Taking England's coastal downs in stride

A South Downs hiker keeps company with the ages, the bucolic scenery and his inner landscape.

By ALAN LITTELL, Special to the Times
Published February 27, 2007

We were a group of reasonably fit and determined hikers - at 77, I was the oldest - striding east along the ridge of chalk hills backing England's southeast coast.

As in so many ventures that challenge body and spirit, this exhilarating trek would become at times a manageable test of endurance - as much a random exploration of one's inner landscape as it was of the stunning grandeur of hill and wood.

For 100 miles the South Downs Way is a grassy track that has served as a footpath for centuries. It clings like a faded green ribbon to moors and meadows dotted with ancient burial mounds. It winds through a rolling upland cropped close by sheep and furrowed by the plow.

About 50 miles south of London, the ridgeway track ranges deep into the county of Sussex. It begins on the Hampshire border, in the west, and stretches to the town of Eastbourne, on the English Channel, in the east. To hike its entire length takes seven to nine days.

Far less demanding is a day's outing that covers an 11-mile stretch of the way. I would be heading west to east, between a pair of mossy Sussex villages: Cocking, with its 14th century church, and Houghton, by the languid River Arun.

On this part of the trek, wayfarers survey glorious countryside and, except at scattered road crossings, the prime attraction is rural tranquility undisturbed by motor traffic.

All a rambler really needs is a decent pair of walking shoes and a healthy amount of stamina.

A hiker hits the trail

The Cocking section of the walk begins a half-mile south of the village, where the South Downs Way intersects a main north-south motor road - the A286 - 9 miles north of the region's chief town, Chichester. A wooden signpost points to the path, straggling up the steep flank of a hill called Manorfarm Down. ("Down" derives from the old English "dun," meaning hill.)

With calves starting to cramp, I had a hard slog to the 600-foot summit. But once there, the walking became easier. The track cut a level swath through a 3-mile wood of fir and beach before emerging in the clear atop Littleton Down.

The path crossed a cow pasture and became a faint thread before bisecting another busy traffic artery, the A285. Once on the other side, I toiled up a twisting track mostly through woods.

Now followed a magnificent stretch of country. A little more than 2 miles of fine walking led to the western spur of Bignor Hill.

In the south and southwest, the downs shelved to a tapestry of lowland farms pierced by the far-off spire of Chichester Cathedral. And also in the south was the metallic glint of the sea.

In Roman footsteps

The path dipped and rose gently eastward. Studded with flints, it bore left along a raised remnant of the original Stane Street, the stone-paved, laser-straight road that Romans built to link first century Chichester, then called Noviomagus, with London, or Londinium.

After a few hundred yards the track veered right. Still clearly signposted South Downs Way, it stretched ahead on level ground before easing up a chalk-stippled field to the 727-foot crown of Bignor Hill. From here, all of the downs spread out to the east. Seemingly surging, the rampart of turf-covered chalk curled to the wide horizon like a long, low wave about to break.

In the north, the downs dropped abruptly to a valley speckled with storybook villages of buildings topped by thatch and flint. The red roofs of distant Petworth huddled round a stately mansion of honey-colored stone.

On these heights, grazing sheep, fellow hikers and an occasional horse rider were my only companions. Sunlight and cloud shadow chased each other across the folding hills. The view was immense.

From Bignor Hill, I ambled down a steepish incline and followed a signposted switchback. At the bottom, the path split. The left branch detoured west a mile to the remains of a Roman farm villa; the right continued east along the South Downs Way.

The end of the trek

The chalky track rose high across meadows. Beyond yet one more north-south highway, the path drifted down to a vivid green floodplain creased by bows of the River Arun. I turned right, onto a paved narrow road.

The end of this trek came in Houghton, a comely hamlet graced by an agreeably antiquated pub, the George & Dragon. This is where King Charles II is reputed to have stopped in 1651, according to a plaque, "to take ale."

I also found the George just the spot to savor a pint against the splendid backdrop of the Sussex downs. It provided a satisfying cap to a tiring, but memorable, day.

Alan Littell is a freelance writer living in upstate New York.


If you go

Heaven for hikers

With its wealth of hotels and restaurants, Chichester (www.chichesterweb.co.uk) makes a convenient base for outings on the South Downs.

Getting there: The ancient cathedral town is a two- to three-hour train or bus trip from central London. If traveling by train, leave from Victoria Station. Buses depart from the adjoining Victoria Coach Station.

The South Downs Way (www.nationaltrail.co.uk/southdowns) is one of more than a dozen government-maintained long-distance footpaths in Britain. To get to the Cocking-Houghton leg of the trail, take a No. 60 bus from Chichester Bus Terminal, Southgate, to the footpath's crossing of Route A286 at Hillbarn Lane. Service is hourly, the fare $7.

The return to Chichester is by train from Amberley Station, a half-mile down the Storrington Road from the George & Dragon pub, in Houghton. Service is hourly, the fare $9.50. The journey takes 25 minutes.

To arrange a taxi pickup, contact Dunnaway Car Hire, 3 Little London, Chichester (0845-7484950).

May, June and September are the best times to hike the downs, but the weather can be changeable at any time of year; be sure to carry a sweater and raincoat.

For more information: The government's Ordnance Survey map 197 (Chichester & the South Downs), which covers the Cocking-Houghton section of the way, is available at bookstores and newspaper shops throughout the region. To order the map in the United States, go to the agency's Web site, www.ordnancesurvey.com.

For specifics about hotels, restaurants and touring, type the names Chichester, South Downs, Arundel and Brighton into an online search engine.

Free maps, brochures and vacation planning advice are available from VisitBritain, the government tourism agency in New York. Call toll-free 1-800-462-2748 or go to www.visitbritain.com.

Consider reading The South Downs Way by Jim Menthorpe (Trailblazer Publications, $19).

Along the way: Variety abounds in Chichester's countryside. In the town itself, the renowned Chichester Festival Theater (www.cft.org.uk) is a year-round venue for plays, concerts, opera and ballet.

The 12th century cathedral (www.chichestercathedral.org. uk), famed for its soaring nave and spire, combines medieval stained glass with modern works by John Piper and Marc Chagall.

Outlying attractions include, in nearby Arundel (www. sussexbythesea.com), Arundel Castle (www.arundelcastle.org), ancestral home of the dukes of Norfolk for the past 850 years, and River Arun boat excursions, operated by Kingfisher Cruises (www.kingfishercruises.com). A few miles away, Petworth House (www.nationaltrust.org.uk/places/petworth) is a 17th century mansion containing paintings by Turner and Van Dyck.