South Downs Weekend #2

The weather had been so nice in London recently that I was worried about how Ishai and I would stay hydrated on the South Downs. We’d been sent the Steripen for review, which seemed perfect timing. I resisted the urge to take bigger water bottles, although on reflection we could have done with them.

Saturday was due to be a sunny 23 degrees and Sunday was forecast 19 degrees with light rain. In England, we have to pack suntan lotion and waterproofs.

This second weekend on the South Downs started with the train from Waterloo to Petersfield. We managed to get seats, and played rummy all the way.

I had to do lots of research of where to stay near Petersfield. The obvious answer was to stay in the Sustainability Centre again, but that meant repeating four or five miles from last weekend. I found another campsite to the north west of Petersfield, but it had three drawbacks: 1. It was adults only (I’ve never camped in an ‘adults only’ campsite before, and the mind boggles); 2. It would have added four or five miles to the Saturday walk; and 3. The online reviews made the site sound a bit grim – especially the toilets.

Eventually I emailed the council and asked if we could stay in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, but they said no, that only Duke of Edinburgh groups can stay there, and they recommended Upper Farm.

The Saturday night was much easier – we stayed in the Graffham Camping and Caravan Centre. It was the closest to Petersfield – but still some 20 miles hiking, and about ten miles from Amberley.

Upper Farm was delightful. I encouraged the owner to put the campsite on Google Maps – it had only been some luck on the council’s part that I got to hear about the place.

There were full facilities to the campers, and a relaxed atmosphere – you can pitch anywhere in the field. When I say ‘full facilities’ – the washing up area was an actual kitchen, and was the first time I’ve ever seen a deep fat fryer on a campsite.

To get to the farm we took a taxi from the station because it was 4.5 miles away and I didn’t fancy pitching the tent in the dark. Once the taxi driver dropped us off we realised he’d dropped us off at the wrong place, so we still ended up walking a mile to the site.

We had an early rise and breakfast and excitedly started walking at 7:30am. The South Downs Way was literally at the end of the road, although that particular road was steep and a wake-up call to the rest of the day.

We walked through Queen Elizabeth Country Park, and just kept following the signs. Despite the warm weather the whole area was a vivid green with loads of wild flowers. It was great to be back.

This leg seemed to be harder than the first weekend. The hills seemed to go on much longer, and were much steeper. Both Ishai and I had a few slides when walking down the chalky hills. It was a case of up, up, up, down, down, down, and not a hint of flat terrain.

We had planned to eat Pot Noodle for lunch, but pretty soon we’d run out of water for drinking let alone cooking. I knew from the water tap map that there weren’t many around this weekend, so we took water from the inlet on sheep troughs and used either the Steripen or chlorine tablets.

One of these troughs was at the base of Beacon Hill. While we were refilling a young French mountain biker also filled his bottles, albeit without any purification. In fact, the only equipment he had with him was a bottle, a bike lock and a sleeping bag. He was cycling the South Downs, sleeping under the stars. Credit to him, but I doubt he enjoyed Saturday or Sunday evening.

At the trough I also filled our kettle and we agreed to eat our Pot Noodles at the top of Beacon Hill rather than have lunch at the base and get indigestion from the extra steep climb.

We chose to walk up Beacon Hill rather than go around it because it was an extra kilometre to go around. So there we were, climbing up a very steep hill with chalk steps cut into it, and I was carrying a kettle. I felt very British!

By this time it was middle of the afternoon and we were pretty hungry. Never has a Pot Noodle tasted so nice. It was Ishai’s idea to take them – they are light to carry, high in calories and easy to make.

Shortly after lunch though, we must have missed a sign because we came across a T-junction and couldn’t work out which direction was the South Downs Way. And we couldn’t find our position on the map. We wanted to go straight but that was impossible, so we turned right.

At the first cottage I knocked on the door and was greeted by a lovely old lady. She looked at my OS map and pointed to our spot. We were a good couple of miles off course.

The lady asked why I didn’t have a GPS device for walking. I thought it was funny to hear a woman in her 80s or 90s ask me why I wasn’t using the latest technology.

To get back to the South Downs Way we could just go straight across a field opposite her cottage and through some woods. Even better the field had a footpath. But when we got to the end of the footpath it was all overgrown with stinging nettles and tall weeds. I tried getting through but I was getting stung and decided to turn around – much to Ishai’s satisfaction. This meant we had to walk through the steep woods, not on a footpath. It was one of those occasions that wasn’t at all enjoyable at the time but at the top of the hill we rejoined the South Downs Way and the experience didn’t seem too bad at all.

The rest of the afternoon felt like a hard slog – 16 miles, 17 miles, 18 miles and so on. Up, up, up, down, down, down. Sometimes the miles flew past – we’d cross 3 kilometre OS squares in no time, and sometimes they took an age.

Finally we were south of Graffham and chose a footpath, leaving the South Downs Way for the day. Once again we were out of water, and literally the first house we came across I asked a lady to refill our bottles. Not only did she refill them, but she added squash too. Bonus.

After a walk through the lovely village of Graffham we were at the campsite. Caravan site wardens are quite strange. They love rules. No sooner have you been greeted than you’re handed a list of rules. We were shown our pitch, which must have been five times bigger than our tent.

Walking about 22 miles in 23 degrees all day with a 15 kg backpack demanded we head for the shower block. After a lovely shower (even the site warden looked at me and said “stay in the shower as long as you want” – I must have smelt bad) we had a pasta dinner, played some more cards and hit the sack.

Hmmmm – we had deliberately chosen not to bring foam mats or a thermorest. The ground was rock hard and some exposed little roots. It wasn’t a great night’s sleep. Every time I turned in my sleeping bag I woke up in some discomfort. I guess you live and learn from these experiences.

The next morning we took it easy. We both woke up before the 8am alarm. We had eggs for breakfast – although I had bought large eggs and our egg carrier was clearly designed for small eggs, so we had egg everywhere in the food bag.

After packing up we started walking back through Graffham towards the South Downs Way. Ishai had some blisters and both our feet were quite sore. Worse, we seemed to have little energy after Saturday’s extra-long hike.

Even worse, to get back to the South Downs Way, we had to walk up a really steep, long climb. And then it started raining.

I had given Ishai the map and asked him to lead the whole day. I thought it would take his mind off his blisters, and improve his orienteering skills.

Most of the day was along the top of a ridge, so we were quite exposed but it was much flatter than the Saturday.

The day was just full of a long, hard slog. We were struggling to maintain two miles per hour on the flats let alone any hills.

There was one particularly nice section through a field of crops which came up to our waists. Looking across the field it was like carpet, slowly moving in the wind. The crops were wet by now, so it soaked our shorts. This wasn’t too bad because it was still very warm. Our upper bodies were even warmer as we were both wearing waterproofs.

Again we were out of water, topping up our water bottles from troughs where we could access them.

We were just getting more and more tired and ever slower. We had been aiming for the 14:20 train back to London, but it was too hard. We sat down and opened a can of tuna and a can of sardines – each of us had half a tin and swapped it to the other. We were so tired that we didn’t say a word to each other.

The route became hilly again and then had a long descent from 200m down to Amberley which is at sea level. The South Downs Way goes within spitting distance of Amberley train station, so we followed the path up to the station and collapsed in the platform waiting room.

It had been a very tough weekend but as always, we’d loved it.

Ideally I’d have done 15 miles on both days but we were constrained with the campsite locations, so it’s difficult to know what we’d recommend to change. Take more water (at least a litre extra per person), more food that didn’t require water, and definitely some roll mats.

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