Wednesday, 18 June 2014

South Downs Trail Day 3: Winchester to East Meon

It might take a while, but I'm slowly chipping away at the South Downs trail on the weekends, depending if I can find accommodation on Saturday nights within a few miles of the trail.  The way the trail is set up, you can take a train in, walk for two days and come to another rail line to take you back to London.  The North Downs trail is a bit more connected: you can walk that one, with some planning, as day-hikes, but the South Downs is a bit more out of the way, and I like that.  

I started this hike early in the morning in Winchester, where the trail officially starts.  Despite warnings of doom and gloom and hail storms, it was a little soggy to start, but not bad. 

Winchester itself is slightly adorable, with beautiful old buildings and a Saturday morning market.

It also had a very famous Cathedral.  It's very low, with no huge bell tower.  In fact, I almost walked right past it as you can't really see it from afar like most Cathedrals.

You have to walk through Winchester to get to the trail head, so I stopped to look at some of the sights: ruined castles, ancient walls, beautiful cottages.

 Oh!  And the house where Jane Austen died.

She's buried in the Cathedral, of course.  I would have gone in but we were in for a loooong day of walking.

 Finally!  The trailhead.  Apparently, it considers the walk you had through Winchester your first mile, since the signpost starts at 99.

You have to cross a roaring superhighway via bridge, and then you are off into relative quiet.

Past a military training zone, which wasn't active on this day.

Looking back at can barely make out the Cathedral!  It's that low.

 The first part of this trail isn't known for being the best section.  It's mostly rolling farmland, with a few villages here and there and some country roads to dart across.  You walk across this for miles until you start hitting the real hills.

I kept hearing the loud buzz of quad bikes in the nearby woods, but something more ominous as well:

Seriously!  Tanks.  There was a whole course set up.  You can apparently learn to drive a tank at this place.

Once the tank and quad bike center was behind, the trail got better.

It was great birdwatching: I saw hawks, buzzards and kestrels all over the hillsides, and the woods were filled with song birds: wrens, chaffinches, goldfinches, robins, linnets, dunnocks and black caps.

Around mid-day, we hit Beacon Hill, and the trail started getting more South-Downsy, with big, sweeping hills and views.

 Far off, you can see the Isle of Wright on the horizon, along with the New Forest park in the south.  You could also see Portsmouth and Southhampton further away on the coast.

The day ended up being beautiful, and although the trail was quite muddy in places, it was perfect hiking.  

We hit the town of Exton about 12 miles in.  It was supposedly a great place to spend your first night, but I couldn't find accommodation there, so we had to keep walking to the next junction a few more miles down the trail.

Through more mud, and then a climb over the next big hump of Winchester Hill.  The fields were full of wildflowers and the hillsides dotted with sheep.

There is a large bronze-age fort and dwellings on the top of this hill, and for good reason.  You could see to the sea, and the surrounding hillsides.  There's no way to sneak up this hill.  All that remains of it is a big earth wall and ditch and some scattered rocks.

The views in the late-afternoon sun were spectacular.

Finally, after about 80 runners passed us who were full-out running and doing the entire 100 miles trail as a relay race, we started going down into another valley to the tiny hamlet of East Meon to our accommodation.  There, past a lazy river and a cow farm, we found our little renovated pig shed quite cozy.

We covered all of 18 miles, which took us most of 9 hours to complete (with an hour break for lunch).  The shed owners were kind enough to drive us the mile into town for dinner at the only pub in town, which was ancient and friendly, and next to the 12th century church with the downs rearing up behind it.  The town seemed lovely, and we walked back to the shed in the dark in our flip-flops afterwards, and slept like rocks.

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