East Meon from the escarpment. Picture: Jim Baker

The South Downs Way in the south-east of England stretches 100 miles (160km) along the rolling hills separating Winchester and Eastbourne, and then joins the south coast high up on the famous white cliffs overlooking the English Channel. The way is mainly ridge-top walking with soft grass underfoot, interspersed with leafy country lanes, farm tracks through patchworks of fields and pastures and quiet trails through ancient beech forests.

Countryside like this is best enjoyed in fair weather and fortunately I was blessed with the kind of benign conditions that only the summer in the UK can occasionally offer; cool mornings, sunny afternoons and long warm evenings, still light at 10 o'clock at night.

I elected to walk the painless way, having my luggage sent ahead, carrying only a daypack and staying each night in comfortable accommodation, invariably in towns and villages in the valleys way below the ridge top, so most days ended with a steep descent and a stiff climb the following morning.

The trail begins at the west door of the beautiful Winchester cathedral. Winchester is steeped in history, traceable back to Celtic settlements in 450BC, and if you have time it is well worth spending a day exploring the town before setting out. I had allowed six days for the walk, starting each day with the compulsory English breakfast, walking for about eight hours and staying overnight in a B&B or a pub. Judicious planning meant that a refreshment stop at a traditional inn was normally available along the way.

The first stretch from Winchester to the village of East Meon passed through forest and farmland, traversing fields filled with white poppies, followed by a climb over Beacon Hill, the first introduction on the walk to the high ground of the Downs. Beacon Hill is one of many hills across the south of England where fires were lit to warn of the invasion by the Spanish Armada in 1588. The day ended at the very comfortable Ye Olde George Inn.

Day two was a solid 20-mile (32km) hike to the village of Cocking, providing a contrast of tough hill climbing with strolling through beautiful beech forest, before the second half of the day's walk followed the top of the South Downs escarpment. There are spectacular views across the valley to the north and the ancient history of the area is demonstrated by the Devil's Jumps, a series of bronze-age barrows laid out along the ridge.

From Cocking to the town of Steyning was my day of walking alone on the trip as friends John, Debby and Mike had joined me on the first two days and lifelong mate Brian was meeting me in Steyning for the rest of the walk.

There were tough climbs, mitigated by superb views across the valleys. The long descent into Amberley, the halfway point, led me to the Bridge Inn, a welcome spot for a lunchtime pint on a gloriously sunny day. Here I met a local who clearly thought me mad, until he discovered I was Australian.

"Where've you walked from, then?"
"Cocking."
"What, today?"
"Yep."
Long incredulous stare.
"Where're you goin'?"
"Steyning."
"What, today?"
"Yep."
Longer incredulous stare.
"Where're you from, then?"
"Australia."
"Oh, right."

Steyning is about one mile (1.6km) north of the path, down one of the steep descents mentioned earlier, and the last half-hour of the walk was hard work on bitumen road.

What comes down must go up! A good night at the Chequer Inn was followed by a tough climb out of town but then a good level track followed the escarpment to Ditchling - a further 13 miles (21km) of walking.

On this stretch the track passes the Devil's Dyke, a dry valley said to have been carved out by Satan in order to allow the sea to flood all the churches in the valley below. Ditchling village is way down in the valley and the track we followed to get there had clearly been designed by a mountain goat - by far the steepest yet. The village is pretty and well worth the detour from the ridge.

Two more days! From the village we rejoined the track just below Ditchling Beacon, a nature reserve and popular tourist spot. The walk up to the beacon was a long steep slog to start a 19-mile (30.6km) day.

Our destination was the beautiful village of Alfriston, on the River Cuckmere. The remainder of the walk was an easy stroll along the ridge, with good views north and south. Accommodation in the Chestnuts B&B was excellent and the meal in the George Inn was one of the highlights of the trip.

The final day dawned damp but the weather cleared early.

From Alfriston we followed the river valley, observing the white horse carved on Cradle Hill in the 1920s, until the river led us to the sea, where the Cuckmere becomes a mass of twists and bends.

From here the track is a switchback as it negotiates the Seven Sisters, along the top of the famous white chalk cliffs, until finally reaching Beachy Head, where the cliff plummets 162m to the beach.

From there the trail leads to the resort town of Eastbourne, where a plaque marks the end of the way, and a couple of celebratory pints of the good amber liquid were enjoyed!

The South Downs Way is an enjoyable walk through open country and woodland with prolific wildflowers and with birdsong filling the air. Wildlife abounds-among the animals seen were stoats, rabbits, hares, foxes and otters.

The walk time can be tailored to any level of fitness. While not having the challenges of some other walks in the UK, there are enough steep hills to ask a few questions.

My thanks to Northwest Walks UK, which did an excellent job in organising my luggage and accommodation, and to the good friends who accompanied me.

The West Australian

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