The South Downs way from Portsmouth

The South Downs way from Portsmouth

I’d like to point out from the very beginning that I am not a passionate cyclist. I do not get up at the crack of dawn, pull on skin tight lycra shorts, fill a platypus with water and stuff an energy bar in the small of my back before racing my mates to the top of hills.  In fact, as far as bikes and hills are concerned, I find it more agreeable not to mix the two.

However, the opportunity arose to stay at WETHERDOWN LODGE AND CAMPSITE, one of the hostels and camping barns on the South Downs.   It is a popular stopover for cyclists and walkers on the South Downs Way, so I thought I’d try to cycle there from the Isle of Wight.

As the crow flies, it’s only 13 miles from Portsmouth to the South Downs way at Wetherdown Lodge, but I planned my route carefully, avoiding as much traffic and as many steep inclines as possible.  This made my route just over 21 miles and as my journey began at sea level, completely avoiding hills was impossible.

My route onto the South Downs Way

From the ferry terminal at Portsmouth, I headed east towards Southsea and up by the mudflats of Langstone Harbour and Farlington Marshes.   I picked up the Wayfarer’s Walk on Portsdown Hill Road and left it after a well deserved ice cream at the start of the irresistibly named Widley Walk. This stretch was an extensive downhill stretch, a pleasant reward after a long sustained climb.

coming into Portsmouth
Cycling into Portsmouth

All that remained to reach the South Downs Way was 5 miles of quiet country lanes lined with farmland, ancient woodland and thatched cottages.  Although the roads were rather undulating with a bias towards up, it was a pleasure to see it all at such a sedate pace.  The last mile or so was literally an uphill struggle but I was rewarded at the top as I reached the South Downs Way , with clear views back to Portsmouth and the Isle of Wight.

Wetherdown Lodge on the South Downs Way

After a shower and a complimentary cup of tea, I took a walk around the area.  The hostel is part of the Sustainability Centre, an ecological education centre that runs courses on everything to do with the outdoors without damaging the local or global environment.

Some of the courses available for adults cover topics such as Green Woodworking, Campcraft, Herbal First Aid and the very popular Apple Pressing and Bottling. Children’s courses include Tracks and Signs, Pond Dipping and Fishy Crafts, and Lantern Making. Although most courses are not residential, it would be worth booking in for at least one night to explore a part of the South Downs Way or the 55 acres of woodland on which the Sustainability Centre is located.

The centre is situated on the land of the old navy base, HMS Mercury. All profits from the hostel go to the Sustainability Centre which is run as a charity and believes nothing should be wasted.  Although the buildings are ex Ministry of Defence constructions and look rather ugly from the outside they have been beautifully restored inside, with triple glazing and special roof tiles that convert light energy to electricity.  The hostel has a biomass boiler providing heat and hot water from sustainable woodchips produced onsite.

The communal areas of the hostel are clean, comfortable and relaxed.  The lounge area has a great selection of non-fiction books from photography guides to dinosaurs and other prehistoric creatures; walking books of the Pennines, The South Downs Way, Somerset and North Devon, and plant books, herb books and even a manual on how to care for the earth.

Communal Living Space at Wetherdown on the South Downs Way
Communal Living Space at Wetherdown on the South Downs Way

As I ventured into the woods the first building I came across was the woodland classroom.  It was designed and built by Ben Law, whose woodland house won ‘Best Ever’ design by Channel 4’s Grand Design viewers in 2008. The classroom doubles as a place for ceremonies like weddings and funerals.  The centre has a natural burial site which I visited on my exploration through the woods.  The graves were discreet and unmarked little mounds; no headstones are allowed, but most had either a bench or a nesting box with a plaque.

Woodland Classroom at Wetherdown on the South Downs Way
Woodland Classroom at Wetherdown on the South Downs Way

A little bit further on from the woodland classroom was the newly created Wetland Ecosystem Treatment or WET System as it is also known.  This is the centre’s waste water purification system designed by Jay Abrahams. It incorporates a series of 4 terraced ponds, each one using soil as the purification process with cleaner water filtering down to the next one. There were tougher plants, like willow, planted at the first of the purifying ponds and the less tolerant plants were introduced further down the purification process. Perhaps surprisingly, dragonflies and pond skaters were visiting the more purified ponds and there were no unpleasant odours; the whole system surrounded by wood chippings looked quite halcyon.

Wetland Ecosystem at Wetherdown on the South Downs Way
Wetland Ecosystem at Wetherdown on the South Downs Way

A few eco friendly businesses occupy parts of the Sustainability Centre. For example, the Green Shopping Company, which provides books from surviving and thriving on the land, to building your own eco house. For the campers there are tools and cooking pots, stoves and kelly kettles. And, if in your haste to get away from it all; to leave all semblances of modern life behind; you discover you’ve left the most important item at home. Don’t worry; they even sell solar powered i-pod chargers.

Tepees and yurts are available for those who fancy camping with comfort. A peek inside a yurt revealed a large and cosy room with log burner in the centre for the cooler winter nights and fold out futon style beds. The hostel rooms were rather small although the dormitories slept a maximum of 3 people. Future plans to refurbish the rest of the building, which is currently derelict, will likely include en suite double rooms.

By the time I’d finished exploring the woods it was nearly 7pm and I was feeling rather hungry. Unfortunately, the Beech cafe, which also has its home at the centre, was only open from Wednesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm. When open, it serves hot, homemade organic food and uses some of the vegetables supplied by the Elizabeth Fitzroy Centre, a group which works onsite with adults who have learning difficulties, providing skills in horticulture and woodcraft. You can see their hard work in the gardens as you wander through the woods.

I was told, that the Bat and Ball country pub at the bottom of the hill was a good place to eat.  However, the rigours of the days cycling were starting to take their toll and I was too tired to walk the two miles and too saddle sore to cycle all the way back up that hill after a big meal.So I opted for a delicious curry from Bombay Cuisine, an Indian restaurant in Clanfield, who deliver to the hostel.  It was a beautiful evening to sit out at the picnic table and eat my dinner while listening to the bird song.

Wetherdown Lodge has a good sized kitchen with ample cutlery, crockery and pans. However, although the hostel sells a few tins of food, like three bean chilli and baked beans, if you do plan to cook for yourself, it would be advisable to buy some groceries as you come through Clanfield as it is the closest village to the hostel at 2 1/5 miles away and unless you came by car, you may, like me, be a bit reluctant to leave the Sustainability Centre.

The hostel is a lovely place to get away from it all and ideal for anyone walking the South Downs Way.  The centre is very family orientated and even offers some courses for families like Campcraft Sleep Out. The grounds are ideal for bird watchers and nature lovers. Look out for red kites, tawny owls and barn owls, green and greater spotted woodpeckers as well as stoats, badgers and deer.

I left the next morning after a help yourself, healthy, filling breakfast of cereal, toast and fruit.   I took a detour on the way back using a bit of the South Downs way and latter passing through the Forest of Bere, which if you haven’t had your fill of woodland is a delightful place to stop and have a romp and a climb in the adventure playground. Further on is the attractive little village of Southwick, a lovely place to stop and gather your strength before the long, enduring cycle up to the top of Ports Down.

Here is a map showing the locations of the   hostels in South East England.