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The South Downs Way is said to be one of the best long-distance trails for beginners in the UK. At 100 miles (160 km) in length, this trail stretches along the UK’s south coast, covering the width of the beautiful South Downs National Park. Whether you’re hiking the South Downs Way in 5 days or 10, this easy to moderate long-distance hike in the UK can easily be tailored to suit your pace and experience. As the UK’s first National Bridleway, this route is also popular with cyclists and horseriders, but I’d highly recommend hiking the South Downs Way to give you plenty of time and opportunity to take in the undulating countryside around you.
Last year, I decided to solo hike the South Downs Way in 5 days, both as a personal challenge and a chance to spend some time in nature. On a rainy Sunday afternoon, I set about planning my hike and three weeks later, I was on my way to Winchester to begin my first ever thru-hike.
In this post, I’ll take you through all the ins and outs of planning your own South Downs Way hiking adventure, with all the tips and insider info I picked up along the way.
Planning to Hike the South Downs Way
There are several elements you’ll need to consider when hiking the South Downs Way. For example:
This will mostly depend on how many miles you can walk in a day. Experienced hikers will comfortable walk 20 miles a day, while beginners may want to take a more leisurely pace at 10-15 miles per day. Give consideration to how many miles you’ve been able to walk in the past, and whether you’d like a relaxed trip, or more of a personal challenge. I personally wanted a challenge, and am used to walking 20 miles in a day, so I decided that hiking the South Downs Way in 5 days would be my goal. However, it’s common for people to walk the South Downs Way in 7-10 days, so work out what’s best for you personally.
Are you happy to camp along the way? In which case, you’ll need to account for carrying a tent, sleeping bag, mattress and other equipment. Or would you prefer to find accommodation, such as B&Bs, hotels and hostels? I did a mixture of both. I camped for two nights, and stayed in B&Bs for the other two nights. I wanted to experience solo camping (on a campsite – I’m not brave enough to wild camp alone!), but also wanted to make sure I got some good sleep in a proper bed. Your choice will influence how heavy your backpack is, so bear that in mind. Either, way, there is plenty of accommodation on the South Downs Way and I share my personal recommendations below.
Technically, the South Downs Way officially starts in Eastbourne and finishes in Winchester. However, I felt it made more sense to start in Winchester and finish at the sea, in Eastbourne. I wanted to save the best bit till last (the Seven Sisters) and look forward to reaching the ocean on my last day. Logistically, it also made more sense for me to start in Winchester as the train journey from my home in Devon was much more straight-forward. So really, you can choose to start at either Eastourne or Winchester – whatever works!
Both Winchester and Eastbourne have excellent connections via train, so unless you have someone who can meet you at either end, it probably makes sense to use the train lines to get to and from the South Downs Way.
The answer depends entirely on how hard you want to make it. I wanted a challenge, so I challenged myself to complete the South Downs Way in 5 days, but if you want a more lesisurely trip, you can tackle the trail at your own pace, whether that’s 5 days, 7 days, 10 days, or even completing it in sections across the course of a year.
Yes. While there are many long, flat stretches on the trail that make for pleasant, easy walking, you’ll also have to tackle some fairly steep ascents too. But rest assured, the views at the top are always worth it!
It is not legally permitted to wild camp on the South Downs Way, although many people still do. I know several hikers who have wild camped on the South Downs Way, so it is possible, but if you do, always make sure to follow the golden rules of wild camping: leave no trace, no fires, be discreet and don’t camp in fields where livestock are grazing.
You can hike the SDW any time of year, but the best time of year would be late spring, summer, or early autumn where you can enjoy long, light evenings and the chance of better weather. I hiked the South Downs Way in July and except for one day of rain, I had exceptional weather!
There are ample water fountains all along the SDW route. Roughly every 7-10 miles, you’ll find a free water fountain to fill up your bottles. You can also ask at cafes and shops if they’re happy to fill up your water bottle – many people are happy to do so.
Yes! In fact, many people choose to cycle the South Downs Way rather than walk it, as it is a National Bridleway, which means the majority of footpaths are wide and easy to follow by bike. However, there are several locations where the trail splits and cyclicts must follow a different route to hikers. Whether you are walking or cycling, look out for signs showing the correct path to take.
It goes without saying that no matter what you do, whether solo or in a group, safety should always be a top priority. Although you can never say for sure that something is 100% safe based on one person’s experience, I can honestly say that as a petite solo female traveller, I didn’t feel unsafe or at risk at any point during this hike. The campsites I stayed at were all family friendly and I met lots of lovely people along the way, as well as other solo female hikers. As a general precaution, make sure your friends and family know your route and where you are staying each night, and always keep your wits about you at all times. If something doesn’t feel safe, go with your gut instinct. Make sure to carry enough food and water, wear weather-appropriate clothing and make sure you have a detailed knowledge of your equipment.
5-Day South Downs Way Itinerary
The rest of this blog post will assume you are hiking the South Downs Way in 5 days and will follow a 5-day itinerary. While planning my trip, I put together the below itinerary based on available accommodation and walking distance each day.
|Winchester Train Station||Coombe/East Meon||19 miles||The Sustainability Centre|
|East Meon||Cocking||16 miles||Manor Farm Campsite and B&B|
|Cocking||Steyning Bowl||21 miles||Uppingham B&B|
|Steyning Bowl||Lewes||19 miles||Housedean Farm|
|Lewes||Eastbourne||26 miles||Cavendish Hotel|
Day 1 – Winchester to Coombe/East Meon
On day 1, I arrived at Winchester Train Station around 8:30am and immediately made my way through the town to the start (or end, depending on your direction) of the trail. The South Downs Way officially starts at the National Trust’s Winchester City Mill. I found the start point difficult to find and the signs a little tricky to follow until I got to the end of Petersfield Road, where the signs are very clear and consistent after this point.
Almost immediately after joining the trail and getting out of the town, the countryside opens up to deliver beautiful scenery and endless rolling hills. The feeling of freedom hit me instantly. 5 days of hiking the South Downs Way ahead, through gorgeous English countryside, carrying everything I needed on my back. Euphoria is the only word I can use to describe the feeling.
After about a mile, you’ll come across the first free water tap, which is opposite a row of terraced houses, and easy to miss if you don’t know it’s there. The tap was actually broken when I passed, and still broken when a friend of mine passed a couple of months later, so I’m not sure if this tap is available now. To be honest, being only 1 mile into the walk, I didn’t actually need to use the tap as I still had a full bottle of water.
Pressing on, the next notable landmark you’ll come across is Cheesefoot Head, where you’ll sometimes find a food van. And, after about 7 miles you’ll come to Holden Farm Camping and the second free water tap. As you approach Holden Farm Camping, the water tap will be on your left, so keep an eye out for it as it’s easy to miss if you’re not looking for it. There is also a small shop at Holden Farm Camping too if you need to stock up on supplies.
2-3 miles down the road, you’ll spot the next water tap, located at Lomer Farm, before heading up the hill to Beacon Hill Nature Reserve and viewpoint. This was my favourite spot on day one as the view opens up over the incredible South Downs and you feel like you’re on top of the world. It was also the halfway point for my first day and the sun was coming out after a morning of rain, so I had all the good feels.
Heading down hill into the small village of Exton, I made my way to the quaint pub The Shoe Inn, where I stopped for a sandwich and a soft drink. There’s also Meonstoke Post Office and Village Stores in Exton. I didn’t stop here so I don’t know what sort of range they sell, but I guess you could grab some supplies from here if needed.
Feeling energised from a sit down and hearty lunch, I prepared to make my way up Winchester Hill, where you’ll spot the sea for the first time on the trail. Unfortunately, for me, the rain had come in pretty hard at this point, so it was head down for me. The next section of the trail is fairly up and down, until you reach Meon Springs Fly Fishery, which is a beautiful spot to stop on a lovely day, but unfortunately I was pretty keen to crack on and reach my campsite a couple of miles away.
Day 1 Accommodation
On the first night, I stayed at the South Downs Eco Lodge, also known as The Sustainability Centre. There is a variety of accommodation on offer, from private rooms, a hostel bunkhouse, yurts and camping pitches. I booked a private camping pitch which was tucked away in a private little spot behind a hegde. All camping pitches come with a fire pit, which would have been nice, save for I didn’t have any fire wood with me. There are limited facilities at The Sustainability Centre, which include showers, washing facilities and portaloos, but everything was super clean and I absolutely loved my stay there.
While there is a cafe, it closes at 4pm and there are no other food options within reasonable walking distance. The nearest pub is Ye Olde George Inn in East Meon but it’s a 2.7-mile walk in each direction, so I didn’t fancy that after a 20-mile walk that day. Fortunately, I had a friend who lives nearby who very kindly delivered a pizza for me! I’m eternally grateful for her kindness – without that pizza, my dinner would have consisted of trail mix, sweets and protein bars!
Book your accommodation at the South Downs Eco Lodge here.
Day 2 – Coombe/East Meon to Cocking/Graffham
On day 2, I set out from The Sustainability Centre after a hearty breakfast at The Beech Cafe, amd headed towards Butser Hill, where you’ll enjoy sweeping views and a glimpse of the sea in the distance. Heading downhill from here, you’ll pass through the beautiful Queen Elizabeth Country Park, where you’ll find a visitor centre equipped with a free water tap. In the park, there is a cafe called Beechwood Kitchen & Kiosk, however this is slightly off the South Downs Way trail, so you’ll need to take a slight detour if you want to stop here.
Continuing on the trail from the visitor centre, you’ll make your way through a beautiful forest and up a hill that never seems to end. Once you reach the top of the hill, you’ll head downwards to Hall Hill Car Park. At this point, you’re quite close to the village of Buriton, where you’ll find a pub called The Five Bells. Whilst not on the trail, it’s not too far to venture if you’re in search of food. It’s important to note that after this point, there is very little in the way of shops and restaurants for the rest of the day, so make sure you have plenty of supplies to see you through to the end of the day.
From Hall Hill Car Park, the trail continues along the road for some way. Look out for a table with free cake and water on your right-hand side as you travel uphill along the road which is kindly provided by the homeowner for hikers as they pass.
From here, the road is less scenic for a while, taking you along roadways and farm tracks with tall hedges until you reach the B2146, a road which leads to South Harting. I wouldn’t recommend walking along this busy road as there are no pavements and the traffic moves quickly, but if you’re desperate for refreshments, or somewhere to stay, South Harting is about 1 mile away. I didn’t venture into South Harting as I didn’t want to add an extra 2 miles on to my hike that day and also had plenty of snacks with me.
From the B2146, you’ll cross the road and continue through woodland until you reach the open, rolling hills of Harting Down. From here, there are a few beast hills to tackle – short, but very steep – but once you’re past this the path is fairly flat for the remaining few miles until you reach Cocking.
Day 2 Accommodation
If you choose to stop at Cocking, there is a a guesthouse or a pub with rooms just a short walk from the trail, or if you’re camping, you’ll find Manor Farm Campsite and B&B directly on the trail. If you continue on over Graffham Down, you’ll come to a campsite called Littleton Farm Campsite directly on the trail, where there is also a small coffee truck called Cadence Cycle Club Upwaltham serving coffee and light breakfasts and snacks during the day.
Day 3 – Cocking/Graffham to Steyning
Setting off from Cocking, you’ll start your day venturing uphill and over Graffham Down before you reach the A285 where you’ll find Cadence Cycle Upwaltham, as mentioned above, along with a free drinking water tap which isn’t immediately obvious if you don’t know it’s there. Crossing the main road, you’ll continue uphill again and eventually come to Bignor Hill Car Park before you head downhill and across the A29. Shortly after the A29 crossing, you’ll pass near to Houghton, just a short walk off the trail. There are a couple of accommodation options in Houghton and a pub called The George and Dragon if you’re looking for somewhere to eat.
Continuing on from Houghton, there is a free drinking water tap directly on the trail and easily visible above a trough just before you reach Amberley. If you’re looking to stop in Amberley, you’ll need to take the short walk into the town, which is about half a mile. In Amberley, you’ll find a village store, the Black Horse Pub, Amberley Tearooms and a couple of B&Bs.
Continuing on the trail, you’ll head up a steep hill and eventually arrive at Amberley Mount, which is the official halfway point for hiking the South Downs Way. After doing a short celebratory dance, you’ll continue on lovely flat trail for a few miles, past Kithurst Hill car park and downhill to your next water tap at Parkfield Farm, just outside of Washington.
Shortly after this free water tap, you’ll cross a very busy main road and again head up a hill – this time a very steep one, until you reach Chanctonbury Ring. From here, you’ll enjoy vast sweeping views and a fairly flat trail for a few miles until you reach Steyning Bowl.
Day 3 Accommodation
On day three, I chose to stay in a bed and breakfast in Steyning called Uppingham Bed & Breakfast, and the very kind B&B owner agreed to pick me up from the trail. I highly recommend this B&B and recommend you have a chat to Diana, who owns the B&B about her interesting life. The town of Steyning is a short walk from the B&B and I enjoyed a lovely meal in the Italian restaurant, Mamma Mia. Diana was so kind she even drove out of her way the next day to deliver an item I had left behind!
Day 4 – Steyning to Lewes
Day 4 starts out at Steyning Bowl and heads past a large pig farm before heading downhill to the A283 where you’ll pass The Fodder Box – a little trailer selling coffee, bacon rolls and other refreshments. Cross the A283 and head uphill to Beeding Hill Car Park. Continuing on this track for a short distance, you’ll eventually reach Truleigh Hill Youth Hostel and another Cadence Cycle Club cafe. If you decide not to stay in Steyning, and wish instead to camp, the YHA Truleigh Hill offers accommodation and a campsite.
Continue on the undulating trail for another 2-3 miles until you come to Devil’s Dyke, which is a National Trust attraction. Look out for paragliders as you approach Devil’s Dyke – this area is a popular paragliding spot. Devil’s Dyke was extremely busy when I passed, so I didn’t stop for any food and drink here, but instead carried on down to Saddlescombe Farm, which is also a National Trust property with a lovely little cafe called The Wildflour Cafe. Saddlescombe Farm also has a free South Down’s Way drinking water tap to fill up your bottles. Heading out from Saddlescombe Farm and The Wildflour Cafe, you’ll venture uphill for a short way before heading downhill to Pyecombe and a busy main road which you’ll cross via a bridge.
In Pyecombe, you’ll find a pub, The Plough Pyecombe, as well as a few B&Bs and a garage selling food. Crossing the main road in Pyecome, you’ll make your way down a residential lane before hitting a main road where you’ll turn left before crossing the road and turning right at Pyecombe Golf Club. The trail continues uphill and crosses Pyecombe Golf Club before eventually bringing you to Ditchling Beacon. From Ditchling Beacon, you’ll continue along the flat elevated trail until you come to a right-hand turn and you’ll trek downhill for the last 2-3 miles into Lewes.
Day 4 Accommodation
In Lewes, I stayed at Housedean Farm which is directly on the trail. The campsite was beautiful and the facilities were great, although the only criticism I have is that the whole campsite is on a slope and as such, none of the pitches are flat, which meant I constantly rolled downhill in my sleeping bag all night.
Unfortunately, the food options for that night were limited. My feet and legs were killing me and I didn’t fancy the bus ride into Lewes town, so I made do with some pasties and snacks from the petrol garage about a 10-minute walk away.
Day 5 – Lewes to Eastbourne
Day 5 was the longest day and was a bit of a slog, with my tired legs and sore feet. I set off from Housedean Farm around 9:30am (too late, I know! I should have started earlier, but I was so snug in my sleeping bag, I didn’t want to get up). Leaving the farm, you’ll turn right and cross the A27 by means of a bridge. You’ll then follow the path uphill and over undulating countryside with vast, beautiful views. I even spotted a poppy field which was gorgeous! Look out for the coast, and Eastbourne in the distance. It’s a welcome and encouraging sight, even if it does seem very far away!
After several miles, you’ll come to a main road where you’ll turn right and immediately left and will pass through a small village. Look out for St Peter’s Chruch where you’ll find a free water refill tap. Heading on down the lane, you’ll shrotly come to Southease Train Station and will need to cross the tracks and head into a small village containing a YHA Youth Hostel and cafe.
From here, you’ll cross the A26 and head up a steep slope and across farmers fields for some distance before passing through South Downs Way Firle Beacon Car Park. Your next point of reference after Firle Beacon will be Bo Peep Car Park before you descend into the quaint and picturesque town of Alfriston. Alfriston has a variety of cafes, restaurants, shops and amenities, as well as accommodation options. I popped into the Village Store and Deli to grab a sandwich and drink and sat under the trees in the peaceful park surrounding the Church of St Andrew.
From Alriston, it’s approximately 10 miles if you take the route over the Seven Sisters, but there are two routes to take, one for those hiking the South Downs Way and another for cyclists, as cyclists cannot go via the Seven Sisters route. The route over the Seven Sisters is slightly longer, but it’s definitely worth the extra miles as the views are stunning, and it’s an apt finale for such a fantastic trail!
Crossing Cuckmere River to head out of Alfriston, make sure to keep to keep to the right to follow the route for hikers via the Seven Sisters, which follows Cuckmere River until veering left into Litlington. In Litlington, you’ll find another Cadence Cycle club cafe/trailer, as well as Litlington Tea Gardens and The Plough and Harrow. When you get into Litlington, turn right and head down the lane towards the Village Hall where you’ll turn to the left. At this point in the trail, my legs were really starting to ache and I was desperate to finish the last few miles and head home. But the most challenging stretch was still to come – the ominous peaks of the Seven Sisters.
Following the trail from Litlington, you’ll eventually arrive at the Seven Sisters Country Park and enjoy views over the Cuckmere River as it meanders through the landscape out to sea. It’s a beautiful view as you descend into the Country Park and a happy moment to realise you’ve finally reached the coast. From here, signs say it’s approximately 7 miles to Eastbourne.
The final stretch heads off to the left of the coast and follows the coastal path to Eastbourne, but not before you tackle the peaks of the Seven Sisters. Perhaps it was psychological, knowing I was so close to finishing, but I found this stretch the most challenging section of the whole hike. Seeing one peak after another stretching out into the distance, I had to muster all the strength and motivation I had for a final push into Eastbourne. The only consolation? The epic views of the white cliffs stretching out before you. Before arriving at Eastbourne, you’ll pass through National Trust’s Birling Gap, where you’ll find public toilets and a cafe. From Birling Gap, you’ll follow the contours of Beachy Head Road and pass the Beachy Head Lighthouse. Don’t get too close to the edge though, as this stretch of coastline is notorious for landslides and cliff falls.
After passing Beachy Head Lighthouse, you’ll continue along the path, past a restaurant and public toilets and will finally embark on a triumphant descent down a very steep slope to arrive at your final destination – Eastbourne!
Day 5 Accommodation
For my final night, I stayed at The Cavendish Hotel on Eastbourne Seafront. The hotel was simple and dated, but clean and perfect to crash out and have a much needed soak in a hot bath.
Summary of the South Downs Way
As my first long distance solo thru hike, hiking the South Downs Way will always hold a special place in my heart. I probably wouldn’t do this hike again though simply because there are so many places to see and so many other hikes to do, but I’d wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone who is looking for an easy to moderate hike, and would say that hiking the South Downs Way is especially suited for beginners.
What would I do differently?
Hindsight is a wonderful thing, isn’t it? Looking back on my first thru hike, it’s safe to say I have picked up a few tips and tricks for the future. The one mistake I made was not setting off early enough in the mornings. I’m a notoriously bad morning person and always struggle to get up early, but in future, I’ll be making sure I am up early and set off no later than 8am, ideally before. Getting up early, especially in the summer, means you’ll get a large amount of miles under your belt before the midday heat, and will also give yourself more time through the day to stop for breaks and just generally not have to rush. On my last day, I didn’t get into Eastbourne until 9pm, and I was absolutely exhausted. But that’s because I didn’t set off until after 9:30am, which is just too late when you’re walking 26 miles in a day!
Another lesson I learnt from hiking the South Downs Way was to always take a hat – rookie error I know! I forgot to take a hat, and unfortunately, ended up walking in a heatwave for the last 2 days! Fortunately, I drank plenty of water and somehow managed to avoid getting heatstroke, but I’ll definitely be taking a hat on all future hikes.
Finally, the last lesson I learnt was to get more miles in at the start of the trip. I ended up walking the highest amount of miles on my last day, when my feet were already sore and my legs were already tired. In future, I’ll make sure to get the highest mileage done at the start of the trip when I’m feeling fresher.
What an adventure! View at the end was certainly worth it too