Friday, 13 June 2014

South Downs Day 1: Lewes to Alfriston

And so it begins.

A journey of a hundred miles.  Well, a little more, if you occasionally lose the trail and/or decide to take the scenic route, and those occasional  saunters off the trail into the nearest pub.

Of the 15 National Trails in England, four are relatively close to London: The North Downs, The Ridgeway, and the South Downs.  The Thames path is another National Trail which starts (or ends) right in London, but that is fairly flat and zzzzzz, but I hiked it for a day anyway.  I'll tell you about that trek later.  I do love walking the hills though- lofty views and peace and quiet, very little mud, and I tend not to get the vertigo that will hit me on steep peak climbs.

With this convenience of nearby trails, you do end up seeing quite a bit of roadway.  The day we hiked the North Downs we could hear the roar of the highway in the distance almost all day.  I chose the South Downs as my trail project because it is a little bit more remote.  True, you cross several busy roads, but you don't follow a highway.  It's quiet on the downs.

It takes a bit of pre-planning to do these hikes.  You can generally alight from a train station, walk a day or two and pick up another train back to London, so it is perfect to do in manageable chunks on the weekends if you can find a place to overnight that isn't too far from the trail.

Also, because we were told that the stretch of trail from Lewes to Eastbourne was the absolute best part of the trail, we started there.  None of this best for last nonsense.

I made kind of an error in judgement.  When we arrived in Lewes, instead of heading due south to pick up the trail, I decided to head due west to pick up the South Downs a little further up.  It ended up tacking way too much hiking onto our day- I didn't realize that an additional 6 miles was really unrealistic on an already long, hilly walk.  It was totally worth it though, as it was one of the best days of hiking I've had since the Norwegian fiasco.    The sun was out, the temperature was not too balmy.  My pack was fairly light as it was just an overnight.  I felt good.

My little detour took us west on public footpath, past a few fancy stud and racing horse farms and over Blackcap, a hill with a thatch of dark trees on the top.

The views were stunning- miles of countryside and hills and farms, with a few patches of trees here and there.

Finally, we hit the actual trail.  The South Downs is well-signposted and well-worn, making it an easy trail to follow.  There is also the occasional tap trailside, meaning you don't have to go searching too far for water.

The landscape was filled with color- verdant and dewy greens with wildflowers everywhere you looked.  

 And sheep!  We ended up getting a fair amount of sheep shit on our boots as the path crossed many a pasture.

It wasn't exactly an empty trail, either.  There were hoards of mountain bikers.  I have a healthy dose of respect for anyone doing these hills on bikes, and also a little fear and apprehension as they go whizzing by down the hills.

There were plenty of other walkers going both directions as well.  In the wide open hillsides, I can keep my eye on one and set my pace by them.  I am slow as all hell on the trail, as I stop to take in the views and take pictures of pretty much everything.  I had foolishly promised the B&B owners that we would be at their doorstep by 6pm, and even with our 6-mile addition I was aiming to make it.

 There were lots of hill climbs.  My average hiking speed is 2 or 3 mph, and I powered up hill after hill.

It is fun to see the lambs growing up.  Since I started these countryside walks back in early April, I've been seeing lambs go from being tiny, bag-of-bones to more chunky, solid looking creatures.

 Way off in the distance, I could make out Seven Sisters and Beachyhead.  That was where tomorrow's walk would take us.

There were also quite a few cow pastures to cross.  There have been some reports of cows attacking and even killing walkers in the UK, mostly ones with young calves and walkers who had dogs with them.  I kept my distance anyway, and I was even a bit nerved up to find that there weren't just cows in the pastures, but bulls as well.  Wheeee!  Happily, they were docile and barely glanced at us through greedy mouthfuls of green grass.    

Over the Meridian line, past an enormous dung heap.  Farewell Western Hemisphere!

But this was probably my favorite signpost of the day:

How can you not love a country that lets you know when there is a public house nearby when you are in the middle of nowhere?  I found it incredibly endearing, and I know there probably isn't a sign in front of the pub saying "To the South Downs".  

Up another grand expanse of hill.

The great thing about the chalk trail is that you can see the path far ahead, cutting through the hills.  You won't get lost.

When all was said and done, we ended up hitting Alfirston just after 7pm.  The good thing about this trail being I got good cell reception and I was able to let the B&B owners know when we were about 6 miles out.

In the end, we did over 21 miles on this day.  That would be a long day on flat ground, but in the hills, it  especially gave a sense of accomplishment.  I felt good, if not a little tired.  We didn't stop for lunch, but ended up continuously munching on dried fruit and granola bars all day while marching on.  I missed having a sit-down to rest the dogs and unlace the boots.  Still, it felt pretty good and coming down that last hill, and I was able to ignore the weird tightness I was feeling in my ankles that I was hoping was not my Achilles about to rupture.

It's good to know your limits.  Testing your hiking legs and whatnot and setting a standard for the rest of the trail.  Our bodies are made to walk, and any weird soreness will work itself out by day 3.  Thankfully, my boots broke in well and nary a blister graced my feet, but it's good for me to realize that 20 miles is just a bit of a risky undertaking, and I should perhaps to break these hill walks up in more manageable 12-15 mile chunks.  

Alfriston ended up being adorable, a perfectly preserved medieval market town tucked away in a remote valley.  A good trail will follow the footsteps of the ancients, and what is now the South Downs trail was the only way to get to this town for eons, and the trail cuts right through it.

After profusely apologizing our tardiness at the inn, we cleaned ourselves up and dragged ourselves to any pub that would have us.  This ended up being a bit of a challenge as the weekend crowd had taken up shop earlier, and there was only three places that served.  One pub was out of food by the time we got there, and another informed us there would be an hour wait from when we ordered.  That was fine by me, as we weren't particularity famished, just sore of foot and a little dehydrated.  Sitting and watering ourselves made for a lovely evening.

I don't remember what I ate (or even eating!) but I know that I was in bed by 9:30.

Overall, despite the long miles, this was the best day of English hiking I've had.  The sun, the hills, the towns, the wind.  It all made for a blissfully good walk.


  1. Love, love, love all the pictures! And the sheepies are so cute. My motto is any time you come home with sheep poo on your shoes, it's been a good day. I am so a couch traveler thanks to you :D
    BTW, my feet hurt just thinking about all that walking. Luckily, I have you to walk them for me.

    1. The first time we were on the trail here and it went straight through a sheep field, I got a little nervous that someone was going to come out and yell at us/shoot at us like they might in the states. Nope! Hiking trails here go right through the pastures. It's an adventure.