The 46 miles, 3 – 4 days
This route omits the coastal walking from Southampton in favour of the South Downs. Beginning in Winchester, famed for its hospitality to pilgrims, the path takes in the prehistoric hill tops of the South Downs Way with diversions for beautiful villages and peaceful parish churches. It connects to the traditional Old Way route at Chichester, passing through the atmospheric Kingley Vale with its Ancient Watcher yew trees.
Train: Winchester; Petersfield for transfer to East Meon or South Harting; Rowlands Castle for transfer to Kingley Vale; Chichester. Bus: There is a limited bus service (No. 17) connecting Exton to Petersfield and Bishops Waltham. No. 52 or 67 connects Petersfield, East Meon and Winchester. Taxi: 14U Cars are based in Petersfield and cover Winchester to Chichester, including bag transfers (see below). Otherwise try Winchester Taxis, Wessex Cars, for Winchester area; Billy Cars or Duke Taxis for the middle part of the route. Havant Cabs, Station Taxis (Chichester)
Winchester: plenty of options, we recommend 61 for a budget option, the Black Hole, or Hotel du Vin for a more luxurious room near the start point. Exton: Crossways B&B. East Meon: Ye Olde George Inn, Pound Orchard B&B. South Downs Eco Lodge is a little off route but links to East Meon with the bus and a short walk. Chilgrove: Chilgrove Farm B&B. Chichester: lots of options, we recommend The Witterings for no-frills good value rooms and a warm welcome, or try staying in the Cathedral accommodation at 4 Canon Lane. Sanctuary is available at St Mary’s in Apuldram, a short bus or taxi journey from the city.
Winchester: plenty of options, we like the Handlebar cafe for a takeaway lunch before the hills. Further on try Baker & White, found in Cheesefoot Head carpark most days, or Holden Farm cafe in the summer months. Exton: The Shoe Inn is closest, or wander south to Meonstoke for groceries and the Bucks Head. East Meon: Two good pubs, try Isaak Walton for standard pub food or we like the Ye Olde George for local, seasonal fayre. Basic groceries also available from the village store. Further on Butser Hill and Queen Elizabeth Country Park both have cafes. South Harting: La Follia cafe or the White Hart. Further on towards Chilgrove The Royal Oak or The White Horse. After Kingley Vale good coffee from Design Vintage or Wellies Tea Room.
Receiving the Wayfarer’s Dole at the Hospital of St Cross in Winchester. Britain’s oldest charitable institution, the dole of bread and ale is for any pilgrim that asks at the porter’s door, and spiritually delicious it is too. A fine way to begin your journey.
The high hills of Old Winchester, Butser and Beacons hills offer views unlike anywhere else in England. Once places of gathering, rest and protection in the prehistoric eras, people have been walking the paths between these points for thousands of years.
The “Ancient Watcher” yew trees of Kingley Vale are estimated to be amongst the oldest living things in Britain, and form part of one of the finest yew forests in Western Europe. It’s hard not to feel moved by the peaceful stillness and deep magic of these trees.
To make the most of Winchester, follow the Itchen Way and then Pilgrims trail before turning north to join the South Downs Way (SDW), or check the google map for some shortcuts. Make sure you pick the correct SDW path as the pedestrian path and cycle path are a little different in places. Follow the SDW except to divert into the villages of East Meon and South Harting. After the Harting Downs and Beacon Hill, turn south towards Chichester. This connection does not have a named path, but you will join the Centurion Way near Chichester which will take you to the Bishops Palace Gardens, just outside the Cathedral.
Begin your journey with the Wayfarer’s Dole at the Hospital of St Cross. Knock on the heavy wooden door of the Porter’s Lodge and ask for the Dole to receive a small cup of beer and a morsel of bread. The custom originated with Cluniac monks who made a practice of giving bread and drink to travellers. Head into the city to visit the Cathedral before heading to St Catherine’s Hill, a slightly longer detour but much better way to leave the city. Named for the lost chapel that once crowned its summit, now a ring of beech trees offer quiet shade in its stead. Don’t miss the Mizmaze, a turf labyrinth whose origins are lost to time, much like the hillfort whose banks you must ascend and descend to reach it.
Meet the South Downs Way at Chilcomb, spotting the first of many tumuli as you pass Cheesefoot Head and the lost village of Lomer before coming to Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve. There are two Beacon Hills on this route, named for the chain of beacons installed to alert the country to the Armada. This hill is now topped with peaceful beech and ash woods. Before turning downhill stray along the ridgeway a little further to dwell among the bronze-age barrows. Returning to the viewpoint, take in the views of Southampton water and head down to Exton.
Perched above the River Meon, the church of St Peter and St Paul in Exton has a weeping chancel, sitting slightly out of alignment. This deliberate angle may be to represent Christ’s head hanging to one side on the cross, or could be due to aligning the chancel to “True East” and the nave to Easter Sunday sunrise. Exton has a pub and some B&B’s, and a wander downstream Meonstoke will take you to the village stores for supplies.
Leaving the river valley behind, you’ll ascend the downs once more to Old Winchester Hill. This high point has drawn humans from afar for millennia, and you’ll discover hillfort, oval barrow, round barrows, field systems and an earthwork enclosure here. Head to the bronze age mound in the middle of the fort for the best view over the Hampshire basin, stretching to Sussex on one side, Winchester on the other and the Isle of Wight in between. Now a nature reserve, the grassy slopes bustle with butterflies, bees and birds. Well worth spending time lying down for sky meditation, or perhaps forehead pressing depending on which direction your thoughts take you.
Heading down once more, this time to East Meon with its large medieval manor, court house and a church with pilgrim graffiti on the west door jamb. All Saints Church was described by Pevsner as “one of the most thrilling village churches in Hampshire” and with a spectacular Tournai font, medieval wall paintings and beautiful Norman chevroned arches, it’s well worth dwelling in the beauty here. With two excellent pubs, a few B&B’s and a choice of campsites this village is a recommended overnight stop.
Stock up on basic supplies in the village store before taking in some of the best hill tops of the South Downs. Heading towards Ramsdean, you’ll soon see the gradual inclining coombe that will take you up to Butser Hill, which is “old as Time and Tide” according to Rudyard Kipling. It is the highest point in Hampshire, a nature reserve and a dark sky reserve, should you wish to linger for unrivalled views of the night sky; it’s a great spot for the Perseid meteors in summer. Occupied since Neolithic times, some paths have become holloways here, walked by families, farmers and soldiers through the ages until only shepherds remained. Toilets and refreshments are available in a reconstructed round house near the car park.
Back down the hill, a safe crossing under the A3 and into Queen Elizabeth Country Park for beech forest and paths once trod by flint workers and highwaymen. The main route takes you round the base of this hill, but a steady ascent takes you back up to the ridgeway for a long path along the top, occasionally dipping in and out of holloways. Enjoy the shade and foraging opportunities of the tall hedgerows.
You may opt to leave the ridgeway to descend to South Harting, the church here is dedicated to St Mary and St Gabriel, and suffered a fire in the 1576 which resulted in its beautiful hammerbeam roof. In the village you’ll find a coffee shop, pub and village stores. The climb back uphill will take you to the magnificent Harting Downs. Grazed by sheep for thousands of years, these grasslands are brimming with life. The grass bustles with butterflies whilst skylarks and bullfinches call. Plenty of juniper grows here, a reminder that these slopes were not always open and clear. Burning with an aromatic yet clear smoke, it has been used for ritual purification and cleansing, in temples, homes and even during the plague. The Egyptians and Romans used them for stomach disorders, but most of us know it these days for its use as the base botanical for gin.
Ahead of you rises the imposing Beacon Hill, once a hill fort, then used for Anglo Saxon burial, and later a Napoleonic-era telegraph station. Generations of ancestors sought protection from this vantage point, relying on the natural features of the land. You could opt to walk round its base, but the view from the top will show you the journey ahead, down to Chichester and the seascape beyond.
Turning south, find the track that takes you through rows of copper beeches before turning off to cross the fields. Edging the woodland, you’ll pass the White Horse pub in Chilgrove before taking in the last big hill before Chichester. The re-wooded summit was once cleared like most of the downs, and tucked away in the trees is Goosehill Camp. Unlike the other open hill forts met on this journey, the trees here give it a feeling of intimacy and stillness. You can sit among the inner enclosure, where a prehistoric family once used three roundhouses, surrounded by their sheep in the outer ring. What paths did these ancient people tread?
Continue up under the yew, pine and birch. This is the beginning of the Kingley Vale – the largest yew tree forest in Western Europe. When the path opens you are at the ritual ground – the burial place of five great heroes (or groups of heroes). These are known as the Devil’s Humps, from their pre-Christian associations. How do these humps feel to you? What seems the best way to meet them?
In Kingley Vale, you may well spot red kites and buzzards soaring above you. It is a vibrant place, brimming with life: breeding birds reported here include the nightingale, grasshopper warbler, blackcap, marshtit and green woodpecker. Of the 58 species of butterfly that breed in England, 39 have been recorded at Kingley Vale, including chalkhill blue, holly blue and brimstone. Find out more here.
Watch awhile over Chichester and the sea, then descend the hill. At the dew pond enter the trees, and walk a slow twisting path among root and bough. The yew forest of Kingley Vale is a glimpse into the ancient landscape of the Downs, showing what the old hillsides looked like before neolithic man cleared the trees over 3000 years ago. Most of the yews recolonised the steep slopes over a century ago, but at the bottom you will find about 20 ‘ancient watcher’ Yew trees. Some believe the yews at Kingley Vale were planted as a memorial for a battle fought between the Vikings and the Anglo Saxons in the year 859, and elsewhere in the country wind-thrown yews have revealed medieval graves beneath. Others believe these trees to be over 2,000 years old, and it is hard not to experience a feeling of deep tree magic here.
Continue south, leave the Vale, and walk through West Stoke, stopping at St Andrew’s Church, on the lanes toward Chichester, via Brandy Hole Copse.
Before these lanes become a proper road, take a woodland path through a nature reserve to reach the old railway line, which offers safe passage to the Western edge of Chichester. Follow the straight road in, and enter the precinct via the Bishop’s Palace Gardens, to find the great Cathedral beyond. If you arrive after the gardens have closed, continue along West Street to find an impressive statue of St Richard and the 15th Century bell tower.