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Jay Walking

South Downs Way: East Meon to Winchester

I’d arranged with my wife and daughter to be allowed a weekend pass, so that I could walk for two days, allowing me to finish the South Downs Way and the start the St Swithin's Way. I was hoping to camp overnight somewhere near Winchester, I’d had slept in my new one-man tent in the garden and packed all the required gear for camping. However I'd not figured the weather into my calculations and the Saturday looked to be a deluge of biblical proportions, or at least there was a weather warning on the BBC Weather site. Heavy rain was forecast for the whole of the day, but I thought, “Well the rain is never as heavy as they say and I’ve walked in the rain before”, so stuck to my plan. I reached the train station at Peterfields at around 11 pm, about a minute before the train pulled in to the station it started to rain. I’d arranged for the taxi driver from last week to take me back to the Sustainability Centre and once we arrived there I headed to the cafe.

After ordering coffee and cake, I started getting ready for the walking, donning my waterproofs and putting a waterproof cover on my backpack. I spent some time chatting to a couple who were talking about buying a place in Shetland, I told them of my one experience of the Shetland Isles, visiting Scatsta International Airport to catch a helicopter out to an oil rig. The man told me he’d been a keen runner earlier in his life and had run the South Downs Way in just over 15 hours, which is pretty good going, at around 6.6 miles per hour or 10.6 km per hour. I was about to set off when I realised I’d left my water bottle at home, the couple offer me a 500 ml bottle of water, which was really kind. I drained the bottle and refilled it and drained it twice more to make sure I’d start the walk with a good amount of water in me and set off.

It was already raining fairly heavily and the path was easy to follow, today was mainly on bridleways and the ups and downs of the chalk downs were largely behind, so I did not anticipate any really hard walking, though the distance to Winchester was more than I’d walked in a while being around 18.5 miles or 29.5 km. I headed on Northward with a slight climb followed by a gradual descent on slippery chalk, crossing a small road and continuing on a wide path though a small woodland, before taking a sharp left and head to head West. I met a lady walking the South Downs Way with her dog, she was going to do about 12 miles/19 km today and was staying in a B&B, we both agreed the weather was not too bad and continued on our respective ways. A little further one and the route continued along a road for a little way before entering a farm, there was another water point here, so I drank another half litre of water and refilled my bottles, before heading across a field and then sharply uphill to a road.

Sustainability Centre entrance
View west from near Old Winchester Hill

Waiting in a small parking area was a mobile coffee van, so I stopped to get a coffee, I’d drank a few litres already within an hour, but a coffee felt like the right thing to have and it was quite a nice one. Heading off Southwards, the rain was getting a heavier now and I could feel a slight dampness on my chest. After a kilometre or so the path heads off towards Old Winchester Hill, a nature reserve, site of special scientific interest and the site of an Iron Age hill fort, the views were spoilt by the heavy rain and I didn’t stop to take any pictures, but headed down the steep chalk slope and heading off west, walking along the edges of fields and once slipping over on a greasy bit of chalk. A little ahead of me there was a women walking, struggling with her umbrella in the wind, she was a little surprised when I caught up with her, I guess she didn’t expect to see anyone else out in this weather. It had been raining hard for quite a while, there was nowhere to stop and eat, so I just ate as I walked, heading on through a small woodland before crossing the A32 and heading down a small road to the village to Exton. When I say small road, it was more like a small river, the rain had submerged all the road and the verges, so my feet got soaked getting into the village. Exton is a lovely looking village, with beautiful house, an old church, a real classic English village, but I didn’t really stop to look. Passing by the church I missed a turn and got confused by some signs for an alternative old route, with the heavy rain it was a little hard to locate myself and I lost my rag a bit but a quick look at the OS app on my phone set me right and I was quickly back on the correct route.

Coffee van

Heading up a small path and then North West across a field, I met 4 walkers coming in the opposite direction at the field's boundary. We chatted for a while, subject mentioned included waterproofs that aren’t waterproof, London where we all lived and one of the group an Indian chap kept insisting that the sun would be coming out in any minute. I liked his positive attitude, though I did not think he would be proved correct, we headed off in our respective direction with my spirits lifted again. Heading across a field, I saw a large group of cows heading along a small track in single file, I had to stop to let them pass. The last cow stopped to look at me, before deciding she didn’t like what she saw and running off to catch up with the other cows.

A herd of cows walking in single file
The last cows hurrying past me

I was soon on the path to Beacon Hill, also a site of special scientific interest and the site of an Iron Age hill fort, passing another couple of walkers, who gave me a cheery greeting, I told them that I’d been guaranteed that the sun was coming out soon and they laughed at me. At Beacon Hill, I took a picture and saw a sign saying that it was 10 miles to Winchester, which was good to see, so I took a picture of it as well, it was the last one I’d take until the end of the walk. Heading North West along the ridge, I met another couple of walkers as I left Beacon Hill and a further two were heading towards me along the road. Where the path left the road and became a bridleway again, I met another walker who and stopped and talked to him. He was doing the same walk as me but in the opposite direction, Winchester to the Sustainability Centre, though as the first day of a through walk. He had a lot of Alpkit gear on display and we chatted about their equipment for a bit and I asked him about his experience of using walking poles as my use of them this year had not been very successful. This fellow was looking quite dry, and he told me he’d just spent a couple of hours having lunch in a pub, sitting in front of a massive fire drying out, I felt quite jealous.

A view from Beacon Hill looking West
Signpost saying 10 Miles to Winchester

The rain was still heavy and didn’t seem to be letting up, I passed through Lomer Farm, where I’d hoped to find a water point, but it was out of order. There followed about a kilometre of road walking or walking along tracks next to the road. The tracks and paths had become very muddy, full of puddles and my feet were continually wet by now, my waterproof top had long given up the ghost and I fairly well soaked under it, though my trousers seemed to be holding up alright. A lot of the paths had ruts worn in them by walkers and these were also full of water, it was difficult to walk along them without going through some of these puddles. I came to the pub that had been mentioned by the walker I’d met, the temptation to go in was high, though time was against me, I knew that it was a little over 11 kilometres to Winchester from this pub, so I pushed on. I’d promised myself that I would stop and have something to eat next time there was a let up in the rain, however it never seemed to lessen, so a little way on from the pub, I pull my last remaining sandwich and a pack of peanuts from my bag and ate as I walked.

There was a bit of road walking, but the route switched to a wide bridleway after a while, and I soon came to Holden Farm, I’d been intending to camp here originally however their camping season was over, though I pleased to see a way marker indicating 6.5 miles to Winchester. After crossing the A272, and heading over Gander Down I headed slightly uphill, walking through a stream rather than any sort of path. I was by now totally soaked, my waterproof trousers having given up being waterproof, I was not really taking any note of the countryside any more, I was just fixated on finishing. Eventually the path headed South West towards Cheesefoot Head, recrossing the A272 and heading on toward the village of Chilcomb. This village was full of large country houses, it was a pretty village, but I’ll remember it for the road out of it being flooded and having to slog through the water again, before entering a field with a sign saying 2 miles to Winchester, though it looked a little less on the map. Despite this uplifting news, I didn’t pick up my pace but plodded on across a field to a bridge crossing the M3, to find myself on the outskirts of Winchester. A bit of road walking followed, including a knee-deep flood and I was in the heart of the city, following the South Downs Way a little south, finding myself outside Winchester Castles' walls where I headed North along the river, up some steps and across the road and the end of the South Downs Way was before me.

Sign for the end of the South Downs Way

I took a picture of the end but was too cold and tired to feel any elation beyond a certain feeling of relief and a sense of achievement, it had been a good walk. Starting with one of the best sunniest days of the year and ending with one of the wettest and most miserable but I’d done it and I’d enjoyed it, there were spectacular views, some hard walking, some long days but it was well worth all the time taken travelling back and forth. I headed back the way I’d come and found a bench, somehow now that I’d finished the walk, it had stopped raining. I stripped off my waterproof top and shirt and replaced them with a spare shirt, a warm jacket and a hat, then took off my wet over trousers and lastly took off my shoes, wrung out my socks and replaced them with a dry pair. While doing this I got some odd looks doing this by the river, I must have looked like a tramp, but I was tired to care. I headed to a pub, opposite the end of the walk, got a pint and sat by their log fire to dry out, though it took two pints to get anywhere near dry. I gave up on the idea of camping, after 18 miles of carry the tent and all my gear, I decided to go home, I was tired, not really having taken a break all day, I’d come back another day and start the St Swithin's Way. Picking up my pack, I set off for the train station via a fish and chip shop and headed home.

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