on to the South Downs Way - narrative
Winchester to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park

Looking for a short walk to do with friends who live near the eastern end of the South Downs, Jeremy came up with the idea of walking a couple of days from the western end. Winchester made a good starting point, complimented by finishing at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, near Petersfield, a couple of days along. The Downs (from 'dunes'?) have a comfortable, rolling landscape, described by Bill Bryson as 'some of England's finest'. The chalk gives a pleasingly curvaceous outline to the hills, the good grass means lots of sheep, the month of July meant pleasantly warm days.

DAY 1: Winchester to Exton.

Winchester station is near the Cathedral and not far from the River Itchen. Soon we went under the M3 and the car noise receded as we got into the woods. Across the fields to Chilcomb, we noticed many path 'Ways' around here, with allusions to bits of English history. Here the South Downs are mild and civilized; the undulating hills are mostly covered in fields of wheat and barley, frequently edged with bright red, wild poppies. The hedgerows also had lovely wild flowers, including purple vetch, thistles and big, white hogweed. Some fields seemed to belong to eco-aware farmers, with a two-metre-wide strip dedicated to wild flowers, sustaining wild life and the balance of nature.

The path went round Telegraph Hill and down Temple Valley, through Ganderdown and Holden Farms - how nice to see the productiveness of our land. After a ploughman's lunch at The Milburys, we continued along the road to Wind Farm, past the imposing entrance drive to Preshaw Estate. Beacon Hill was not a demanding climb, but never-the-less brought an extended view over the Solent, to the Isle of Wight. We ambled down the hill towards Exton, past stables and horse fields, one of which seemed to be growing pale pink poppies: opium? medicinal or what? We got down to the sweet River Meon, with tall willows, with their elegantly flowing boughs. A large box tree attracted our friend Dick's attention, as he is a maker of 'baroque' oboes - made from box wood. Then our (more-cultured-than-us) friends went off to explore the Corhampton Saxon Church, dating from 1020, while we clocked into the Buck's Head pub at Meonstoke.

DAY 2: Exton to QE Country Park.

We started by returning to the Church, to see the sundial in the churchyard; it boasts being among the best Saxon sundials in England. Fixed to the wall, the sun lights the bottom half, which was divided into eight 'tides' (apparently from tyd, or season). Then we continued our easterly path, up Old Winchester Hill. The bank and ditch are said to have been built in the 1st millennium BC, echoing the map's suggestions (in old-fashioned type) that there are lots of Bronze Age (tumuli) sites all round. For us, the elevation gave us a fine 360 degree panorama of the surrounding undulations, lumps and bumps, covered in grasses waving in the wind. Down the hill and across the road, Whitewool farm has a delightful café by the river, with fly fishing and local ice cream (the raspberry was particularly delicious). More wheat fields, full of healthy plants, often glowing gold in the sunshine. We paused for a picnic, until ants chased us away. Then it was onwards, down Coombe Cross to Cross Dykes. One more climb up Butser Hill gave us another view from beside the radio station. However, we were above the busy A3, and so accompanied by traffic noise. A convenient underpass brought us to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, and the café with tea and chocolate brownies. Then the rain started, so we were happy to get a taxi to take us to Petersfield station.

This was a lovely short walk, giving a good introduction to the Downs. It was not strenuous, but sufficiently varied to give plenty of interest, with the changing views, birds and wild flowers; for us, actually a very refreshing summer walk and pleasantly accessible, being so close to London.

© Diana Ambache 2014