I felt the deep purring hum grow slowly louder behind me, but with the light failing, and behind schedule, I didn’t look up and kept walking. The rich turf of the South Downs cushioned my feet, sore after six long days on the trail. October in England is a brilliant time for walking, whether just stretching your legs for a day's outing, or as I was, on the home stretch of a path that had been walked for over 8,000 years.
The droning noise faded slowly and I pushed on in the dwindling light. I needed to get to Eastbourne, the end (or start) point of the South Downs Way national trail before dark, and already the sun was angling down towards the sea. High on the Seven Sisters, the undulating chalk cliffs began to take on the pinkish hues of dusk. I probably shouldn’t have stopped to talk to that old man, but hobbling painfully, determined to seek the high downs once again at sunset, his quiet dignity demanded a show of respect.
Above: After retiring, professor Mark Williamson set out to complete a walk of South Downs Way he started 40 years earlier.
Six days ago I had swung my heavy backpack out of the train and onto the platform in Winchester, 160km away and at the western end of this historic footpath. The South Downs Way (SDW) was created as a National Park only in 2011, one of 15 in England, but it has persisted as a trade route, pastureland, homestead and refuge literally for millennia. It passes by and through quiet villages, venerable pubs, bucolic fields, Roman roads, neolithic hill forts and ancient woodlands, yet always returns to the undulating line of the downs. The downs themselves are the eroded remains of a vast chalk escarpment and have long attracted human attention owing to their prominence.
Leaving the pretty cathedral town of Winchester after loading up on trail snacks, the path quickly found its way above and away from the roads and bustle of the south. The SDW is marked by clear signs at the many crossroads, and as is commonplace in England, detailed walking maps are readily available. I used the A-Z 1:25,00 trail map, which was compact, waterproof and exquisitely detailed. The first hours of any long walk typically involve getting to terms with your backpack, your boots and yourself as this vagabond figure on the landscape. Throughout the afternoon, as the benign late October sun beamed down, I ruminated on the shadow of a late middle-aged man setting out to complete a walk begun as a teenager 40 years earlier. Then I had been on my first true solo venture abroad, and now, newly retired from a teaching career, I had an urge to return and complete the story.
The western end of the SDW runs through a pastoral swath of rural Hampshire, and I eased thankfully into the rolling waves of the downlands, more gentle here than further to the east. One thing becomes quickly apparent; to walk the downs includes you in a fellowship that embraces hikers, cyclists, equestrians, dogs and those that live among these hills. Apples are left at farm gates with signs saying “free for walkers” and similar directions are provided to drinking water faucets provided by landowners along the way. Like many footpaths in Britain, the SDW runs alongside and often over private property, with passage secured through historical rights of way and modern landowner permission.
Above: South Downs Way is a popular spot for many school groups and hiking clubs.
After my train journey and late start, I was only able to cover 19km before darkness. Fortunately, sunset found me in the vicinity of the Beacon Nature Reserve being serenaded by a chorus of tawny owls.
While not technically prohibited, “wild” camping in England feels like a slightly shadowy activity, but is in fact fairly common to ramblers. Certainly there are many other places to stay on the SDW, from B&Bs to fancy and historic guest houses, but if you are on foot you often have to take what the road gives you. My goal was to stay on the trail, and with a small backpacking tent I found it quite easy to locate an isolated wood at sunset, leave no trace and be gone in the morning.
Another of the charms of the SDW is the ease with which it brings you into intimate contact with quiet villages. Like Exton in the picturesque Meon river valley, silent at the early hour I passed through and probably little changed in 1,000 years.
With the aid of clear weather, I put in a solid days walk mostly through airy, open fields, including Butser Hill, the second highest point on the downs and another nature reserve. Interestingly, it also qualifies as one of over 2,000 “Marylins” located in Britain (that is, peaks or high points greater than 150m), not to be confused with “Munros”, which are found only in Scotland. I was planning to camp again, but being short of food, I decided to leave my small tent set up in a discrete woodland above the village of South Harting and venture down from the hills in search of a friendly pub. My hopes were amply rewarded in the form of the White Hart, the only pub in the village, and as seems so common here, an absolute civic treasure. An hour or so later, replete with vegetarian lasagna and local West Sussex street theatre, I made my way in the dark back up onto the downs.
Above: The walk passes chalky cliff art carved by ancient man and idyllic pastures filled with idling livestock.
If you are lucky, at some time in a solitary walk you let go and begin to fully inhabit your experience. This may take days, or even weeks, but by the third day on the SDW I was feeling a strong sense of kinship with this path.
Forty years before, as a teenager spending the summer in Britain I had walked parts of the eastern end of it, and it held a strong place in my memory. The long views, the tangible evidence of history, some sense of belonging, had remained with me as one of those reference points you carry through life. Trying to ignore a developing blister on my big toe, a day under glorious late fall sunshine carried me past Stone Age tumuli and hill forts on a long ridge walk to the West Sussex village of Houghton.
Encouraged by my previous experience, I again set up camp in a moss-festooned woodland at sunset and ventured down to the small village on the banks of the sleepy River Arun. Arriving without prior knowledge at the George and Dragon Inn, I was staggered to learn that it had been in operation since 1276. This seemed almost unimaginable as I sat there amongst ancient oak timbers, consuming a meal of mackerel that might have also sustained a returning crusader or two 700 years ago. It certainly sustained Charles II, who stopped for ale there after suffering defeat at the hands of Oliver Cromwell’s forces at the battle of Worcester in 1651.
I was now getting to portions of the path that I remembered from decades before. Around midday, the path ahead opened into a broad avenue leading the eye upward to a tree-fringed hilltop, clearly a place of importance. This was Chanctonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort dating back 2,000 years to the Bronze Age, and absolutely mine alone on this day.
Above: Hikers can stop in small villages lost in time to refresh or grab new supplies.
My next goal was to be Truleigh Hill, a hostel belonging to the YHA (Youth Hosteling Association), and another nostalgic association for me. The hostels are frequently located in historic or quaint buildings, converted by the YHA primarily based on location, and Truleigh Hill, a former school directly on the South Downs Way, was no exception.
Soon, clean and restored, I eased into a deep couch in the lounge and reflected on my walk to this point. Some things had surely changed in all those years; long-distance walkers were less common than previously (I only met two in six days), but families and creative users of the SDW were much increased, and the hostels remained welcoming of all ages. Indeed, the gray hairs were generally a majority.
I was now approaching the eastern end of the walk, with more hostels awaiting me for the final two nights.
I passed Devil’s Dyke, a dramatic 100m-deep rift in the downs formed at the end of the last Ice Age by a colossal glacial meltwater spillway, and a well-known local attraction.
Descending a long hill into the valley of the River Ouse, I overtook a smartly dressed couple in their 40s who were on the downs as part of a “literary vacation.” It seems the downlands have attracted writers for centuries; H.G. Wells, Anthony Trollope, the naturalist W.H. Hudson, all called the area home at one time. The particular interest of this couple however was Virginia Woolf and her Bloomsbury literary circle. Woolf lived and worked for over 20 years at Monk’s House in the village of Rodmell, visible directly at the feet of the hills below where we were standing.
After a night in the renovated YHA South Downs hostel, opened by the Queen only a few years previously, I made for the historic market town of Alfriston. Despite the influences of modern life, the village maintains all of the charm I remembered from years before, with walks along the sleepy River Cuckmere so moving they inspire the 20th-century hymn “Morning Has Broken” — later a popular recording by folk musician Cat Stevens.
Above: Devil's Dyke is one of the many breathtaking sights along the way.
Alfriston is the largest village fully on the SDW and, resupplied once more, I returned to the hills to keep an appointment with an old friend. The Long Man of Wilmington, a mysterious carved hill figure 70m long of unknown and possibly Neolithic origin, had been waiting patiently for me down through the years from his vantage point high on the hillside. We had last met when I chose to observe my 19th birthday sleeping out on the slope, sharing his view overseeing the Weald, the rich lowlands lying between the South and North Downs. He was just as I remembered him, a stark white outline against the green hillside, his hands grasping upright staves, or perhaps the gates to the underworld. A youthfully foolish bond self-consciously renewed, underlining most of a life lived, I continued on my way in the late October light.
I now felt rather than heard the droning noise slowly returning. An airplane surely, but somehow unlike the accustomed sound of typical single-engined civilian craft, yet somehow familiar. I crested another rise and this time looked up. Directly ahead of me, almost at eye level, a Spitfire was flying low, chasing sunset along the Sussex coast. The rich, powerful pulse of its Rolls-Royce Merlin engine was now unmistakable and I stood transfixed as it passed directly overhead.
This plane might have flown over these same downs 80 years before, defending her island against attack during the Battle of Britain. Why, this very plane might have once been flown by my own father, himself a proud Spitfire pilot, lying about his age to join the RAF as a 16-year-old schoolboy in the desperate summer of 1940. Surely one of the greatest pieces of engineering art ever created, it banked out to sea and swept along the line of the downs again.
The weight of my pack and aching feet forgotten, I felt chills spread across my back as the pilot executed a joyous four-point roll as he roared past. I watched for longer than I could spare as the plane sped off down the line of the coast, the sound slowly fading into the west. Finally, shaken, chastened, late, I turned and hurried on in the fading light.