The South Downs Way

“The South Downs National Park covers an area of 600 square miles offering a landscape as diverse as it is breathtaking.

Green rolling pastures, open spaces, ancient woodlands and river valleys truly encompass the National Park’s ethos of being one of ‘Britain’s Breathing Spaces’. While bustling towns and traditional villages steeped in history offer a multitude of cultural opportunities.

There is so much to do and see in this area, from walking, cycling or horse riding across the Downs, exploring wildlife in the wetlands, visiting one of the many heritage sites to experiencing opera at the world famous Glyndebourne.

The extraordinary South Downs Way offers a real opportunity to escape the hustle of everyday life. Along this 100 mile National Trail, you can walk through ancient woodlands, carpeted with bluebells; watch roe deer darting through wildflower meadows; witness hares boxing or even spot a red kite hunting above.

The South Downs Way is a spectacular National Trail stretching the entire breadth of the Park. Ideal for walkers, cyclists and horse riders alike.”

Fields on the South Downs Way
Fields on the South Downs Way

My younger son had been approached about helping his house at school to raise money for the charity, Lupus UK . Having been a scout and done the Junior Downsman walk, he happily said “I’ll get sponsored to walk the South Downs Way”. At the time, his enthusiasm for such an undertaking was a sure sign of his ignorance for what was involved both in the way of planning and the pain! His offer was eagerly accepted and monies for sponsorship started to flood in. It very quickly reached the point of  ‘this is no light hearted undertaking’, because so many people had, by this time, filled in his sponsorship form.

He wanted to camp along the way, taking a back pack loaded  with a tent, ancillary camping and cooking equipment and supplies. His mother, Sha, was less than enthusiastic about his proposed lonesome adventure. She suggested that he approach his older brother, who was a seasoned backpacker, cyclist and explorer – in my book, a bit of a ‘glutton for punishment’ really.

Initially, Tom had ‘implied’ that he would be happy to undertake part of the journey with Toby. On further questioning, this would be a couple of days with one night’s ‘wild camping’ under what ever the heavens had in store. Sha and I thought that we could share the rest of the trek between us and hopefully be able to ‘persuade’ another family member to participate too.

Toby’s offer of undertaking had been made in early March. He was adamant that he wanted to go in April because it was during his Easter holiday and the days would not be too hot – a very sensible point.

Views over the South Downs
Views over the South Downs

He set up a page on the justgiving website  and many family and friends were emailed with the hope of raising more money for the charity. The venture was gathering momentum and April was looming fast…

One of my daughters was getting married on 2nd April; the Oxford trip was scheduled for 4th to 7th April; the Easter holiday was 22nd to 25th April; the Royal wedding was on 29th April with the May bank holiday on Monday 2nd May.

It looked as if April was out of the question; dates were sparse and time was running out; Sha and I had other commitments which could not be dropped like a hat – I of course had the April issue of Club Rollei User to produce! Toby insisted on April. I asked him if he realised how much planning was required – suitable camping places with alternatives, replenishment of water and food supplies etc and the inevitable contingency plans. Also if he knew what it was like to walk 100 miles. “No problem!” he said.

He contacted his brother who now said that he could take a maximum of four days off work – 25 miles per day – pushing it?? The dates were then fixed as 11th to 14th April. Expedition planning was slotted in between the other commitments. Toby had to get some new walking boots…

I thought jokingly that I could tag along for a couple of days to give them encouragement. I went for a ‘leisurely’ 10 mile  walk on the Downs above Chichester… two and a half times that in one day – for FOUR days… I had been thinking that IF I did decide to go with them, which camera should I take? What camera/lens combination would be the best, bearing in mind the extra encumberance – decisions, decisions! I kept a 35mm lens on my camera for that brief excursion but thought that a wider angle and a short telephoto would be useful too on the real trip.

Toby needed to go out and try a 10 miler too, just to get the idea. “That’s no problem” he said when we’d walked it; “Now do that again, now!” I said.

The planning needed a contingency day, 25 miles was going to be slog, 20 miles per day with a back pack would be more sensible. Tom could not extend his time away. After a bit of persuasion, he was prepared to start a day early on the Sunday and so they would now have five days to complete the trip.

All the while I had been thinking about the ‘fun’ of the three ‘Wild Boys’, having been to the same school spanning half a century, going on this great adventure and so I stupidly persuaded myself to ‘tag along’.

I had often toyed with the idea of walking the South Downs Way but always had shied away at the mere thought of it. What gave me encouragement was having spoken to an elderly couple, whilst waiting for a bus at Staithes – on our way back to Whitby last year – they were walking the 109 miles of the Cleveland Way. “Oh well, it’ll be a bit of fun and I can always drop out if the going gets rough” I thought…

The wedding came and went; Oxford came and went, three days, two days, one day came and went. Tent, sleeping bags, cooking equipment, water, supplies, clothing, first aid… our backpacks were filled and then off to Winchester after a good breakfast.

Beginning the South Downs Walk in Winchester
Tom, John and Toby Wild starting the South Downs Walk for Lupus

A lovely sunny Sunday morning; we started our walk at a leisurely 10am. Having walked half a mile, we got a text message from our sherpa, “You’ve forgotten your lunch!”

Day one was fine up until lunch time, about 10 miles into the journey. Sitting down in a field under a tree enjoying the gentle breeze and shade; perfect for a short snooze… No chance! The same again and hopefully half again on top – still hoping for the 25 miles per day. By mid afternoon the heat was starting to drain our energy, feet were painful and muscles were aching. Another TEN miles; No way! We’d be lucky to make the minimum 20 miles. The sun went down and we were still plodding. Soon our ‘fail safe’ sustainability centre camp site was in sight; each extra step was painful by this time; couldn’t wait to drop our backpacks and undo our boots. The sherpa ‘meals-on-wheels’ was waiting for us, hot stew followed by a good night’s sleep…

A hearty cooked breakfast, break camp and off again. Mid afternoon came again and so did the painful feet and aching muscles. Tom had a good suggestion – as we were at our closest to home – why not stay the night there, have a hot shower and a good nights sleep then resume from the same place in the morning. Great idea!

Fully refreshed and breakfasted we returned to our collection point and carried on. This time we had reassessed our plans and decided that if our sherpa could bring the sleeping equipment to our next campsite in the evening, we could travel much lighter. It was still dusk by the time we arrived and supper was very welcome. We had enjoyed the lighter travel packs – just water, lunch and supplementary clothing. We were fortunate in being able to leave our tent etc. in the morning, to be sherpa’d to our next resting place later that evening.

Day four was overcast and much cooler. By this time, aches and pains had become the norm and we made better progress, arriving at our next port of call an hour and a half earlier than on the previous days. The wind had been quite vicious on top of the Downs with a distinctly cold bite. With about a mile and a half to go, it started raining – horizontal rain. Fortunately not very hard but enough to saturate the windward side and to make everything else damp. A quick photograph as we crossed the Meridian Line and down into the village of Rodmell, which had a welcoming inn where we enjoyed a cup of tea until our tent arrived; then we had supper in the pub. We camped for the night in the garden of a bed and breakfast just opposite the pub.

The next morning was greeted by a full cooked breakfast, which set us up for our last day. We set off in cheerful mood, expecting to cover the 19 miles by about 4.30pm. Ideal conditions, not too hot and a gentle breeze. We reached Alfriston at about lunchtime. It was not quite half way but we just ‘stumbled’ into this pub – which was straight in front of us – for lunch.

Fully recharged again, we set off – 10 miles to go. We reached the Seven Sisters Country park, now with just 5 miles to go – the challenge was almost over…

Finishing the South Downs Way walk
John, Toby and Tom finishing the South Downs Walk for Lupus

A gentle, by our standards now, climb to the top of the hill at the start of the final part of our journey across the Seven Sisters and on down to the finish line. All of a sudden the terrain changed – there was a steep hill to descend and then immediately ascend the other side, then down and up and down and up… There were seven of these; across Birling Gap; up over Beachy Head; would this never end? Leg muscles and feet were so looking forward to the end, but not yet! Still it went on! Tom had said “Gentle undulations” I replied “What do you mean – GENTLE UNDULATIONS? You need to redefine the dictionary entry!”

We had averaged 3 miles per hour for 95 miles, this section slowed us to about 1 mph – we revised our ETA to 5.30; then 6.30 then finally 7.30. At long last Eastbourne pier was in sight. Down the last hill, that was painful too – trying to get there quickly but not too fast down that steep hill!

The sherpas were there waiting – what a relief to take our boots off for the last time, to feel the tingling as the blood rushed down to our bruised and battered feet – bliss!

We did not do anything extraordinary by walking the South Downs Way in five days, many have done it in less. Apparently the Gurkhas have covered 100km in 10 hours with a full pack – well done the Gurkhas.

What made the challenge so rewarding was that Toby, at the age of 14, had committed himself to walk 100 miles with a backpack to raise money for charity. He had no idea of what he was about to undertake but he persuaded his brother and father to support him and to walk with him. He has raised over £2000 for Lupus UK because of his determination.

There were many amazing views, well worth going back to spend time setting up a camera properly. I used three 36 exposure films but confess that I did not take a Rollei in the end but a Contax T3. I bought Tom his Contax T3 as a graduation present and he has had nothing but praise for it. I had hankered after one for myself. I found one on Ebay a couple of years ago but have never used it until this walk. It is almost as compact as a Rollei 35, has a 35mm f2.8 Carl Zeiss Sonnar lens, auto focus, program and aperture priority auto exposure and a built in flash. Tom took his T3 too but only took 18 photos – he says he “likes to be artistic”!

John Wild L.R.P.S.


Map of South Downs Way
Route from Winchester to Eastbourne