October 18, 1998: Meonstoke to Winchester
The skies were cloudless when I peeked through the curtains on the bright Sunday morning of my last day on the South Downs Way – but it had been a cold night and frost still covered the bare fields. Because I knew that an early start might cause us to arrive too quickly at our noontime pub, I had decreed a rather tardy 8:45 breakfast hour. We each had the full English breakfast, prepared by Mrs. Allan – who was also a walker, it turned out. Tosh was charmed when our landlady produced a Winchester phonebook so that the Lees could call an old friend and neighbor (85 is old) whom they had not seen since they had moved away from Kensington. The lady was at home and the Lees arranged to visit her upon our arrival later that afternoon. How I was to regret that nostalgic gesture; on a day when every step was painful for me I would now have to chase these two compulsive figures. Anyway I used Mrs. A’s phone to check in with Dorothy. In this fashion I certainly got my wish for a delayed start – because we didn’t depart until 9:40.
I had been able to leave my guidebook in the top of my pack most of the previous day’s march but now, since I was starting well off-route, I decided to put it in my plastic map case – which I carried for the rest of the day. We headed west along a farm road, rounded a corner and neared the houses at the northern end of Meonstoke. Then it was across the busy A32 and into Exton. This proved to be a delightful village, with a clear stream, a flower-bedecked pub called The Shoe, and some very elegant houses indeed. We reached the ancient church and turned west again, hunting for a track that would lead us up to the foot our next great climb, indeed the only substantial one for the day – up the flanks of Beacon Hill.
It took me a while to figure out where to cross a fence, but we were soon heading overland, down to another stile and across a turnip field at the foot of the great hill. Tosh plucked a turnip from the ground – “That’s the first time I ever heard of a windfall turnip,” I said teasingly. It transpired that all of these root vegetables could easily be picked off the ground, since they seemed to have their shoulders well above the earth, a fact that the nearsighted Tosh had not initially recognized. Nevertheless she was not going to relinquish her prize and I promised that when we reached the top of the climb she could borrow my knife so that she could cut us some snacks from the object in question. “And I want mine on the end of a toothpick,” I added, “since I know you are the one person who never travels without toothpicks.” I wasn’t kidding.
The Lees were soon well ahead of me but I had no difficulty in following the path, which gradually leveled off as we reached the road fence at the top, an ascent very similar in duration and outcome to that of Butser Hill the previous day. Harold had climbed the stile into the road in order to take off his muck pants but he returned so that I could take his picture on the occasion of the completion of his 1600th mile. Tosh had found a spot in the grass surrounded by cowpies – but I chose to eat my turnip slice standing up. Then I climbed the stile and took off my rain pants too. It was warmer today than yesterday, an absolute delight – with only a faint breeze and lots of sunshine.
We took to tarmac and, within a few hundred meters, the Lees, charging ahead, had missed a field turn-off that would have cut a corner off a large field. We stuck to the road, greeting many a cyclist, and approached the Beaconhill Beeches, where a series of dry dirt tracks headed through rolling farm country in a northwesterly direction. There were a number of other walkers about today, going in both directions. We passed Lomer Pond, Lomer Cottage and Lomer Farm, dodging the occasional puddles by moving up along the soggy verges. There were also a few horse people about and one or two actually condescended to speak to us. The route headed uphill and around a corner and I lost sight of the Lees for a while – but they were waiting for me as we reached Wind Farm (which was not a wind farm) and tarmac again.
Tosh kept bugging me about our arrival time at a promised pub, but I said I couldn’t tell her anything until I had turned a page. A footpath had been provided to take the walkers off the highway here, so we headed west in a darkened tunnel on a bed of leaves, emerging onto pavement again not far from our northerly turnoff at a corner that also featured the ancient pub now known as The Milbury’s. It was 12:20. There was a large crowd of cyclists at the tables outside this establishment and, for some reason, instead of penetrating the interior, the Lees headed for a quiet table in the children’s playground well behind the pub. I expressed an interest in sitting inside, away from the breeze, and the Lees finally agreed.
The pub, which featured an ancient well, was crowded on a sunny Sunday but there was a free table next to the bar and we sat here and had our drinks. I drank a pint of lager. It wasn’t easy to find a place to put it down since our venerable table had a deep fold in the middle, a valley of its own, and all the other surfaces sloped down into it. I went outside to cut off a punishing bit of toenail on my left foot and when I returned our food had already arrived. I had ordered quite modestly: bacon, lettuce and tomato in a baguette, and some accompanying chips, but I couldn’t finish either of these items, still full from my English breakfast. There were hordes of kids, lots of dogs, another resident cat – the whole mad English pub lunch scene. One guy with a purse wouldn’t let them have his credit card at the bar because he had been warned never to let it out of his sight.
We were not long at table, even though the Lees had some coffee – which they disapproved of heartily. So after a visit to the loos it was time for us to push on – most of the walk still ahead of us – at about 1:10. We continued north until a tarmac turnoff to Windmill Farm and continued for some time on asphalt until this degenerated into another rutted country track – also heading in a Hitchcockian direction, north by northwest. Views were still lovely in every direction: leaf-turning woods, animals in their grassy fields, bare, ploughed brown patches left and right. We passed Holden Farm and reached a highway where someone had posted a sign seeking the whereabouts of a lost gray parrot (very tame).
As we continued uphill we were gratified to be able to enter a grassy field – a permissive route that cut off an odd detour around the field’s perimeter. Harold and I conferred amid cows on how to descend in order to rejoin the original route, then located the appropriate stile and headed downhill – where we paused for some liquid. Now there was a long stretch on a hedged track rising and falling over a series of hills. I couldn’t tell whether it was more comfortable for my feet to use the bare earth of the track or to cushion the footfalls on the grassy tufts in the center of the ruts. The Lees, not hindered by these considerations, and pushing up the pace so as not to disappoint their old lady, had to wait for me at road crossings. The SDW, at one of these spots, was occupied by Travellers, whose vehicles and cats and dogs seemed strewn about in a haphazard fashion. They were even towing a boat behind one of their vans. We had a rest on the grass next to a barn full of hay bales and I must say it was good to lie down, if only for a few minutes. Remembering how to get up was also a problem.
Tosh had been eyeing the rosehips in the hedgerows and now she began to claw away as these red fruits, disdaining my knife and scratching her hands in the process. “Shall I make some more rosehip soup?” she asked. “No,” I replied, “this time I want rosehip ice lollies.”
There was an abrupt change of direction at Keeper’s Cottage, a full left turn that put us onto a tripper-infested track heading southwest. Tosh fell behind here, having spotted a chap who was making notations on a piece of paper. He turned out to be not another geology student but a plant census taker. Harold and I had another lie down while Tosh chatted with this fellow. Now there was an Alsatian out for his walkies; he picked up a stick that was so large that it blocked the path completely for everybody else. As we neared the A272 the sounds of whining motors recurred and our path got quite muddy. Tosh had convinced herself that at the Cheesefoot Head parking lot there would be a van selling tea, but in the event she didn’t even walk up the road to check this thesis out – having remembered that she had promised her old lady that she would be in Winchester at 5:00 – and we were a few minutes behind schedule.
We crossed the highway and turned west again, with occasional views of Winchester itself. The sun was getting lower in the sky to our left but there was still plenty of light, a beautiful autumn afternoon – or it would have been if I had not been so footsore or the Lees had not been so crazed over holding up an 85 year-old (who, no doubt, was eager to start her night of clubbing). We rounded a hillside and I found our continuation down a tarmac path into the hamlet of Chilcomb, where there was an ancient granary perched on staddle stones. The Lees missed this sight because I had promised them a telephone call box here and this became their only focus. (Tosh had finally given up on nagging me about my mobile phone – it took a technician at Selfridges to fix it.) But from the call box she called her friend to announce a slightly later arrival time, neglecting to get any directions on how to find her friend’s flat.
I actually got a bit ahead here and turned several corners on tarmac before finding a field path next to a hedge; this lead us directly to a pedestrian crossing of the rushing roar that was the M3. The Lees had already cleaned off their boots in anticipation of a return to civilization and were chagrined to find one more field path – but it was quite dry. Tosh sped ahead to pluck some more rosehips and Harold and I passed her to cross over the bridge. There were more rosehips on the other side as we headed north on a tarmac path and reached a road into town. We could see the harvester just behind us, so it was a bit of a shock when Harold, turning around to make sure that his wife was not in the path of some motorcycling youths who were heading directly across the grass, discovered that she had turned right on our road rather than left and was heading back to the motorway.
He called her back and we preceded west in the last of the sunlight. One local girl was stopped for directions but she didn’t even know the name of the street she was standing on. An Australian couple were walking in the opposite direction and the Lees stopped them too. They had a tourist map with them and were able to locate St. Swithin’s Street and to suggest a back route to reach it. (“You’re not from these parts,” they concluded.) When we reached the bottom of the hill the Lees had to continue west immediately and I, to finish the walk and get to the train station, had to turn north on Chesil Street. So we said goodbye here and I was able to limp off at a more humane pace, soon reaching the high street where I took a westerly direction for almost a mile. It felt odd to be entirely alone but, to tell the truth, I had walked most of these two days with only myself for company as it was.
Winchester was quite nice (I hadn’t been back since a visit here with Bunny in December of 1979), and there were lots of interesting things to see. The local teens were strolling in couples through the shopping precinct; I suppose I could have pretended to be window shipping at my painfully slow pace – for the shops had closed half an hour earlier. For some foolish reason Winchester had sited its railroad station up a steep hill and this I now had to climb – with some conflicting signs on the whereabouts of the station itself – until, at the top of this eminence I was able to slide onto the pavement next to the tracks and up to the station itself. It was 5:55 and I had again completed the South Downs Way.
There was a long line to buy tickets while some chap had to ask complex questions about season tickets as the rest of us stewed. The next fast train was not until 6:15 anyway, so I limped over (actually under) to the correct platform, where I found a bench, put my map case and guidebook back in my pack, and had a drink of water.
There was a huge mob waiting to get on and, for my sins, I ended up in the same car as a drunken bouquet-bearing wedding party that sang songs all the way to Clapham Junction. They murdered renditions of rock classics but most of the time they stuck to the usual tuneless warbling plaints popular at the time. The rest of the passengers cast baleful glances but no one did anything to spoil the occasion. We arrived at Waterloo at 7:25 and I found a quick way from the train platform down to the underground. I was able to make it all the way home without putting my jacket back on, but I was chilly and weary after a fourteen mile day – and the throbbing in my left heel was just beginning its week-long song. The South Downs Way was done with me.
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