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Things to do around the South Downs - walks, stars, pubs and more

PUBLISHED: 10:31 16 February 2015 | UPDATED: 10:31 16 February 2015

Archant

Leave the car and chaos behind and escape to a land of endless views; the chance to mooch from orchard to brewery to vineyard; and finally crash out in a luxury yurt, with nothing but the star-littered skies for company

Take a wander

There is no doubt that the best way to soak up the beauty of the 1600km2 South Downs National Park is on foot. With many routes to choose from, the pinnacle has to be the 100-mile long South Downs Way National Trail. Stretching from the ancient English Capital of Winchester to the chalk cliffs at Eastbourne, this trail tempts tourists with an awe-inspiring eyeful of the English Channel and the Isle of Wight. Weave your way through ancient woodlands, carpeted with bluebells; spot red kites circling in one of the five National Nature Reserves you pass through; and plan a good handful of pub-stops – to keep you focused!

If you’re reasonably fit, and can manage a 12-15 mile walk a day, it will take you around eight to nine days to complete; but you could always tackle a little section at a time at the weekend or days off.

For cyclists, two to three days should suffice if you’re used to off-roading, although a few hardcore two-wheelers have completed it in a day!

Other long distance trails in Hampshire include the new, 50-mile, Shipwrights Way, which runs from Alice Holt Forest in Farnham to Portsmouth Historic Dockyard. This is ideal for family walking or cycling, with twenty beautifully carved stone sculptures along the way.

The Hangers Way is a 21-mile trail from Alton to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Only accessible to walkers, this is a quieter route to the neighbouring South Downs Way. The 16-mile section from Petersfield to Alton provides a good day’s walk and has the advantage of starting and finishing at train stations.

The Meon Valley Trail is currently undergoing a huge transformation, which is due to be complete in Spring 2015. Overgrown trees and deep muddy surfaces are being removed to reveal the ten miles of trails which run along the disused railway track from Wickham to West Meon. This beautiful route, with a rich Saxon history, runs through the Meon Valley and takes in Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill; the River Meon – offering a chance to spot butterflies, kingfishers and even the odd otter; and the old railway siding at Droxford – famous as the meeting point where Winston Churchill, Eisenhower and Charles de Gaulle met to finalise plans for D-Day landings. Plus there will be helpful signage pointing weary walkers in the direction of local pubs and cafes.

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Star-gaze

As the sun goes down on the most incredible views across the South Downs, instead of retreating to the warm, linger a little longer and you’ll witness a whole other vista. Free from the orange glow of light pollution, the dark skies above Winchester Hill and Butser Hill in Queen Elizabeth Country Park are prime spots for gazing at the Milky Way. Local astronomers have named both areas Dark Sky Discovery Sites as part of an ambitious project, which aims for parts of the South Downs to become an International Dark Sky Reserve and ensure these precious night time views are protected.

In the meantime, to fully appreciate the view, turn off any mobile phones and torches, and look north.

Find out more at www.southdowns.gov.uk/looking-after/dark-skies

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Hop-on, hop-off

In a bid to encourage more people to leave the car behind, you can now buy a ‘Discovery Ticket’, which gives you the freedom of unlimited, hop-on hop-off, bus travel across the whole South Downs National Park. This includes all the main bus operators in West Sussex, East Sussex, Surrey, Brighton & Hove and East Hampshire – ideal if you only fancy cycling one-way!

Family day ticket for up to five people (max two adults) is £16. Adults, £8.50, Children, £7. Find itineraries for days out and an interactive map at www.southdowns.gov.uk/GettingAround

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Find a feast

The South Downs has a plethora of places to wine and dine - from the cute, country village pubs found dotted along the many trail routes; to River Cottage Canteen and Rick Stein, Winchester. Then there’s the Farmer’s Markets that pop-up in Petersfield, Alton and Winchester, showcasing local produce such as South Downs lamb from Rother Valley Organics.

If you’re looking for something a little different, why not sample the Alton/Selborne Food & Drink Trail. Mooch from Brock’s Farm Shop to Triple fff microbrewery, on to Botwell Farm Shop, filling your basket with über fresh produce and real ales. Next stop: a little light refreshment at the infamous Pub with No Name (aka White Horse Inn) at Priors Dean, which also happens to have a camping field if you get a little too comfortable. Continue your crawl to The Selborne Arms, complete with kids’ play area, followed by a nice brew at The Tea Parlour at Gilbert White’s House & Garden. Liven the senses at Selbourne Lavender Fields, before reaching your final stop at Mr Whiteheads Cider Company – where you can stock up on award-winning apple and pear ciders.

www.southdowns.gov.uk

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The woodland glamp

Forget the obligatory B&B, for those wishing to truly escape the hustle and bustle, look no further than Adhurst Yurts.

Tucked away in glades within 100 acres of ancient woodland, you’ll find four locally-made 18 foot yurts. Connotations of old-school camping go out the window as you’re greeted by a double bed with duvet, large comfy pillows and a supply of chopped wood for the log burner stove. The newest of the yurts, Willow, even has its own roll-top bath, with hot running water – perfect for a midnight dip!

Despite the creature comforts, hardy campers can embrace the car-free, off-grid zone, complete with campfire, long-drop loo, safari kitchen and open-air shower. Solar-powered fairy lights twinkle at night and add to the magic, whilst come daytime, hop on the rope swing across the river.

Having hosted visitors to the South Downs for six years, owner Alison Lubbock says: “Guests can walk from their yurt to the village of Sheet without going on the main road; or The Queens Head, The Harrow and The Half Moon are nearby. We’re ideal for family reunions and are looking forward to hosting woodland weddings soon.”

Open from Easter to the end of October, from £220 for two nights. Well-behaved pets are welcome. Visit www.adhurst.co.uk

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Poetic license - We speak to the South Downs Way’s first Poet in Residence, Lizzie Ballagher

How do you feel about being awarded such a great accolade?

I’m delighted to do what I would be doing anyway: to write poems about the South Downs Way as we gradually work our way west.

To be Poet in Residence is something of a dream come true for me, because I had begun to think about seeking such an opportunity when we were completing other south-eastern paths in previous years. We’d already walked the Greensand Way and the Wealdway, as well as long stretches of the Saxon Shore Way, High Weald Landscape Trail, Elham Valley Way and the North Downs Way.Elsewhere we’d walked parts of the Pembrokeshire Coastal Path, The Pennines Way, the Cotswold Way, etc. During most of those walks I had kept a photographic and written log of where we went and what we enjoyed along the way; this is proving to be a rich storehouse for poetry now.

Starting the South Downs Way last autumn introduced us to a path which seemed to be on quite another level - not just geographically but in terms of its variety and breathtaking beauty.

How much ground have you covered so far?

So far we’ve completed the Eastbourne loop and then walked all the way to Washington, in West Sussex. At a rough estimate we reckon we’ve now covered some 40-50 miles of the whole trail. Our target is to finish walking the South Downs Way by Autumn 2015; the constraints being distance and (in winter) daylight hours, not to mention our ages.

What is it that inspires you?

Being outside in any wide natural space seems to open ‘windows’ for poems in my mind. Sometimes the first few lines come to me as we walk, but more often it’s a review of the photos and the written log that drives me first to pen and paper, and then to the computer to compose.

The changing sky, the shapes of different field systems, the burial barrows we’ve seen, the trees, the church and domestic architecture, the people who work the landscape, the animals, the varying crops and wildflowers - all these are things that draw my eye and make me reach for a pen.

What are you most looking forward to on the Hampshire section of the route?

I have no doubt the Hampshire parts of the path will be as captivating as the Sussex sections. There are three things to which we’re both looking forward to: one is the Meon Valley (we will have crossed several key rivers along the way from East Sussex, and we’ve seen some lovely images of the Meon online and in a book we have.

The second thing is of course Winchester Cathedral. We often visit Rochester (our nearest) and Canterbury (not far away) but neither of us has ever been to Winchester Cathedral, except courtesy of the Kinks’ entertaining pop song way back in the 1960s.

The third is that when we finish the entire path we’re going to take a stroll from where it ends along the river to the Abbey of St Cross. Apparently, if a walker goes to the porter’s door there, he or she is given what’s known as a “Wayfarer’s Dole”, that is, a crust of bread and a sup of ale. We like the sound of that and hope that the ancient tradition is still in practice when we arrive!

How will you celebrate when you finish the whole trail?

About the same time we arrive in Winchester we’ll also be marking eight years of walking and log-keeping, and the 2,000+ miles we’ll have notched up in that time - roughly equating to the distance between London and Cairo! Of all the paths, the SDW takes the prize. So that will be one of our celebrations, for sure. Not certain yet what else we’ll do, but at least a bottle of bubbly and a cosy B&B.

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