WINCHESTER TO EXTON
Day One of The South Downs Way
The late summer sun shone through gaps in Persil white clouds; the market traders were busy setting up a cornucopia of consumables and the ruddy faced young lads from Winchester College were being dropped off for their rugby practice as I took my first steps away from Winchester City Centre and begun walking the South Downs Way (SDW).
Following the swiftly flowing River Itchen in a south-easterly direction rather than the northerly direction I took when I walked the Pilgrims’ Way last year felt slightly disconcerting. Many residents were out jogging and walking along its banks which pass close by the last remaining part of the old Roman walls of the City.
Soon I left the river’s banks and passed through a housing estate having completed one mile of the projected 12, before quite quickly reaching a bridge over the M3. I have travelled down this section of the M3 countless times on the way to the Isle of Wight or Dorset and it felt strange to be looking down on the fast moving traffic below. After the bridge, came a hedgerow, a kissing gate and then an “Ah yes!” moment as I relaxed back into walking in the English countryside along well-trodden footpaths.
Quite quickly I passed through the small village of Chilcomb. I had read that it had a church pre-dating Winchester Cathedral but did not stop to look. For the whole of this walk I was looking behind me, aware of a projected storm making its way Eastwards across the country. I believed I would reach my destination ahead of the storm but did not relax into the moment as much as I would have liked.
The SDW continued across fields steadily ascending to Cheesefoot Head. This natural amphitheatre 173 metres above sea level offered stunning views across the Itchen Valley.
I was walking on a Saturday and passed quite a few other people out enjoying the Hampshire countryside. Whilst walking alongside a fine dip in the landscape known as the Temple Valley I came across what would probably be my perfect house. “Karren’s Cottage” took me back to childhood wishes of doll’s tea parties, pinafores and daisy chains with its prettily laid out garden table.
By this stage the weather was still fair but I could see dark clouds in the distance behind me. T and I had had a plan that if a thunderstorm was brewing he would collect me at a pub “The Milberry” about four miles from the village of Exton. The sun still shone as I passed it and I did not stop for a drink wanting to continue making good time.
Half a mile down the road, however, the weather changed in a few seconds, the rain came down heavily and thunder roared in the distance. I quickly texted T, said I had changed my mind and could he collect me from the pub before the storm began.
I have long ago got over my habit of having to complete a walk “perfectly” and would prefer to stay safe. We drove to Beacon Hill, a National Nature Reserve, further along the route and during a break in the clouds were able to walk around and take in the first views of the sea and the Isle of Wight. Fawley Oil Refinery was also visible in the distance.
We drove the last mile and a half back to the pretty Meon village of Exton and the sun returned just in time for the perfect end to the day’s walking at the Shoe Inn by the river. My lemonade just finished as the thunder rolled again.
This was a super start to the SDW – taking in the old City of Winchester, a river bank, pretty villages, hills and fields. I walked about 8 miles. the total distance should have been 12. There were only a couple of hills and the walking was not too challenging.