The South Downs Way – Day 8

October 17, 1998: Buriton to Meonstoke

Buriton – where my walk on the South Downs Way ended in 1980  and began all over again in 1998.

Buriton – where my walk on the South Downs Way ended in 1980
and began all over again in 1998.

There have often been long gaps in my progress on specific routes – with years intervening between the suspension of a walk and its completion at a later time. In the case of the Thames Walk, concluded in 1988, seven years had passed between the last of the day walks from London and our continuation of the route from Oxford. And fifteen years were to pass between the completion of the Lakeland section of the Coast-to-Coast Path and its resumption in Shap. I doubt, however, that I will ever again let eighteen years pass between stages on the same footpath, but that is precisely the gap that I set out to remedy – with Tosh and Harold Lee as my companions, on October 17, 1998, when I took up Day 8 of the South Downs Way.

I had known, even as I reached Buriton in 1980, that there were calls for an extension of the route westward to Winchester ­– but many years passed before this was realized by the Countryside Commission. Having finished the South Downs Way once I now had to finish it a second time, and the weekend after our school’s October break seemed the perfect opportunity for a two-day expedition, with one overnight stay, on what was now a National Trail. I was armed with Paul Millmore’s guide in the OS series, a volume which I intended to turn over to the Lees so that they could do the earlier stages on their own.

The casual reader of my trailside accounts will have grown weary with that catalogue of physical infirmities which I manage to produce on the eve of most expeditions of this sort, but I seem to have outdone myself this gray Saturday. I was no longer bothered by the bruised ribs I had picked up on our last Thames expedition and I seemed to have no difficulty with my ticker on the ascents, but both of my shoulders were sore and, from the waist down, I was a mess. A troublesome sore spot on the ball of my left heel and a dodgy right ankle, both of which had stiffened up on me at the conclusion of a September 26th walk on the Saxon Shore Way, were still in evidence. I had also nicked the nail of the big toe on my right foot. My back was sore and my left knee, perhaps because I had been favoring my left heel, also seemed to be exhibiting a slight strain. I had been strapping the latter joint all week and, indeed, to give support to my feet in general I had worn my hiking boots at work. I didn’t see how I would be able to walk 25 miles or so, but I was again worried about disappointing my walking companions and Dorothy encouraged me not to give in to these aches and pains – and so there I was, a light drizzle testing my new rain jacket, as I made my way gingerly toward the Maida Vale tube stop at 7:00. Since my last walk on the South Down Ways we had been London residents for seventeen years.

At Waterloo I bought my ticket for Petersfield and visited several kiosks in search of sandwiches, drinks and snacks. The Lees were soon here and we boarded an 8:00 train. There really wasn’t too much new school gossip to pass on to Tosh, who had retired from our ranks the previous year.  She had taken her Open University geology course exam the previous day and she was nervous about whether or not she had passed. (Every now and then we got an impromptu trailside lecture on the lay of the land.) It was still drizzling for most of the journey, though better weather had been promised for later in the day. Nevertheless, when the train finally pulled into Petersfield  – after several false stops -–we were delighted to discover that the rain had come to an end and that skies were brightening all about us.

I had remembered that Petersfield was a large enough community to support a taxi service, so I stood outside the station (while the Lees visited the loos) and waited to see if a cab would come by. It did and I flagged it down. “Are you free?” I asked – getting the obligatory riposte that such an inviting straight line invites – “No, I usually charge for my services.” We soon had our packs in the boot and were speeding toward Buriton. I spotted the little shelter where Bunny and I had waited for a bus all those years ago and we were soon up the hill and into the entrance of the parking lot of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Across the highway was the track that, in 1980, had marked the western terminus of the South Downs Way. I paid the cabbie £6.00 and he sped away, leaving us to shoulder our packs and begin our first ascent of the day. It was only 9:30.

It was still overcast and gray but the breezes were light and the temperature not too chilly. I had started from home with my rain pants on and I was wearing my rain jacket too on this stretch, but it looked less and less likely that we would get any moisture. The chalky track arced uphill and leveled off in a southwesterly direction, overlooking Fagg’s Farm. Across the valley the lush woodland was beginning to show its fall colors and little puffs of mist were still rising from the trees. We had reached high ground almost before we could feel the strain of the ascent and we had even started a downhill stretch, one that reached a parting of the ways – with walkers invited to use the right hand fork and riders and cyclists the left. (I must say that, for me, Millmore’s guidebook, the successor to Sean Jennett’s HMSO volume, paid far too much attention to the needs of the horsey set – who were rarely in evidence anyway).

Locals were out walking their dogs and joggers zigged in and out of the paths as we descended a muddy track in parkland – where grills had been set up neatly for the use of car-bound picnickers. The usually sure-footed Tosh fell over backwards into a bush while trying to dodge a puddle on this track. (She fell a second time later in the day and managed to slash her face on some overhanging brambles as well.) We reached tarmac just above the roaring A3 motorway and turned north in search of refreshments at the information center of the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. The Coach House café was open and Tosh and I each had a hot chocolate and a piece of bread pudding. I went looking for the loos and ended up in the handicappers’ version. We also had a look in the shop. They had walking sticks for sale but they were so heavy I felt I would end up supporting my stick instead of the other way round. I was doing pretty well anyway, with little complaint from knee or ankle at this point. I also took off my rain jacket and walked the rest of the day in my black sweatshirt – though it wasn’t easy to work up much of a sweat in the breezy and cool conditions that now prevailed.

The sun was beginning to emerge as we left the café at about 10:45, passing behind the building and a parking lot and through an underpass beneath the motorway. We now faced a very long climb up the flank of Butser Hill – with only the faintest of trods darkening the green grassy slope. I took the ascent slowly but without pause, measuring my progress in short stages marked by a flower here, a tussock there, a patch of brown grass still further ahead. The Lees were also good waymarks, bobbing up and down above me, and before too long we had reached the top of the climb, with wonderful views to the south now – including our first sighting of the shining sea.

We had a brief rest and climbed a stile (I did all of these in slow motion after falling twice off stiles on the Thames Path) and emerged onto a road, one that we took along a ridge top heading in a southwesterly direction. Ridge-top walking had been one of the characteristics of the South Downs Way in its more easterly sections, and it was a delight to be reintroduced to its pleasures now.

We did not go up to the round house on Limekiln Lane but continued on tarmac for a while, then on rutted country tracks westward – with many wonderful viewpoints on both sides. Woodland accompanied us on the left eventually, but it was well fenced off and there was some difficulty in locating a sheltered spot, at 12:30, in which to have lunch. At Hyden Corner we encountered a crossroads at the old entrance to HMS Mercury and sat down on grass with our backs to a hedge – somewhat protected from the quite chilly wind. I ate two gourmet sandwiches purchased at Waterloo, an egg and salmon one and a prawn successor, and drank some orange Oasis from a glass bottle. But I was pretty uncomfortable on the grass and after a while I got up to stand in the sun. Cars whizzed by and I must say there were plenty of puzzled stares directed at the geriatric trio. “Let’s pretend we are here for car spotting,” I suggested to Harold, “Let’s write down some license plate numbers.”

Our route now required us to return to tarmac and climb a hill up to the naval base. This seemed to be quite a large community; they were recycling everything up here – including soil. After a few minutes we were able to escape all the unwelcoming fencing and turn off to the northwest on a northerly spur above the village of East Meon, whose church steeple we had been observing for miles. There were a few farm buildings about but this now seemed to be a much more remote and wild countryside. The track was not too muddy and we had soon topped Salt Hill in order to begin a steep descent to the farm buildings at Coombe Cross. Another hill faced us as we continued north, but I knew that our path would make a sharp turn to the west – before we had to climb it.

We descended slightly into a large agricultural valley and turned north on concrete to reach Whitewool Farm. Here we had a rest at the roadside, entertained by a farmer who was adjusting a mechanical arm on his tractor so that he could trim the hedges on the farm road we had just walked up. “Close your eyes,” I shouted at one point, just as a dust devil ripped through our resting place. The Lees were mightily impressed with the tidiness of the farm, which also sported a fishing pond. At a quarry site we faced our last major ascent of the day, a steep path in the chalk up a flank of Old Winchester Hill.

The Lees reached the road at the top well before yours truly and they had begun a conversation with an Australian who wanted some info on paths to the various archaeological sites in the area. I showed him my OS map and then we walked south on the roadway, escaping eventually – at a parking lot for the disabled – onto a tourist-clogged stony track that soon offered us many views of the dramatic iron age fort on the summit of Old Winchester Hill.

There were lots of little kids about and one little girl tumbled forward onto the hard surface of the flinty path and began to cry immediately about her tummy. Ahead of me another infant was squalling – something about not wanting to walk anymore and not wanting to get into his pushchair either. So I had a cacophony of childish complaints fore and aft as I too suddenly plunged forward on the stony surface of this walkway and went down face forward! I was able to get my hands out in time to break my fall but my left hand bore the brunt of this rapid and unexpected descent, with a coin-sized flap of skin tearing away from the surface of the palm and producing a gout of blood. I had also received a knock just below the left elbow.

The speedy Lees, of course, were nowhere in evidence, so I just sat there, having recovered my wits, sitting up and opening my pack with my right hand so that I could get some bandages out of my little grey bag. I didn’t know what to do with the large drop of blood so I licked it off before attaching two bandages, in crisscross formation, to the injured hand. By this time the Lees had noted my absence and returned. They helped my up, relieved to see that I had survived this fall much better than the two I had suffered on our Thames walk. We were now able to move forward to a spot where a path turned off to the left and this I took to be the beginnings of an improvised route down to our Meonstoke b&b – which I hoped to reach by abandoning the SDW here and thereby saving many miles.

It was, in fact, only about 3:30. We had made excellent time and no sooner had we reached the edge of the crest than I could see the route I needed to follow. The views remained lovely to the last, though the sun was becoming dimmer now. Patches of colorful woodland and bare harvested fields lay below us and there were still many grassy sections too, including a very steep descent we now made to reach a farm track – where we turned west. A young girl on horseback was trotting up the track, but it was hard to get a smile out of her. My feet were now getting a bit sore but the end was in sight as we rounded several corners to end up at the Harvestgate Farm b&b establishment of Mrs. Allan. It was 4:30 and we had walked eleven miles.

An Irish Setter and a long-haired Dachshund set up a howl and our landlady emerged to show us our rooms in a much-modernized barn. We pulled off our muddy boots, using some wooden chairs out front, and I left a bloody spot on the arm of mine when I forgot about my wound. We each had en-suite facilities and quite comfortable accommodation. Tosh sat me down on the toilet seat in my bathroom and washed and re-bandaged my hand. Then I joined the Lees in their room (there was an adjoining door) where we brewed up some tea. I had two cups. I wasn’t too eager to take a bath with my sore hand but I persevered and then had a nice rest for an hour or so in bed. I tried to use the mobile phone to call Dorothy, but it was misbehaving,

Mrs. A. had informed Tosh that she no longer provided evening meals but that she would give us a ride to a nearby pub. So, with darkness having descended at last, we climbed into her car at 6:45 and were taken a mile or so to the Buck’s Head Inn in Meonstoke village. I asked about a return ride, but Mrs. A. said, “Not from me,” and suggested a local taxi service. It was a nice pub with a resident cat who never budged from a banquette near the fireplace. I had two double Bells on the rocks (so did Harold) and, as the place slowly filled up with other diners, we ordered our meals, starting off with cauliflower and broccoli soup for three. I had the chicken tikka masala and drank half a lager. I tried to call Dorothy from the pub but they didn’t have a phone here – they suggested a call box a mere ten minutes walk away – and this raised the troublesome issue of how to get a taxi for our return. The accommodating bar staff said they would call a taxi for us when we were ready and, after gooey desserts, we asked to have a cab at 9:00.

It didn’t arrive. Every now and then the Lees would get up to look for it outside, though I told them (and so did the barman) that the cabbie would certainly come inside. The clock ticked on: 9:00, 9:30, and 9:45. We were half asleep at our table (I drank a Diet Coke) and longing to get to bed. Finally the publican himself took pity on us and offered to drive us (and a member of the bar staff who lived next door) back to Harvestgate). So after a brief ride on the blackest of country roads we were back shortly before 10:00, and soon in bed. I slept fitfully, and at one point turned on the light to read from a New Yorker I had brought with me. My hand was sore and so was my left heel and after dozing much of the early morning I was eager to get up, shave and get ready for breakfast on day two of this expedition.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 9: Meonstoke to Winchester