South Downs Way – Route / Geography
The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath and bridleway running along the South Downs in Southern England, and is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales.
The trail runs for 100 miles (160 km) from the ancient cathedral city (and first capital of England) Winchester in the West, through to the white chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head at Eastbourne in the East.
The South Downs Way trail lies entirely within the South Downs National Park.
The undulating South Downs trail begins in Winchester and moves past Cheesefoot Head, the towns of Petersfield and Arundel, the town of Steyning, Devil’s Dyke viewpoint near Brighton, followed by Ditchling Beacon and miles of chalk downland across to Beachy Head, and finally ending in Eastbourne.
Diversions are needed to visit Brighton or Lewes, the latter town being of great beauty with an historic centre. Without exception it is a very well maintained and signposted route. Although the trail crosses various villages for provisions, much of it is surprisingly isolated and quiet considering the density of the population in South-East England.
The South Downs Way allows you to experience great views, attractive wildlife, visible prehistory, fine pubs and pretty villages, as well as a challenging walk!!
It can be walked at a leisurely pace in about a week whilst a horse rider or cyclist would take two or three days. It is closed to motorised traffic along the route and this rule is generally observed.
Much of the South Downs Way is on high chalk downland and the scenery is often breathtaking. The trail has around 13,620 ft (4,150 m) of ascent and descent.
Walking the South Downs Way offers the opportunity to experience some of the finest landscapes in Britain.
The trail takes you through a wonderfully varied landscape of woodland, chalk downs, arable farmland, meandering rivers, ancient forts and castles and picture postcard, traditional English villages.
The most dramatic views are on the high chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters cliffs towards Beachy Head and before the descent to Eastbourne.
There are also stunning views in clear weather from the ridgeway sections on the tops of The Downs, especially on Ditchling Beacon and Chanctonbury Ring.
The South Downs Way offers some of the finest, unspoiled countryside that England has to offer, and is less than an hour from London.
The trail can be enjoyed as one long distance journey or as a series of
short, separate trips.
South Downs Way – A Brief History
The South Downs Way was officially opened as a national trail in 1972. It ran from the village of Buriton, on the Hampshire/Sussex border, to Beachy Head high above Eastbourne. It faithfully followed the full 80-mile ridge of the southern chalk hills from their gentle rise at Harting Down to their dramatic departure beneath the English Channel.
Some fifteen years later it was decided to extend the route back into Winchester, primarily to join it up with the Clarendon Way going on to Salisbury and thereby adding another link to the complete ‘chain’ of long distance paths around England.
The South Downs Way has been used for around 8000 years as a safer and dryer alternative to the wetter lowlands throughout the Mesolithic era and early occupation began around 6000 years ago in the Neolithic era.
Early inhabitants built Tumuli in places on the hills and hill forts later once tribal fighting became more common. Old Winchester Hill is an example of one these hill forts along the path. The South Downs trail was probably used by the Romans, despite the fact that they built one of their roads across the path at Stane Street, Chichester, this use possibly evidenced by the existence of Bignor Roman Villa near Bury, very nearby the path.
Of Medieval historical interest, the village of Lomer, now only visible as a few small bumps in the ground, was most likely abandoned during the plague in the 14th century, while the flat plain to the north of the South Downs Way where it passes Lewes is the site of the famous Battle of Lewes fought by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester and Henry III during the Second Barons’ War.
By means of a night march, De Montfort positioned his men above the town on the high ground of the South Downs, achieving strategic advantage and complete surprise, which contributed greatly to his rout of a Royalist army twice the size of his own.
During the Tudor era the South Downs were also in use and in particular Ditchling Beacon, which had been used as a beacon to warn of invasion in preceding centuries, was used again to warn Queen Elizabeth I of the Spanish Armada lumbering East along the English Channel.
One particular oddity, The Long Man of Wilmington, can be found only a few metres off the path and down the hill as the path nears its end in Eastbourne.
Its origin is unknown but, the true age is probably later than most people think. The mystery surrounding its origin and its meaning make some ancient Celtic explanation quite desirable but, recent study has shown that it was most likely created in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries AD, possibly posing more questions than it answers regarding its meaning. Yet still it attracts its fair share of Neo-Druidism and other Pagan interest with rituals and festivals often held there.
During the Second World War much of the south coast of England was fortified with pillboxes, tank obstacles and machine gun posts in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, the plan for which was known to the Nazis as Operation Sealion.
These objects can be seen closer to the sea and require a diversion. The closest and probably best site is Newhaven Fort, a 5 mile diversion from the path, which is an attraction that houses many World War 2 artefacts and documents with impressive examples of the huge cannons used in coastal defence.