The South Downs Way a long-distance trail that stretches 160km across the South of England from the ancient cathedral city of Winchester in the West, through to the white chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head at Eastbourne in the East.
It is one of 16 national trails in England and Wales but one of the few that is almost entirely off-road and is the only one to lie entirely within a national park, passing through the heart of the South Downs National Park.
One hundred miles of chalk downland walking connects Winchester, the ancient Saxon Capital and the Victorian seaside resort of Eastbourne. This vast expanse is recognised as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, not surprising given its the patchwork of culture and nature.
Visitors can enjoy an early morning of warm, autumn mist filling the valleys below or explore the western woods, spotting butterflies and birds whilst children hunt out the various geocaches secreted along its path. It was these impressive views that found Virginia Woolf “overcome by beauty more extravagant than one could expect.”
The beauty of the trail is that you can do all or some of it, on a weekend jaunt or rising to the challenge to walk, run or cycle its entirety over several days.The 100-miles South Downs Way is also the only UK’s National Trail which is fully traversable by.
Keen cyclists can ride along the ridge to reach the views of Ditchling Beacon traverse the Hampshire Hangers and single track mountain bike trails at Queen Elizabeth Country Park.
- Relatively easy but stunning views, stretching out as far as the Isle of Wight.
- Experience some of England’s finest countryside between Winchester, the first capital of England, and the white cliffs at Eastbourne.
- Attractive wildlife, visible prehistory, hearty pubs and picturesque villages.
- On a clear day spot paragliders and buzzards sharing the thermals above.
- Climatic finale into Eastbourne over the mighty white chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters.
Getting to the start point by car is fairly simple as Winchester lies just off the M3 and is accessible from Newbury and Oxford. Although there’s plenty of parking options, it’s worth planning in advance how you will get back to your car if you are attempting the route in full.
By rail, Winchester is a one-hour direct train from London Waterloo and numerous direct trains to Southampton, Portsmouth, Bournemouth and Birmingham. For those coming from further afield, Southampton International Airport is just 15 minutes’ drive away.
In terms of getting away, Eastbourne is on the A22 (London to Eastbourne road) as well as main roads from the coastal towns in either direction. If you’re travelling by public transport there is a train station in Eastbourne with frequent trains to London Victoria, East Croydon and London Gatwick Airport as well as smaller towns nearby on local lines.
There is also a frequent local bus service to Exceat, Seaford, Newhaven, Peacehaven, and Brighton that runs every 20 minutes, seven days a week.
Most people take seven to nine days to walk the whole 160 kilometres, covering around 20 kilometres a day. It’s worth noting that walking to the nearby villages to access your accommodation will add on some distance and generally involves walking down in the evening and up in the morning.
If you want to add in a rest day or two and spend additional time in Winchester or Eastbourne then you could easily turn the trail into a two-week trip.
Grade and difficulty of the walk
The South Downs Way has plenty of hills but is a low difficulty trail with nothing too technical involved. The main thing to note is the numerous ascents and descents of up to 250 metres over hilltops.
Many people mistakenly believe that the trail involves walking along the top of a flat ridge but this is not the case. In total there is about 4,150 metres (13,620 feet) of ascent and descent.
Another factor to note relates to the condition of the trail, which involves a substantial amount of sharp rocks making up the surface – so good walking boots with a thick sole or substantial lugs would be a worthwhile investment.
Cliff sections with exposed chalk are often slippery first thing in the morning and after rain, so a good tread is a must.
As mentioned above, the technicality of the trail is low so no real experience is needed, other than the ability to walk long distances over a sustained period of time.
If you’re looking to take on just a sub-section of the trail then you will be absolutely fine.
As it is a National Trail, there is no permit needed or fees associated with completing this walk.
Guided or Self-Guided
As a National trail the South Downs Way is well maintained and provides signage in the form of an acorn inside a blue arrow on gates and fences in addition to regular wooden directional signs at junctions.
There are also signs on all connecting paths, which can be used by vehicles, horse riders, cyclists or walkers as indicated.
Around one in every ten of the trail signs has the distance to and from the nearest locations on it so you can figure out how far you’ve got to go to your accommodation. Even though it’s well signposted, visitors should buy or download a trail guide as a fallback safety measure.
There are entry points all along this National Trail so it is simple to plan which sub-sections you are wanting to do and where is best to come back off the route.
Having said this, many people do opt to do it as part of a group to take the hassle out of planning where and when to stop, and if you don’t like map reading or sorting out your own luggage transport – then this is a good way to go.
The South Downs Way can be enjoyed at any time of the year. As with any walk in the UK, summer is typically the best time to go due to the higher likelihood of sun, no rain and longer days.
The main season on the path runs from April to October, however it does get busier during school holidays and on weekends between May and September so you should expect to come across larger organised events.
This can also impact on availability of accommodation.
Winchester to East Meon – 32 kilometres / 20 miles
East Meon to Cocking – 32 kilometres / 20 miles
Cocking to Amberley – 19 kilometres / 12 miles
Amberley to Bramber – 19 kilometres / 12 miles
Bramber to Kingston-near-Lewes – 32 kilometres / 20 miles
Kingston-near-Lewes to Seaford- 28 kilometres / 18 miles
Seaford to Eastbourne – 19 kilometres / 12 miles
If you want to break it up more evenly into around 20 kilometres per day, the following is a popular option:
As mentioned, the route is easily accessed at various points, so you can choose to cut onto and off it as you desire and do shorter walks of five to 15 kilometres at a time.
Even though it involves coming on and off the trail each day, there are plenty of good options along the route to make your hiking experience a comfortable one.
Most people who walk the South Downs Way opt to stay in B&Bs or basic hotels just off the path which offer single and double rooms, dinner and breakfast.
Although this means a reduced load to carry (with no tent and less food in tow), it doesn’t come cheap – with the average B&B charging around £70-100 a night for a double room. In peak season they also tend to fill up, so a top tip is to avoid starting on a weekend and dodge the inevitable bottlenecks as everyone is following the same itinerary.
For those on a stricter budget, camping is cheaper but brings its own challenges. There are few official campsites directly on the trail and although doable, wild camping is not recommended. Additionally it is hard to find campsites at reasonable intervals in the same way that you can with B&Bs, so do your research and plan this into your itinerary.
Alfriston is the only sizeable town that the Way travels through so a detour is required if you require medical supplies or additional snacks/drinks.
Along the route you can head down for a potter and a pint in one of the springline villages, admiring the traditional flint houses, or pause at Devil’s Dyke to contemplate the view that Constable famously considered “the grandest in the world”.
If you’re keen on making your walk a real occasion, get involved with The South Downs Way Annual Walk, organised by Footprints of Sussex every June and joined by hundreds of people from all over the world.
If you have time it is definitely worth tagging on a couple of extra days at the start and finish points (if not along the way as well). Winchester is a popular town in the county of Hampshire perfect for history buffs.
It is known for medieval Winchester Cathedral, with its 17th-century Morley Library, the Winchester Bible and a Norman crypt. Nearby are the ruins of Wolvesey Castle and the Winchester City Mill, a working 18th-century corn mill. The Great Hall of Winchester Castle houses the medieval round table linked to King Arthur.
If you’d prefer to save your relaxation days for the end, Eastbourne allows you to breathe in fresh sea air, stunning beaches and iconic chalk sea cliffs. Stroll the Marine Parade Beaches, check out the Eastbourne Pier or Miniature Steam Railway Adventure Park, or get your cultural fix at Towner Art Gallery.
The trail also passes a few miles from Brighton, so it’s very doable to go off track and head out this hive of activity – whether you walk or jump on a bus.
Famous for its pier and arcades, Brighton also offers up the beautiful Royal Pavilion Building and park, the Choccywoccydoodah dessert bar (made famous by a TV programme of the same name), SeaLife Centre and Hove Lagoon.
|Skills Required||Hiking, Walking|
|Starts at||Winchester, UK|
|Finishes at||Eastbourne, UK|
|Length of route||160 Km|
|Average time to complete||8 - 9 Days|
|Possible to complete sub-sections||Yes|
|Highest point||270 metres|
|Equipment needed||Poles if preferred, Trekking gear, walking boots|
|Countries visited||England, UK|