Stephanie Boon hiking on the South West Coast Smiling at the camera.

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Stephanie Boon standing on a chalky track on the South Downs Way with a field of yellow rapeseed in the background

Hiking The South Downs Way – Everything You Should Know!

Hiking The South Downs Way: go straight to the Contents or carry on to read the intro first!

The official sign at the start of the South Downs Way. The sign is beside a green bench in the courtyard of an old mill, built from red brick

The official start of the trail at the old watermill in Winchester

How To Plan Your Hike On This Unique 100-Mile Trail

If you’re planning on hiking The South Downs Way any time soon you’re about to discover a real gem. Especially if you avoid the biblical rain, hail storms and 50mph winds that I had to contend with. But who can plan for that? In May. When it should have been warm and glorious with far-reaching views. Granted, it may have been a bit wet but the South Downs Way is totally exposed to the elements, meaning there’s no cover and nowhere to hide. Remember that and you’ll love it, I promise!

So, here’s all the info I wish I’d found before I planned my own hike in May 2021. That includes everything from my kit list to exactly how much I spent. First though, here’s what inspired me to hike it in the first place. Although I could have done without the crap weather.

Beach head red and white striped lighthouse at the base of white chalk cliffs

Beachy Head (just after the Seven Sisters Cliffs) is the highest chalk cliff in Britain

Why I Decided To Hike The South Downs Way

Hiking The South Downs Way was on my bucket list and I knew it would be one of the first national trails I walked this year (along with The Cotswold Way). I’ve been hiking our long-distance trails from south to north, and (the clue’s in the name) the South Downs Way is in the very south of England.

Celebrating An Anniversary

I was especially looking forward to revisiting this part of the world because it’s where I went on my first ever backpacking trip. I’ve always remembered it fondly: friends, laughter, glorious sunshine and hot, hot, hot!  And 2021 just happened to be the anniversary of that hike – 4 decades ago! The stars aligned: hiking the South Downs Way was mean to be.

We went youth hostelling back then, so I decided that as well as wild camping I’d stay in one of the very same YHAs: Trueligh Hill.

A misty, rainy day on the South Downs Way. Looking along a chalk path with wild flowers beside it, with hills and a winding river in the distance

Heading to Amberly with the River Arun in the distance

Nothing ever pans out the way you think though, and my plans were severely tested. As well as the totally crap weather, I was ill: sick as a dog. Vomiting up food and water, and totally exhausted, probably due to a virus and/or lack of calories, tiredness, and more than a heavy rucksack. Still, it’s a bit like childbirth, the pain diminishes but the unique experience stays forever!

What Is The South Downs Way?

The South Downs Way is the only long-distance trail in England and Wales that wends its way entirely through a national park. And this is what makes it totally unique – and guarantees you fantastic scenery all the way. The trail’s also notable because it’s a bridleway most of the way, so there are cyclists, even horse riders, sharing the trail.

There are some fantastic sights to see on the route including Contisbury Ring, Devils Dyke, and loads of ancient barrows and hill forts. Mostly though it’s all about rolling hills (some pretty steep), chalky white tracks, spectacular cliffs and huge skies. Here are my planning details and tips to help you plan your own hike on this very special trail.

Contents

  1. Where Does The South Downs Way Start And Finish?
  2. How Long Does It Take To Hike The South Downs Way? My Daily Miles
  3. Getting To And From The Trail Public Transport
  4. How Much It Cost To Hike The South Downs Way
  5. Can You Wild Camp On The South Downs Way?
  6. Campsites On The South Downs Way
  7. My Kit List
  8. Water, Food And Resupply On The South Downs Way
  9. Navigation? (Signs, Maps And Guides)
  10. What I’d Do Differently
  11. Is There Anything Else You’d Like To Know?

 

Where Does The South Downs Way Start And Finish?

The South Downs Way begins in the ancient city of Winchester and ends in the seaside town of Eastbourne on the south coast

Hiking From Winchester to Eastbourne

Front facing view of Winchester Cathedral against a bright blue sky.

Winchester cathedral is an impressive sight at the start of the hike.

Most hikers walk from Winchester to Eastbourne, but there’s no reason not to hike it the other way round. Personally, though, I’m glad I did it this way. The reason for that is that I really wanted to experience the natural wonder that is the Seven Sisters Cliffs at the end of the hike. I wanted the anticipation and excitement to build to a crescendo because it’s where my hiking began all those years ago. It just seemed right.

Starting In Eastbourne And Hiking To Winchester

Eastbourne Pier seen across a pebbly beach with wooden groins in the foreground. A golden roof glints on a building at the end of the pier.

Eastbourne Pier

If beautiful cities stuffed full of ancient history are your thing, then hiking from Eastbourne to Winchester is for you. Winchester is the ancient capital of England and there’s plenty of fascinating buildings to remind you of that. The trail drops down into the city centre where you walk along the river Itchen to an old watermill and the official end of the trail. Then, of course, you get to spend as much time as you like exploring the small but bustling centre and all the historic sights you can shake a stick at!

An old red brick watermill built across the River Itchen. The gable end of the building faces us and water runs under it through two arches. A pink flowering blossom tree stands in front.

The old watermill (rebuilt in 1744) that marks the end (or start) of the South Downs Way

How Long Does It Take To Hike The South Downs Way?

How I Work Out My Daily Miles

Generally speaking, I make a note of how far I can (or want) to walk on the first and last day of the hike, which mostly depends on travel times. Once I’ve got those miles worked out I deduct them from the total trail miles to see how many I’ve got left.

My initial plan was to hike around 7 miles on day one and 10 miles on the last day, taking train times into account. So I took 17 miles off the total length of the hike (100 miles) to leave me with 83 miles. I decided on an easy 15 miles a day so I had time to do some sketching. Then I divided 83 miles by 15, which gave me 5.5 days plus 2 days of travel/short hiking days (7 days).

I rounded it up to 8 –  then randomly threw in an extra day, but I don’t know why because it was completely unnecessary. I booked 9 days away, and despite illness and severe weather I still finished a day early. Hiking the South Downs Way is easily doable in 7 days if you’re reasonably fit. And if you live closer to the trail and can get there at a reasonable time of day, you could do it 5.

This is approximately how my days worked out:

  • Day 1:  7.5 miles. Arrived in Winchester late afternoon. Wild camped (7.5 miles total)
  • Day 2: 16 miles. Wild camped (23.5 miles total)
  • Day 3: 15.5 miles. Wild camped (39 miles total)
  • Day 4: 10 miles. 1/2 a day due to illness. Foxleigh Barn campsite (49 miles total)
  • Day 5: 16.5 miles. Includes a very short detour into Amberley village. Truleigh Hill YHA camping (65.5 miles total)
  • Day 6: 14.5 miles. Housedean Farm Campsite (80 miles total)
  • Day 7: 15 miles. Includes short walk off-trail to the campsite. Alfriston campsite. (95 miles total)
  • Day 8. 14 miles. Includes walk to Eastbourne Pier and railway station. 10-minute train journey to Pevensey campsite (109 miles total)
  • Day 9. 0 miles. 10-minute train journey back to Eastbourne Station and journey home

Details of the campsites I stayed at are below.

Getting To And From The Trail

Public Transport

Winchester By Train

Winchester is on several routes from around the country, including London, Oxford, Birmingham, and Manchester. Train operators are Southern Railway and CrossCountry

Eastbourne By Train

Eastbourne train station is on a route from London Victoria operated by Southern Railway

Coach Travel

National Express coaches serve both Winchester and Eastbourne from around the country. Check out National Coach Travel for details of other coach companies

A chalk track winding into the distance with pale yellow cowslips on the hillside in the distance

Yellow cowslips were everywhere on this spring hike

How Much It Cost To Hike The South Downs Way

Travel – Train

If you’re looking for the best price train tickets, try Split Ticketing. The website breaks your journey down into sections, showing the best price for each section which means you could make a hefty saving. The earlier you book your tickets the bigger the savings it’s possible to make.

My costs were as follows:

  • Truro to Winchester (outward journey): £41.50
  • Eastbourne to Truro (return journey): £51.20
  • TOTAL: £95.70

Campsites And YHAs

  • Truleigh Hill: £12.00 (camping)
  • Foxleigh Barn, Amberley: £15.00
  • Housedean Farm, near Lewes: £15.00
  • Alfriston Camping Park: £10.00
  • Fairfield Farm, Eastbourne: £10.00
  • Return train fare to the campsite outside Eastbourne: £7.40
  • TOTAL: £69.40

This is obviously where you could make some big savings (wild camping/fewer campsites). Check out my reviews of these 5 campsites on the South Downs Way

Maps And Guides

  • Cicerone Guide with map booklet: £16.95 (was actually a gift!)
  • TOTAL: £16.95

Cafes/Groceries/Meal Deals, etc

(Includes a magazine for travel home)

  • TOTAL: £65.78

Miscellaneous

  • Can of Gas: TOTAL: £6.00

TOTAL COST OF THE HIKE: £253.83

Total food and drink costs: £65.78

Daily average costs for food on trail £8.22 – well pleased with that!

(It’s incredible compared to £16.48 a day on the Cotswold Way)

Did I Overspend?

Hardly, but I could have saved £50 if I’d stuck to my plan and only stayed at the YHA. But you know, illness and bad weather – you can’t plan for everything on a long-distance trail!

Can You Wild Camp On The South Downs Way?

It was straightforward on the first half of the hike if you just want somewhere to put your head down and get some sleep: pitch late, leave early. Illness forced me to find campsites on the latter half of the hike, but I noticed plenty of similar places that would have been suitable. Bivvy camping would be ideal for this trail.

 

A small tent set up in long grass with scrub behind.

Wild Camping on the edge of a disused quarry

It goes without saying though it’s a sensitive environment so look for places like field edges (don’t climb fences) or woodland edges where you can be discreet but close to the path.

You might find it more difficult to wild camp the closer you get to Eastbourne because it’s more built up. It’s probably easiest to allow for a mix of wild camping and campsites, but I just called ahead which meant I still had flexibility.

Wild Camping: Doing It Right

Doing it right is all about doing your research and leaving no trace. Check out my guide to wild camping as well this one on Leave No Trace and you’ll find everything you need to know (including where and how to go to the loo outside).

Your ultimate guide to wild camping in the UK

Campsites On The South Downs Way

I’ve written a separate review of campsites on the South Downs Way that I actually stayed at. Hopefully, you’ll find all the details you need to plan a comfortable night’s sleep towards the end of the hike – without stepping off the trail.

5 Great Campsites on the South Downs Way

Full review of 5 campsites on the South Downs Way that I stayed at

My Kit List

Hiker standing and looking at a snaking river coming in from the sea. Cuckmere Meanders, South Downs Way

Overlooking Cuckmere Haven on the last day of the hike, before heading along the Seven Sisters Cliffs.

I’ve listed my South Downs Way kit list separately so you can have a good read through (it’s a detailed list!). However, the most important thing you need to know is this: I took too much!

My base weight was a shocking 15.6 kg (this excludes food and water)

And, although I didn’t weigh my gross weight, I added at least 2kg of food and 3 litres of water. (I soon reduced that to 2 litres.) This was not going to be a fast and light hike – although I did try haha!

I could have saved a tonne of weight, from food and water to clothes and gas. You should definitely check out my kit list if a. you want a laugh and/or b. you want to know where I went wrong and how you can avoid the same mistakes.

Image link: Packing List For The South Downs Way

Water, Food And Resupply On The South Downs Way

Water

I read that water was hard to come by on the South Downs Way. This is because the trail is on the crest of chalk hills and any rainwater just drains away. There are of course villages and settlements along the route, but they’re generally off the trail and down in the valleys. But a solution was found and public water taps can now be found at various points – if they’re working!

Water tap with a blue pipe attached to a South Downs Way sign post

Lomer Farm water tap

I didn’t find it an issue, even though some of the taps weren’t working. Here are the taps I did find.

Water Taps On The South Downs Way

  • Lomer Farm: SU 59105 23721 (image above)
  • Meon Springs Fly Fishery (Whitewool Farm, Exton): SU 65484 21537 (easily visible on the trail as you pass the ‘clubhouse’)
  • Queen Elizabeth Park Visitor Centre: SU 71236 20104 (I didn’t go into the visitor centre, but there are public toilets here too)
  • Manor Farm (near Cocking): SU 87861 16615 (on a stone pillar on the tarmac lane)
  • Near Amberley: TQ 02309 12384 (above a stone trough)
  • Washington: TQ 11407 12871 (by a signpost opposite a house) NB this tap wasn’t working
  • Botolphs: TQ 19729 09589 (trough under trees)
  • Truleigh Hill YHA: TQ 22038 10532 (tap on the outside of the building near the main entrance)
  • Saddlescombe: TQ 27164 11520
  • Housedean Farm: TQ 36821 09220 (the tap is on a low wall right on the path)
  • Southease: TQ 42311 05288 (on the wall outside the church gate, next to a bench)
  • YHA South Downs: TQ 43315 05489 (I didn’t see a tap outside, but it’s a Youth Hostel – and there’s a cafe!)
  • Seven Sisters Country Park: TV 51820 99503 (I didn’t see anything here, but there is a visitor centre and public toilets, both closed due to Covid)
  • Birling Gap: TV 55462 96035 (tap outside public toilets, but there’s also a National Trust Cafe)

Print the list Water Taps on the South Downs Way PDF

In the courtyard of Amberley Village Tea Room. A cream tea with coffee in a pretty cup and a potted geranium are on a circular wooden table.

Stopping for a cream tea in Amberley Village Tea Rooms

Supermarkets and Cafes

These are places I actually stopped or saw on the trail itself:

  • Winchester: full facilities in the city centre
  • Meon Springs Fly Fishery, Whitewool Farm, Exton: small clubhouse/shop selling soft drinks, snacks, and tea and coffee
  • Amberely Tea Room, and Village Stores
  • YHA Truleigh Hill, cafe and hot meals
  • Pycombe, large Co-Op at the petrol station
  • Southease: YHA South Downs cafe and hot meals
  • Alfriston: village stores
  • Birling Gap: National Trust cafe
  • Eastbourne: full facilities

Pubs

I didn’t visit any (I know!) but there are more than enough to satisfy your beer and meal needs! (For eg Devil’s Dyke pub was recommended to me by other walkers.) Look for the pint glass symbols on an OS 1:25,000 (don’t rely on them though because small village pubs are closing all the time, as you know)

Navigation On The South Downs Way

Wooden finger post pointing left to Winchester

A typical South Downs Way signpost

Maps And Guide Books

I took a Cicerone guidebook that came with a 1:25,000 map booklet. I always have a compass with me but I didn’t need it on this trail. It’s pretty well waymarked and mostly on good visible tracks so it’s unlikely you’ll get lost or come far off-trail.

What I’d Do Differently

There are a couple of things I’d do differently, which I mentioned above (especially if I wasn’t ill): not worry about an extra day for the sake of it; walk more daily miles; stay at fewer campsites, and radically re-think my kit list to reduce the weight. If you’ve got any other ideas for lightening the load let me know!

Is There Anything Else You’d Like To Know?

If there’s anything else you’d like to know about how I plan my hikes you can check out my UK Hiking Resources, which is full of useful links. And of course, if there’s anything else about hiking the South Downs Way you’d like to know just leave a comment below.

Thanks for reading and happy hiking!

Stephie x

Pssst! If you’ve enjoyed this guide, please share it!

Don’t forget to check out my other articles on the South Downs Way for inspiration and planning: 

and if you’re looking for inspiration:

My Journal From The South Downs Way

And if you’re thinking about hiking another national trail, why not try these:

 

The Cotswold Way Ultimate Guide For Hikers. Stephanie Boon sitting outside the market hall in Chipping Campden

Image link: Offa's Dyke Path National Trail: The Backpacker's Guide

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