This was our third of four weekends (read the first and second weekends) walking along the South Downs. The plan was to walk 16 miles – from Amberley to Small Dole on the Saturday and then 17 miles on to Farley on the Sunday.
Like most hiking plans, a month before we set foot, in the warm and dry of home, looking at the Ordnance Survey map it looked easily achievable.
I was in the US travelling with my work during the week before this hike. I’d carefully been looking at the weather forecast for Brighton, which improved steadily from constant rain to dry and low wind. Excellent. We were good to go so I booked the two camp sites for the rapidly approaching weekend.
We took the train from London Victoria to Amberley on a Friday afternoon. I always find it amazing how quiet everyone is on the Tube, yet as soon as Ishai and I are on a train to or from London, people ask us why we have such large rucksacks and what our plans are.
Straight out of the train station we walked back along the South Downs Way to Houghton Farm camp site. This site is slightly odd in that it’s a Camping & Caravan Club Members Only site, so you can’t book it online through the website unless you’re a member (which we’re not*). But you can book over the phone directly with the owners.
Houghton Farm is virtually wild camping. There is a water tap in the field, and a basic toilet across the road in the farmhouse, which is probably a 500m walk. I had been told by the owners when I booked the site that this was the case so we didn’t mind. In fact the owner was so friendly that when we arrived he drove us back down to the camping field.
At first light the next morning we started our walk through Amberley and on to the South Downs. The Arun river in Amberley by our camping field was 4 metres above sea level. Most of our walk that day was around 200 metres above sea level, and it was constantly up and downhill.
The weather was particularly foggy and damp, so the chalk paths had turned into a clay-like consistency. This made it more slippery and stuck to our boots.
The uphill paths felt steeper and longer with this hard work.
Mentally, walking in the fog is harder because when it’s clear you can look ahead and aim at some focal point. You can look back and marvel at the distance covered. However in the fog, with visibility usually limited to 20-30 metres it made seven hours of walking feel longer.
Walking above about 220 metres was nice though, because we were above the fog and saw the blue sky. It was much warmer above the fog too, although as soon as we were above the fog it was time to descend.
Even though we’d walked further in a single day on past weekends, we arrived at Hillside Scout Camp exhausted.
There was an Explorer Unit (Scout aged 15-18) looking after Hillside Scout Camp who welcomed us and showed us the much-needed shower block. We set up camp away from the Explorers who were busy preparing for Halloween that evening. We had an hour’s rest and walked to the nearby pub, The Fox.
I booked The Fox because while I was booking the camp site, the site secretary recommended we book a table at this pub. We arrived early and it was already busy. The staff were super friendly and the real ales were excellent. I was also able to take off my sore hiking boots for a couple of hours without any comments.
That Saturday night was Halloween. I’m not sure if I’ve been camping on Halloween before, but on this occasion it was just like a horror movie set. We had to walk half a mile from The Fox back to the camp site along a foggy country lane without a pavement or footpath. I had my headtorch on which pierced the fog. The camp site was completely foggy – our tent rose out of the fog and you couldn’t see anything around it. We didn’t care – we were too tired to worry and went straight to bed at 7.45pm.
I woke up to hear the Explorers making some noise. On any other night in that environment I probably would have imagined some scary story, but I was still exhausted. I looked at the alarm clock and it was still before midnight. I fell asleep again.
We woke up and had a cooked breakfast – two eggs, a packet of beans, bread and loads of tea and coffee. It was lovely. It was still very foggy – we couldn’t see the other side of the field less than 20 metres away.
A side effect of this fog was that our kit was all damp. Our tent was wet, with as much moisture inside the tent as the outside. There wasn’t a lot I could do except pack the tent up and dry it at home. I knew that our backpacks would be heavier due to all the wet or damp stuff equipment.
We had to walk back to the South Downs and the visibility was worse than the Saturday. I was constantly using the map and compass. We walked on a steep track through a dense forest which opened into an open field. Visibility was terrible and I could only use the compass. Ishai then pointed at silhouettes ahead. They were cows all looking at us in the fog.
We walked around the cows, playing a humans v bovines staring game. The combination of navigating off course to avoid the herd, the lack of visibility and the steep path was unnerving. We got back on the path, carried on walking and found the first South Downs Way sign of the day. We were 100 metres along from where we left the South Downs Way on Saturday. Cue fist pumps.
Another 50 metres along the Way was a Youth Hostel. I was quite annoyed with myself for not camping at the hostel because it was on the South Downs Way itself, rather than a 3 mile round trip to the Scout camp site.
After the stress of our journey returning to the South Downs Way we were already needed a break so we popped into the hostel for a hot drink. We applied plasters to blisters (on the second day of walking you always discover sores and blisters once you’ve started the journey). The hostel itself was nice and friendly.
The rest of the day was dense fog, with little clearings above 220 metres again. The terrain was much more undulating – possibly the hardest walking of the South Downs Way so far. On our first weekend we were covering 3 miles per hour, and now we were down to 2. Worst still, it was inconsistent – sometimes we’d check the map to find we’d only covered a kilometre since the last check, and sometimes we’d covered half a fold (4 kilometres).
On the Saturday we took ten minute breaks every 45 minutes but we still ended up tired at the end of the day. On Sunday we had to get the train before dark, and it was a longer walk, plus we knew it was much hillier with Devil’s Dyke and Ditchling Beacon to cross, so we opted for five minute breaks every hour. Between this and making sure we ate every two stops – even if it was to share a chocolate bar, made us feel much better.
Half way along the route we walked along a footbridge over the A23. There was a long tailback of traffic and cars were stationary. Some cars were trying other routes. It was 1pm on Sunday yet it looked like Monday morning rush hour. It felt strange that Ishai and I were having the time of our lives on this walk and there was frustration from the traffic below us.
We stopped at The Plough Inn pub for a pint of Coke and a pizza. We sat outside and opened the Ordnance Survey Map to examine the remaining route. We were at the bottom of a hill and still had to climb the two big hills of the day.
Starting the walk after lunch is always hard after muscles have become sore. But there was still two miles of uphill to cover straight from the pub. Luckily for us there were two distractions – the first was a classic car rally on the road next to our footpath, and the second was watching some golfers tee off into a blanket of fog. As I took a photo of a golfer his playing companion looked at me and smiled as if to say “Yes, this is ridiculous”.
This was my first proper outing of the new Osprey Xenith 105 backpack. 105 litres is a BIIIIIG rucksack. It swallows everything you can put inside, and I was careful not to put everything inside it or it would have weighed too much. It took me a few hours to work out the multitude of straps and zips. I still couldn’t get it comfortable, and must have had the hip belt tightened too much because I had sores down both my hips from the backpack.
With the constant steep climbs and descends it was tough going. Walkers were particularly friendly and a few people chatted to us.
With the constant fog, which makes sunset earlier we left the South Downs Way south of Plumpton and for the next 45 minutes we walked downhill towards the University of Sussex campus and Falmer train station to go home. There was one last hill which we hadn’t noticed on the map (not that we could have avoided it) and we were back to civilisation.
A world gone mad
The next day my calf muscles and especially my Achilles tendons were sore. I decided to get the Tube into work rather than cycle. As I sat on the Tube I read the Metro newspaper with coverage from the Halloween weekend.
There had been rioting and fights up and down the UK on the Saturday night. There had been a stabbing at a house party in my home town. A girls aged thirteen – the same age as Ishai had committed suicide. Halloween weekend had been a real life version of Halloween.
Ishai and I had a great weekend on the South Downs, partly knowing that the next time we visit there it will be for the final South Downs walk, going all the way to Eastbourne. It had been much more tiring than previous weekends – partly the mental challenge with the fog and lack of daylight, but also the physical challenge of wet kit and for the first time – thick mud.
I sat at work thinking about the Sunday drivers on the A23, the thirteen year old girl who had committed suicide, the Halloween rioters and the Police facing them. Each time Ishai (or my other children) and I go away to climb a mountain or do a long walk I question myself whether we are being selfish (or wrong for any other reason) breaking up our precious family weekends. The news over the weekend makes me feel we’re doing the right thing.
For more photos from the weekend, see here for the Flickr feed.
* In my opinion the Camping and Caravan Club should provide free membership to members of the Scout Association to encourage more people to their sites.