The Downs to the Sea - narrative

This walk took us across the South Downs in Hampshire, on a series of steep-sided wooded hills (known as Hangers). There are acres of quiet woodland, several pretty country villages, and it finishes by going along the series of estuaries that constitute Chichester Harbour, ending at the Cathedral. We had enjoyed the Hangers Way so much (three weeks previously) that we wanted to extend it, and I liked moving from the undulating hills to the open sea views. We did it in March, in very mixed weather (with quite muddy paths); so we discussed the way the weather affected us. The trees were glorious, frequently silhouetted on the horizon.

DAY 1, Petersfield to Buriton:
Making the best of Friday night, we made our way past Petersfield's 18th century town houses and the spacious Square, with its nice old church. We went down the green lane, with hedges on both sides, past the caravan park, and by the little stream, with fields to our right. Soon we were among the trees, including some fine old, gnarly specimens; one had tumbled (aesthetically) into a pond. We were back on The Hangers Way, which we'd done 3 weeks previously (in crisp snow); now green shoots were pushing up, bulbs were springing. We walked along a pretty curving dale, past the not-so-pretty sewage works, through more woods, and got a glimps of Butser Hill looming in the misty evening light, to our right. Then we went down the hill to the charming little settlement of Buriton, with its fine old Manor House and sweet duck pond. The Maple Inn was fine for food, drink and sleeping.

DAY 2, Buriton to Emsworth:
The predicted rain was just finishing as we stepped out; our rain gear kept off the drips from the trees. Even with the misty atmosphere all round, we could see Butser, not quite shrouded in the clouds. We enjoyed the elegant proportions of the village houses, and had a brief glimpse of ducks and swans on the ponds; then, up the hill, under the railway line and through the woods to Fagg Farm. The tiny, country Newborn Road was so quiet, we didn't see a single car. Then we veered right into the Queen Elizabeth Forest and joined the Staunton Way. The numerous tall beech trees and carpets of orange beech nuts and leaves covering the Hangers ground were very pretty.

After a small kink/dogs-leg bend, we were out in the fields again. There were some unplanted fields of rich brown earth, and plenty of winter wheat. Soon we got to Charlton, another attractive village; many of the local buildings are made from flint stones, beautifully weathered to meld with the countryside. Here the churchyard had drifts of snowdrops. Next we were back in the fields, crossing the undulating Downs, with broad, sweeping views. Then there were fields of oil-seed rape, their yellow flowers giving a brightness to the already brightening day. On, down the hill to Finchdean, and soon we were into Rowlands Castle. This had less than attractive suburbs, but suddenly we were on a charming village Green, with a choice of pubs. We had a nice relaxed lunch break at the Bluebell Inn.

By the afternoon, there was blue sky and sunshine. We set off eastwards, on the Monarch Way (Charles II's escape route, after his defeat in the battle of Worcester in 1651; and yes, with a crown for its sign). The Avenue was literally that: a wide greensward, lined by trees on both sides, leading to a grand house. Before reaching that, we turned south again, on the Sussex Border Path, down to Holme Farn. Here we doubled back across the field and into Southleigh Forest - very closely planted, with fine, tall trunks, shining in the bright sunlight. We crossed Emsworth Common, and took the horsetrack down through Hollybank woods, into the edge of town. The B&B was about 15 minutes walk from the Emsworth Harbour. It was a fine, clear evening; we took the Fisherman's Walkway out into the Harbour, to look back at the sea front, lit up in the evening sun. 100 years ago this had been a big oyster farming centre; now it's adapting itself to tourism, with lots of pubs.

DAY 3, Emsworth to Chichester:
The TV weather girl told us "don't go out!" It was forecast to be wet most of the day; so in theory we had a choice: get a bus to Chichester or walk through whatever the day delivered. However, we were committed, and walked on. The wind often blew the rain into our waterproofs, and even when we stopped, it was difficult to get warm again. Fortunately the lunch pub was very welcoming; but I still needed a hot bath when we got home. We tried to leave Emsworth by getting back on the Sussex Border Path, but kept getting sucked back into town; eventually we were through. Although we'd been undeterred yesterday, today's grey skies and wetness did deter us; after going through the Emsworth Yacht Harbour, we had a brief look at the view from the top of Thorney Island, decided not to walk round it, and then took the path across the top past Thornham Farm.

The sequence of creeks which make up Chichester Harbour has many charms. We saw lots of birds, including seagulls and waders; but the rain meant views were generally limited and appreciation was of pretty lichen on trees and walls, spring flowers and water reeds. We were wet and cold, so we stopped for an early lunch at Chidham. The Old House At Home was a lovely pub, the people were welcoming and the food was very good. Well restored, we continued in the rain to the pretty streets of Bosham.

By now the rain had stopped, but it was cold. After yesterday's sense of Spring, this was definitely back to Winter. So the challenge of our day continued; however we agreed it was worth it. We walked across the fields to our final channel: Fishbourne, and then northwards, to connect with the way into Chichester. We wound our way in, through elegant streets of 18th century town houses, to the Cathedral, which had dominated the view for the last half hour. It's a fine building; for me it was about awe; for Jeremy, it was about peace; he described it as surprisingly intimate compared to other Cathedrals; (but then he did grow up as a chorister in Canterbury Cathedral). Our final view of the day was the beautiful, red setting sun - the clouds had gone, as we were going. Just the slightly tedious and circuitous bus and train journey home, as part of the line was closed for maintenance.

I mentioned before that this walk was inspired by doing the Hangers Way. Anybody wanting a longer version of these could easily put the two walks together. We knew walking in Britain in March made us vulnerable to the weather; I do prefer sunshine, but even so, we enjoyed striking out in the inclement circumstances, with the changing views and the many splendid trees and spring bulbs; the daffodils were much further on than in London. I enjoyed the variety of the broad sweep of the Downs, the woods, the fields, all contrasted with seaside views, sea birds, bobbing boats and that special sense of where the land meets the sea. It gave us a taste of old England, through the beautiful countryside, the charming villages, and a fine Cathedral City. A good end to a walk is important, and Chichester Cathedral is certainly that.

© Diana Ambache 2012