Friday, 15 May 2009

South Downs Way - Middle Leg, Day One

Having walked the first stage of the South Downs Way last year, my friend Eric and I have just returned from the next stage of the walk, which for us was four days' walking from Clayton to Buriton. Last Monday therefore, we caught the early morning train from our home in Tonbridge to Hassocks (near Brighton), which allowed us to re-join the trail at Clayton; the point where we had finished up at last year.

The weather was bright and sunny, but with a strong easterly wind blowing - something we would be glad of later. Despite each carrying heavy rucksacks, we made good progress and by lunchtime were at the well-known local beauty spot of Devil's Dyke. Our original intention had been to press on towards Fulking and then drop down off the escarpment in order to visit the Shepherd and Dog at the foot of the downs. A look at the map though showed us the folly of this plan, which would have meant a steep descent of several hundred feet, followed by an equally steep climb, after the pub stop, back up to the trail. The spacious, modern-looking, Devil's Dyke Inn at the head of the dyke therefore seemed a better compromise, even if it is the sort of place that appeals in the main to car-borne visitors.

Unfortunately the only cask beer on sale that lunchtime was Shepherd Neame Spitfire, as according to the barman the Harveys had only been delivered that morning. Having compromised on the pub we compromised a bit on the beer. Spitfire is definitely not my favourite pint, so I opted for Staropramen lager instead. Eric joined me, but at 5% we decided that one pint was enough before setting off towards our stop for the evening, the attractive small town of Steyning.

This section of the walk is across classic downland terrain of short springy turf, with very few trees, but with the strong easterly wind behind us we made good progress. We sheltered in the lea of a large barn to eat our sandwiches, before eventually beginning the long descent down into the valley of the River Adur. The South Downs are dissected by several valleys, some formed by rivers, whilst other, now dry valleys were formed by glacial melt-waters. These valleys, which typically run from North to South, form communication gaps through the downs and are usually occupied by roads and sometimes railways. The long descent down to the valley floor inevitably means a long ascent back up the other side. Although all three of our overnight stops were in settlements situated in the valleys, there are other places along the trail that involve these changes in altitude, and this we found was quite a feature of this particular section of the trail.

Once down from the escarpment, we crossed the Adur by means of a footbridge, and then switched footpaths: the Downs Link path, as its name suggests, is a path linking the South Downs with those in the north. For the approach into Steyning, the path follows the course of a disused railway line, one of many closed by Dr Beeching. We found our bed and breakfast accommodation without too much trouble, and after dropping our rucksacks and freshening up we set off to explore this attractive town.

The Good Beer Guide listed Chequers Inn proved the ideal refreshment stop. The Dark Star Best and the Timothy Taylor's Landlord were both excellent, as was the home-made steak and ale pie. What we especially liked about the Chequers was the fact that it has two bars. Thus the younger crowd in the larger bar could play pool and watch the football without disturbing the conversation in the smaller right-hand bar. After our meal, we got into conversation with a Belgian lad from East Flanders, who was walking the trail in the opposite direction to ourselves. As well as swapping travellers tales, he was able to confirm that our next night's accommodation stop, the Sportsman at Amberley, was everything we hoped it would be.

We left the Chequers shortly before closing time, a little weary and slightly footsore after our first day's walk. It had been a good re-introduction to the delights of the South Downs. A cup of coffee before bed, followed by a good night's sleep set us up ready for the following day's stretch of the trail, from Steyning to Amberley.

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