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South Downs Way Walking Guide

One of 12 national trails, the South Downs Way stretches for some 100 miles (162 kms) between Eastbourne in Sussex and Winchester in Hampshire. The route is predominately over chalk grassland and is set within two Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty. With its 4 river valleys, fabulous views, few major roads there is a real feeling of "getting away from it all" despite being set within the built-up South East of England.

The great storm of 1987 was particularly severe on the Downs woodland and much evidence still exists of the devastation it caused. The policy adopted at the time of leaving fallen trees where they fell, if practicable, is still to be seen along the Way, particularly on the more densely wooded Sussex section. This dramatic change has had a significant effect on the region's fauna. Some insects and birds that were previously rare or not recorded have thrived on the decaying trees, and their numbers have increased significantly.

Which way to walk? If you are planning to walk the Way in one continuous expedition, then consider starting at Winchester and heading east. This ensures you have the prevailing South Westerly winds following you, and the panorama, whilst impressive as you start, just gets better and better as you approach the Eastbourne end of the trail. Alternatively, Winchester was the ancient capital of England, and this was a main route to the city for many who wished to trade there. Starting at Eastbourne and heading west, is the recognised historical route.

How long will it take? A reasonably fit walker will need seven or eight days to complete the entire trail travelling at a moderate pace. There are very limited camping facilities, and overnight accommodation maybe some distance away, so you will also need to allow the extra time to come off and go back on the Way.

The Walks. The route described is from Eastbourne to Winchester, and is set out in eleven separate sections, all with accessible start and finish points for drop off/pick up by transport. Where parking facilities are available, this is stated.

If you travel in the opposite direction, then it should be relatively easy to follow the walk descriptions in reverse. Whilst the whole route is fairly well marked with pointers inscribed with SDW and/or an acorn symbol, there are places where, if you are not paying careful attention, it is easy to lose the correct route.

Also consider the weather extremes. On hot sunny days the glare of the exposed chalk makes sunglasses and sun protection a necessity. Wet conditions can make some parts very boggy, and low cloud cover will reduce visibility significantly. Maps and a compass are strongly recommended, and local guide books offering detailed information on the places you pass through will only add to the experience. Where seen, taps to refill water bottles are recorded, but these are intermittent, so you must take provisions to last the duration of your planned route.

The whole of the SDW is available to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. However for the first section, from Eastbourne to Alfriston, the route varies with the walk description covering the route reserved for walkers. For this section, there is a clearly defined bridleway for cyclists and horse riders further north, well away from the cliffs. From Alfriston onwards, all routes described are bridleway and available to all, unless otherwise stated, until the finishing point at Winchester.

Public Transport. Where available, these are detailed at the end of each walk description.

Author - Barry Mackie

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