, burial sites, ancient watering places for cattle and Bronze Age hill forts. The landscape is varied along the track with ancient beech woodlands, species-rich chalk grasslands and many environmentally protected habitats. Wildlife here is abundant and look out for internationally rare species, such as the Greater mouse-eared bat and the Duke of Burgundy butterfly.
Running along the chalk ridges and cliffs and cutting over grasslands, the track is often interrupted by river valleys which allows walkers to head down and visit picturesque villages, stock up on supplies and find accommodation. It should be noted that the trail only passes through a few villages directly en route, meaning you will have to exit the trail most of the time to find accommodation. Wild camping is generally not permitted in England, also suitable places to camp are difficult to find here but the accommodation offered generally caters for all budgets. Expect to walk this trail in around eight days.
Being, as it is, in a very busy part of the country, the trail is easily accessible by road and rail and gets very popular, especially during school holidays and weekends from spring through to autumn. Accommodation needs to be booked beforehand during these periods and be prepared to share the trail. The upside of walking at this time of year though is the long days, the abundance of butterflies and wildflowers, like the beautiful burnt orchid, and relaxing in a pub garden feeling the evening sun on your face with a cold pint of something in your hand!