Our full length South Downs Way tours begin in the historic city of Winchester, make their way into the low foothills of the Downs and pass Cheesefoot Head. Here Eisenhower addressed Allied troops before the D-Day landings in 1944. The route then leads on to Beacon Hill, a nature reserve high above the village of Exton, with far-reaching views towards the Solent and Isle of Wight.
From Exton the trail visits Old Winchester Hill, with its Iron Age earthworks and a surprise vineyard. Stop for a short break at the fly fishing base at Meon Springs or the nice cafe at the Sustainability Centre before the route climbs up to Butser Hill. At just 270m, this is the highest point on the entire South Downs Way. Forest paths and tracks then guide walkers through the forests of Queen Elizabeth Country Park to the little village of Buriton.
After some more gently rolling farmland the trail climbs up and enters the low chalk hills of the South Downs proper. The route now follows the Downs’ gentle curves along the northern edge with often wonderful views towards the landscapes and villages to the north. The South Downs Way passes Cocking and then leads through an area of woodland followed by a more open landscape. The route briefly follows the ancient Roman road of Stane Street near Bignor Roman Villa before descending towards the River Arun and the pretty village of Amberley.
The trail continues mostly along the top of the downs to the famous Chanctonbury Ring and then moves south around the towns of Steyning and Bramber, crosses the River Adur and regains the height of the Downs. Viewpoints often offer spectacular 360 degree views and the impressive dry valley of Devil’s Dyke, near Pyecombe, is another highlight of the route. The trail passes Jack and Jill, the twin windmills at Clayton, and the highest point of the South Downs in Sussex at Ditchling Beacon (248m) before it turns south to follow the line of the Downs past the historic town of Lewes.
The route now passes Rodmell, where Virginia Woolf used to live and crosses the River Ouse. The line of the Downs then guides walkers to the charming, old village of Alfriston. A riverside walk and a stroll through an ancient forest lead to the ancient meanders of the Cuckmere River before the route climbs up to meet the English Channel at the white chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. The trail follows the cliffs to spectacular Beachy Head and onwards to the Victorian seaside town of Eastbourne.
Why walk the route from west to east?
All our South Downs Way hiking holidays follow the trail from west to east and all our tours end in Eastbourne on the Channel coast. There are three reasons for this: One is that the wind will mostly be behind you, rather than in your face. Secondly, we always love finishing a hike by the sea. But most importantly, while the Hampshire countryside is very attractive, the white chalk cliffs at Beachy Head are spectacular! We want to make sure that every walker who books a South Downs Way tour with us gets to see them.
Walkers, cyclists and horses
It is worth remembering that the South Downs Way is a public bridleway, open to walkers, cyclists and horse riders. With the exception of two shorter sections and the hike from Alfriston to Eastbourne, walkers share the route with mountain bikers and horse riders. On some days you might meet more bikes than walkers (since they are more likely to overtake you), but there is always plenty of space to accommodate everybody and walkers and cyclists share the trail amiably and with mutual respect.
The South Downs Way is considered to be one of the easiest National Trails to walk and it is said that anyone who is reasonably fit can complete the trail. However, there is a bit of ‘up and down’ on every section of the route as the trail follows the undulations of the rolling hills and climbs in and out of the river valleys. Walkers also have to make their way to and from their accommodations at the foot of the Downs.
But the hills are rarely higher than 200m (650ft) and much of the daily ascent is spread throughout the day. There are no significant steep climbs and only a handful of slightly steeper descends that might see you jogging for a bit, if you’re not careful. The aggregate ascent over the entire route is approximately 4,200m.
For almost the entire walk the trail follows good tracks, paths and open grassland, suitable for hiking as well as mountain bikes. Hiking along a chalk ridge means that, as a rule, much of the trail drains well and dries out quickly, i.e. the surface is good all year round with few wet or muddy sections after rain. But in a few places the chalk tracks have been eroded so that the flintstones, which are embedded in the chalk, break through the surface you walk on. This can be hard on your feet and we recommend shoes or boots with good soles to help with walking on those surfaces. Hiking poles can also help here, as well as with the ups and downs, as they take some of the weight of your feet.
The South Downs Way passes through a varied landscape of protected habitats including internationally important chalk rivers, internationally rare species, rich chalk grasslands and beautiful ancient woodland. The route passes through or close by five National Nature Reserves and dozens of Sites of Special Scientific Interest where you can enjoy stunning wildlife at close hand.
The elevated position for most of the trail ensures you are regularly rewarded by breathtaking views across the English Channel and Isle of Wight to the south and over the wooded Weald between the North and South Downs to the north. Please note that this exposed position also means that, in particular eastwards of Amberley, the trail often offers very little shelter from the sun, wind or rain.