Jack & Jill Windmills near Pyecombe, north of Brighton
The South Downs Way is pretty much exactly one hundred miles (160km) long. Like its near namesake the North Downs Way, and The Ridgeway too, the South Downs Way follows a natural high-level ridge – in this case, a line of chalk hills running east-west through southern England.
People have walked along these upland ridges for many millennia – by some estimates, for as many as 8000 years.
Back then, the paths along the South Downs could be seen as a safer, drier alternative to the low-level paths in the valleys below.
Modern travellers, however, seek more from their long-distance walks than just dry feet, and, thankfully, the South Downs Way has more than just a lack of puddles to satisfy them.
Terrain-wise, the land you’ll walk over consists largely of smooth hills that undulate gently and attractively; whenever I used to wipe the peach-perfect backside of my two-year-old boy, the smooth curves of his posterior always evoked memories of those South Down hills. And unlike its hairier twin, the North Downs, which is covered in woodland and scrub for much of its length, the South Downs have been largely denuded and are now covered in short, sheep-nibbled grass; a surface that, in my mind’s eye, is as cropped and regular as snooker baize. And whilst the lack of tree cover means that if the weather turns against you there’ll be nowhere to shelter, it does also mean that you get a 360-degree panorama for much of the trail. It is, as one of my friends is wont to say, quite a ‘viewtastic’ trek.
Many of the main attractions of the South Downs Way are not natural, however.
Because it’s the villages and towns you see on the way that are for many the real highlights. Some of these towns are quite eccentric (take a bow, Lewes, which even started to mint its own currency in 2008) and are great places to while away a day or more. But it’s the villages, many of which have been lifted straight from the lid of a souvenir tin of Sussex shortbread, that are the real winners.
For one thing, many of the cottages are thatched, which automatically adds between 10 and 20% to their cuteness rating. That many of them have also been made with the traditional vernacular material of flint only further adds to that score. And when you then add in the obligatory cat sunning itself in the cottage’s front garden, a red telephone box nearby and a village green opposite, well you pretty much have a photogenic full house. Cheesy and hackneyed though the scene may be, I defy you not to pull out your camera when confronted by some of the villages on the South Downs Way. Because when it comes to your classic cosy country cottage, there are some absolutely belters on this trail.
Having such a lofty position has clearly been advantageous to the locals down the years and there’s a fair bit of history to the South Downs too. Six hundred years before Jesus was performing his magic tricks in Palestine, Iron Age man was building a fort on the South Downs at Chanctonbury Ring. The Romans then came along and built Stane Street to link Chichester with Londinium, and one of their number decided that near the spot where the street crosses the Downs would be a fine location for a villa. That villa lies within walking distance of the trail, and is famous for the fine quality (not to mention the excellent state of preservation) of its mosaics. And moving forward to more recent times, the Victorians knocked up a couple of fine windmills on the Downs north of Brighton, which today have been christened Jack and Jill. (Jack’s retired now but Jill still grinds out wholemeal flour most days.)
It’s undoubtedly true that these sights feature on few people’s ‘bucket lists’. But they are <em>all</em> worth visiting. And that is typical of the South Downs as a whole. It’s not the longest route, nor the hardest, nor the most remote. And when it comes to searching for adjectives, well it’s more fine than fantastic, its views more scenic than sensational, and the attractions it does have are entertaining, rather than enthralling. But a sunny hour or two spent on the Downs, lying on the grass and eating a picnic, while the sheep look on and the breeze gently drifts in off the sea, is a lovely moment to have, and a wonderful memory to keep. And Daisy and I have plenty of such memories from our time on the trail.
And I’ll definitely be going back to do it all again one day.