Having made 5 attempts to walk along the South Downs Way alone and in midwinter, in 2007 I made my last attempt, having finally conceded that camping out had been too big a hindrance. Here’s my photos and account of that walk, which sadly I didn’t complete. 7th time lucky? Here’s the account I wrote at the time:
18th December 2007
Winchester here I come
Taking it easy on myself this year by heading off to Winchester the day before the start of the walk and staying overnight in a hotel there. Previously, I would leave Brighton in the very early hours of the morning and get a train to London (because there didn’t seem to be early trains to Winchester), cope with various train delays which always occur in the week before Christmas, and arrive in Winchester in the late morning. Then I would spend all morning faffing around looking for the start of the Way. It seemed that the people of Winchester didn’t want people to leave by walking off towards Eastbourne, or even Twyford Down. By the time I had set out I would be exhausted. Then I had to camp somewhere not very far away from Winchester, which was a demoralising experience, not to mention cooking a crude dinner and knowing that it would be the last dry night.
This time I am taking it ultra-easy on myself by staying indoors along the way. It was a last minute rejig of my plans. I made all the necessary bookings yesterday. The rucksack is much lighter than before!
The weather forecast is also good. It looks like this for the first few days:
That’s the best weather forecast I’ve ever had for this endeavour. Some years I didn’t even look at it. I knew it was going to be bad. Wind driving rain and gates settled above mud pits churned up by cows which made them impassable. More of those recollections later.
Could it be that this year, atlast, the Beast of the Midwinter South Downs Way is slain? Watch this space…
Here’s a worthwhile nugget. If you ask them nicely the ticket inspectors on trains can ask the driver to mute the constant stream of electronic announcements which destroy train journeys between Brighton & Southampton; on this line there are so many stops that the electronic voice normally never shuts up. As if by some magical synchronicity all the school kids who got on at Barnham appeared also to be controlled by the driver’s mute switch. I was so pleased at the gift of quietitude that I asked the ticket collector if I could photograph her for my blog. Turns out it is her Birthday is on Christmas day but unlike my pal Nicola Ross, she loves being born that day. Maybe having a twin helps, she says. Her top tip for Christmas comes courtesy of the Telegraph – go to central London and wander around in the peace.
This much luxury must be sinful
There’s nothing wrong with having a private bathtub, of course. Wish we had one at home. A long soak is about to commence, followed by a very early night. Then I can get up before dawn and get to the edge of town by the time daylight breaks. Hopefully my first day’s walking can be completed before nightfall. (I’ve got a very powerful headtorch in case I am ever still out after dark.) The photograph is of my room in the hotel in Winchester. It’s a far cry from sleeping out on Old Winchester Hill, where one April myself and Nicola Ross awoke to find our tent in a thick blanket of snow. On the plus side, it was easy on get the pegs into the ground when we pitched the tent the night before. Some helpful iron age people had piled the earth deep, flattened it out and turfed it all. Photographs of that campsite will hopefully follow. If I was a purist then, I sure feel like a sinner now. The fact is that I have had to accept that I am just not fit enough, not young enough, not weatherbeaten enough to complete the SDW on foot, alone, wild camping and carrying everything I need for my purpose. At least, not at midwinter.
Unheard Of Luxury
Beard to begin with
This was all posted live on another blog at the time. I received many supporting comments along the way, some of which I reproduce here:
Anonymous MD said…
Disappointed there are no photos of Mr Roy yet. Has he grown a beard before he has started? Does he intend to regale us with a variety of comedy facial hair during his expedition? I think he should.
MD asks if I sport a beard yet. Self-portraiture never one of strong points plus the bloody camera flashes twice to prevent red eye but with me it forced my eyes shut. Am sporting this beard permantly these days. MD are you MD of Somerset by any chance?
19th December 2007
The Big Man
That’s how King Alfred looked this morning at 7:30am. Wasn’t he the first King of England, allegedly? The good folk of Winchester must be enormously proud of him and his sword wielding proclivities because they have taken the trouble to spell his name correctly (the first A joined up to an E) and made him very big. Whilst the SDW begins, I think, at Winchester Cathedral, I have never been there, preferring instead to imagine that it begins with Alfred, whose posture seems more honest for this military town than a building dedicated to God.
Sunrise just east of Winchester
Forgot to mention that the bloody Wessex hotel had no hot water last night so I didn’t get an early bath or an especially early night. They didn’t even tell me when I checked in.
The Old Track
Despite having previously checked maps of the town, carrying a GPS and using Google’s mapping software, I was still thrown by the abhorrence which the good folk of Winchester obviously have for signs pointing the way out of town. The South Downs Way has been in use for 6,000 years, which makes it a much more ancient ‘construction’ that their local Cathedral (which I will visit one day) or their local school for the privileged. Signage is sporadic to the point of being unhelpful and, when really close to the start of the ‘walking through fields part’ ambiguous to the point of being, misleading. I was misled towards what a local walking her dog called the Black Road of Death. Lucky that I recognised my error (having made it before) and did, by 8:25am find the true path. Here it is, with the sun rising over the lip of the land.
We’ll Raise The Red Flag High
This flag represents an active danger area and not a communist insurrection. The good people of Hampshire aren’t ready for that, not yet. It also represents the edge of an area I found myself in previously when, whilst walking with Jasper Credland, we found ourslves in some woods which had no shortage (!) of signs warning us to leave immediately and to make a noise about it on pain of being shot otherwise. The early start after a fair sleep obviated that sort of navigational error this morning.
Anonymous Magdalene said…
You write very well.
Proof of Extra-Terrestial Communications
Pyramids Are Always Popular
I think we should be told?
Along the way
Beautifully Hard Underfoot
Classic Downland Signpost
I Call This Temple Valley
Presumably, Lone Trees Stand Against Modernity Due To Legal Protection
Too Many Directions Home
Homage to past rests
Forgot to mention that I had a great pub lunch in the Milberry’s Inn, very large compared to the usual crappy portions served to vegetarians, washed down by a pint of copper ale and served in front of a roaring log fire. Rejoice, sinners! Anyway, if privations and suffering are spiritually pure why should their sensual opposites be forbidden. After all these years, my eyes have opened at last. Both experiential extremes are required!
Beacon of Hope
This ground was a little off-route but worth visiting, it being a campsite of mine in the past, several times. It lies at the top of Beacon Hill. Standing here again reminded me of bitter defeats become glorious with recollection. How very British…
The Sun Set On Me.
It became very cold. I put my hat on.
I Don’t Shake – Everything Else Does!
My destination for the night… With the best bath I have had this century (there is no tub at home), a very warm welcome and, to be honest, aching legs and a little chafing. Enough!
20th December 2007
2nd day a tough one
Thought a 2nd self-portrait was justified, after a fantastic night’s sleep at the Buck’s Head. No photos of the ragged me this evening. Took the strategic decision to avoid taking photographs today and just get along the Way but when I got to Old Winchester Hill, a previous winter campsite of mine, nostalgia got the better of me and I captured a view of its fortified entrance. A mark of the civilised times we live in is the flimsy protection offered (and no doubt respected) to the plant life. A sign informed me that the fort was built by people before use of iron but I expect those iron shovels came in handy later on.
This House Will Kill This Tree
After miles of flawless signs and approaching the border with Sussex, Hampshire County Council suddenly went awol and some crazy person erected all kinds of additional footpath signs in the Queen Elizabeth woods. Despite being well used none of the woods’ loyal residents had ever heard of the South Downs Way. One man said, “I do know that the M3 is over there.” He didn’t know. It was the A3. Another suggested a black railway line on my map was a “red line”. In the end I popped out of the woods just West of the village of Buriton, which meant that I had accidentally traipsed off the Way and had to walk the last few miles on tarmac and Wealden fields, with frozen waves of mud and pits concealed under ice lids. Before making tonight’s safe house (Copper Beeches), this tree house caught my eye. Got to the B&B to find no-one here but luckily the porch was unlocked and Mr Chew (the propietor) arrived 35 minutes later. Been lying down ever since.
Good to see so many commentators on my blog but I am concerned that they all, to date, wish to remain anonymous. Am I that frightening?
The hard part comes tomorrow and I say that bearing in mind today it was cold enough to justify hat AND gloves. I expect finish long after dark, 25 miles away from here.
Anonymous Anonymous said…
I have just caught up with your blog – looks like you’re well on course this time, given a bit of luck with the weather holding and not too many pub suppers
Anonymous northwest frontiersman said…
Thought I would indulge myself with another handle in wishing you well on day 2. How many miles on the agenda today?
Anonymous Anonymous said…
Well done so far – following progress with interest and a little envy – fingers crossed for you and the weather – good luck for tomorrow
Anonymous Anonymous said…
Previous comment went before signature -new to this M
Anonymous Romantics follow the moon said…
An inspirational trip, walking through the beautiful south downs taking the air & pushing your body to ache. I really enjoyed the photos, might join you next year… Hapopy New Year.
Anonymous northwest frontiersman again said…
Be grateful for these frozen muddy tracks. Much better than ploughing through the mire. I expect you’ll sleep well tonight. Weather up here has been brilliant this week for a change. If you’re now in Sussex you will be on tracks which I have walked for the most part, but not all consecutively.
Anonymous XXX said…
it looks fantastic. you’ve been lucky with the weather. let’s hope it holds.good luck with your long stretch tomorrow. just keep thinking of that hot bath.
see you soon
p.s. have you opened your pressie?
21st December 2007 – Midwinter!
Today I had theoretically the longest walk planned for the shortest day. That ‘plan’ took shape only because I couldn’t find anywhere closer to Torberry Farm. Mrs Chew made me a superb breakfast and a packed lunch for £3. The day mostly looked like this:
Winter Solstice Before Sunrise
The ground was frozen with a quarter inch of frost particles, which were pleasant enough to walk on.
Sunrise At MidWinter
Another Beacon Hill
This one has a steep side on the West, the side I approached from. It rose up out of the fog like an absurd wall. Suddenly, I remembered it from a previous attempt. My heart sank. The Devil called Doubt appeared with it but I recognised him and chased him away quite easily.
Realising that these viewless general shots can get a bit samey, I took this one to show some detail. Everything looked like this close up: all the blades of grass, all the leaves on the ground, every gate, every fence post and it looked really good on certain types of long grasses and on barbed wire. I guess I must have been walking in what the weather(wo)men call freezing fog because four hours after I set out this morning I noticed that one side of my rucksack had collected icicles of similar proportions. The visibility made crossing roads much more unsafe than normal. It wasn’t that the weather conditions were treacherous but the drivers were.
My previous best
Looking Back Is Good
It’s not much to look at but for me this was emotional view since it looked back to the furtherest point from Winchester that I had ever previously reached in my various midwinter walks along the South Downs Way.
Glorious New Ground
Really pleased to see more comments, especially from XXX. Sue also gets special mention for IDing herself. I think everyone who knows me will be able to guess the identity of northwestfrontiersman!
I’m in Storrington now but accidentally veered off the Way just after Duncton Down owing to a farmer having plowed over the path. It would have exceptionally dangerous to try to walk the half mile back to the Way along the A road I found myself on – the cars were speeding in convoys in both directions in dense fog. Crossinf the road was enough for me. A sympathetic local bailed me out by calling in a taxi. I had had enough. As the phographs show, today was not a stroll in the park.
Anonymous northwest frontiersman again said…
I don’t think you would be working up quite such a sweat today. It would be nice to hear a few more local names of what you are passing en route – that would help me place you easily. Happy midwinter from the north west – another glorious day here but tomorrow we are promised rain again. I trust the “warm” south may at least stay dry.
Anonymous Anonymous said…
Many congrats. on furthest east. Appreciate the feeling. Wonderfully atmospheric photo’s. Make me even more envious. Fingers crossed for tomorrow. M xo
Anonymous Ancient Caledonian the artist formerly known as NWFM said…
As a philosopher once said,”the absence of pain should never be mistaken for pleasure”. I’m sure you clung on to that thought in the back of the taxi. Good luck on the next stage – hope your weather, chilly and foggy though it may have been so far, has not turned as horrible as it has up here on the northwest frontier.
22nd December 2007
Horribly muggy this morning but luckily a reasonably kind path up the North side of the South Downs. It was very quiet. This photo half-way back up.
George and Gem. George is nine. Gem is fifteen. Startled the living daylights out of me when on turning to observe a plane I heard behind me they were instead. George accompanied me through the myriad of potential pathways back to the true SDW. “I know all these Downs”, he told me. The two of them were much more agile than me coping with the verge and an upcoming 4×4. “Don’t put an acorn tree with a horse’s yard,” he informed me. Atlast I understand that there is only one type of ivy which is poisonous. He also asked where I was going and wherefrom. He (alone, ever) suggested, “Why don’t you camp?” I explained why not but he didn’t appear to grasp how bad it could be. Possibly he was a bit fixated on a summer camp he went on with his horse. “This is a sensible horse.”
When I was young I got a bicycle, which momentously expanded my freedom and thus my horizons. This lad rode beside me, guided me, conversed with me, informed me and finally, when after we had parted and five minutes had passed, I turned over my shoulder and he was galloping away down, like fire. He had a horse.
Nice one, Ian. My very best to your Mother.
South Harting Downs
Here’s a cyclist near Chanctonbury Ring, which site marked the edge of my known Downs.
This is my all time favourite seat but I’m sure it didn’t always touch the ground.
Old Seat at Chanctonbury Ring
Just off left to the picture above was Bill Finlay, also photographing the seat:
Great To Meet You Bill!
A Canadian over to see his in-laws in Steyning, escaping to one of his favourite spots. He was a member of some club which was extending the Bruce Trail. A website for that particular trail warns, “We strongly advise that hiking in the Blue Mountains, Beaver Valley, Sydenham and Peninsula Club sections be avoided during the following periods in 2007: November 5 to 10, November 19 to 24 and December 3 to 8.
Check out the Badlands
in the Bruce Trail. Meanwhile, here’s another self portrait…
We’ve Evolved To Walk
It being a Saturday, the great outdoors suddenly became very popular:
It took a long time to descend the Way from Chanctonbury, with the path bending quite some way South. It has to drop down to meet a road, apparently. I smelt the Devil called Doubt this time long before he crept up on me. I charged across bridge over the river Adur and up the other side without allowing myself to contemplate bailing. Atlast I reached Truleigh Hill, where there is a Youth Hostel my wife and I considered getting married in. Getting close to broken with Devil’s Dyke a couple of miles away. Here’s a view looking back towards Truleigh Hill, after I had passed it:
Very tired as the sun went down and a full moon showed itself before me.
No Wonder People Worship The Sun
Have never been so pleased to see the Devil’s Dyke car park! Called up a pal, David Ingledew
, who came and rescued me in his car and drove me home. Theory is to continue tomorrow. Rest day needed soon..
No navigational errors made today. The ground conditions were lovely. Soft top of mud topped off with grass most of the way, with flint or chalky interludes. Just what my feet needed, although they are throbbing a little now.
Home at last but will it last?
Staying at home tonight, reasons of cost mainly. Here’s a quick run down of the day after George sent me on my way, except that first, here’s a picture which got left out from yesterday, on South Harting Downs.
Blogger Ian said…
Enjoying the blog. My mum has a message, “a very enterprising endeavour, I’m enjoying the views of the Hampshire countryside.” Privately,I think she might think you’re mad. “I didn’t say that!” she adds.
Anonymous Anonymous said…
we’re enjoying the blog too is it all done on your phone,including the photos? good work,
Blogger Sharon said…
Sent email by mistake roughly saying that whilst mildly disappointed that you had abandoned the incredibly impressive plan to camp incommuncado (” no not even a monile phone”) the freezing weather conditions we are currently enjoying must mitigate against what might be considered such (fool)hardiness. Having caught up with the blog today I do hope you continue after your wellearned break and look forward to hearing more about it over a drink in the new Year? Great photos. Sharon.
23rd December 2007
R & R
Decided on a rest and recuperation day today. Probably because I woke up in my own bed. Having walked the best part of 75 miles was a factor too. Woke late too, that didn’t help. Weather is for more mist today, cloudy tomorrow and rain the day after. Perhaps I deserve some rain? On my previous attempts it hardly ceased raining. Am resolved to reduce kit size (For example, there was no need at all to carry a fat edition of Homer or some notepads for writing. What was I thinking?) and get an early start tomorrow. Despite the way everyone is behaving this week, incredibly, I feel guilty at my laziness but a rest for my limbs is needed to prevent injury. I have never previously walked more than 4 days without an R&R day to follow. Why should I change now?
Therefore, ground conditions today will be square slabs of slabs of rock abutting asphalt with the run off going from the former to the latter, carpet and varnished wooden boards. If I have a view it will be either of herringbone tiles or flemish wall bond. Over and Out.
Anonymous Ancient Caledonian said…
Enjoy your day of rest – it is Sunday after all – and whatever the nation’s secularism/religiosity that seems to be a topical moot point, you have earned the r and r . Yesterday’s hike stirred many, many memories for the Ancient Caledonian who would have enjoyed it enormously.
Anonymous Anonymous said…
Exceedingly well done – Mxo – only anonymous till I can think of a tag
Blogger Ian said…
Are you back at it today? Why no pictures of your bed?
Was damned foggy anyway on 23rd amazing I could find London in it.
Happy Christmas to the ancient caledonian and all other readers!
24th December 2007
R & R again
No excuses. I took another day off. Let the chafing settle a bit more. Still on schedule.
Anonymous Anonymous said…
Good luck for tomorrow if you go again – Mxo – Merry Christmas to Ian.
Blogger SD said…
Disappointed not to see any action photos from today – I am sure they would have made interesting viewing.
Have you managed to keep the inside of the rucksack dry on this trip?
Get on and finish it lazy bones.
25th December 2007
Jack & Jill
Here’s a video I took on arriving back at Devil’s Dyke. You can hear me talking above the wind at 20s and see me at 32s. The video is only 47 seconds long in total.
This was the last time it was dry today. After this it got surprisingly busy with families, dogs, children etc., but that was because I was near Ditchling Beacon with its easy to reach car park. Ground conditions remained good though – just the right proportions of slip and bounce.
No photos today because it has been raining, as the forecasters promised, “heavily”. Got wet. The chafing places became uncomfortably. Got lost in my own neck of the woods! Popped out at Poynings rather than Saddlescombe, which added a little mileage to the journey. Pressed on to Jack & Jill (windmills), Ditchling Beacon and Black Cap, where I decided to bail out by heading for Lewes rather than the obscure place where the SDW crosses the A27. When I got to Lewes I quickly found the Meridian [a pub, now closed] and was served with a glass of punch on the house. That was lucky. Even more lucky was managing to secure a taxi back to Brighton.
… and that was as far as I got