Walking in South England

The South Downs Way

Walking in South England

A bit about me

My name is Melanie.  I am a 61 year old American and a double 2,000 miler (someone who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail). My big adventure of 2017 was backpacking four English National Trails (South West Coast Path, South Downs Way, North Downs Way, Thames River Path) and the Isle of Wight.

I have had lots of hiking experience;  I section hiked the Appalachian Trail between 2010 and 2015 and thru hiked it in 2016.  My thru hike started at Springer Mountain in Georgia on March 26 three days after retiring.  It ended six months later, after walking 2,189 continuous miles through 14 states (Georgia, North Carolina, Tennessee, Virginia, West Virginia, Maryland, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, New York, Connecticut, Massachusetts, Vermont, New Hampshire, Maine) on top of Mount Katahdin in Maine on September 20.

Exploring some of the southern English long distance paths was a new challenge for 2017. And with the 630 South West Path under my belt I decided to explore the walking inland.

Walking in South England

Brief notes on my experiences 

Six straight days of sunny skies, warm temperatures, and no rain. I hiked to Corfe Castle. Built in the 11th century by William the Conqueror, it was left in ruins by Oliver Cromwell’s army in 1645. Next destination is Winchester, 13 miles from Wetherdown Hostel.

My route to Winchester took me through the New Forest, England’s newest national park, where ponies, horses, cattle, and pigs that belong to “commoners” roam freely.  I stayed in a teepee in the New Forest. It had a wood burning stove so I was “snug as a bug in a rug”.

Glamping in the New Forrest

I also visited the picturesque, medieval city of Salisbury and its magnificen Cathedral. Built in the 13th Century, the Cathedral is an architectural wonder; it has the tallest spire in England, and houses one of only four original 1215 Magna Cartas, the document that inspired the United States Constitution and the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. As an interesting side note, Salisbury Cathedral wasn’t destroyed in WWII, because the spire served as a landmark for German bomber pilots. Once the spire was sighted, the planes turned south to bomb the port cities (and a major D-Day departure point for Allied troops) of Bournemouth and Poole.

Salisbury Cathedral - discovered when walking in South England
Salisbury Cathedral – discovered when walking in South England

I took the train to Winchester which is where I began the South Downs Way.  This is the real deal. Hundreds of 100 percent free range hogs on a big farm on a beautiful down (like our balds) on the South Downs Way. They have a view of the ocean and on the other side of their pen, pretty fields of wheat sway in the breeze.  The flowers are poppies. They are growing wild next to a section of the South Downs Way I hiked. The South Downs are like our Southern Appalachian balds but more open and prevalent. The scenery is spectacular – mile after mile of panoramic vistas.

Poppy's on the South Downs WayPoppy’s on the South Downs Way

I walked the white chalk cliffs near Eastbourne on my last day of the South Downs Way.  I stayed at a campground next to the ocean under the white cliffs of Dover.

After the South Downs Way I joined the North Downs Way

High up on the Downs.
Beauty all around.
Breeze from the sea.
Grateful to be free.

I finished the North Downs Way in Farnham.  Then the next morning I took a train to Oxford to walk the Thames Path National Trail.

Hang Gliding on the North Downs and the White Cliffs of Dover on the South DownsHang Gliding on the North Downs and the White Cliffs of Dover on the South Downs

I  enjoyed walking the Thames Path National Trail. The Thames River and the countryside are beautiful. The people who work, play, and live on the water are diverse. The history of the land and people and the historic structures I see  have a powerful affect on me. A special treat was spending two days and a night on a narrowboat. Cruising the river gave me a different perspective to walking by it.

Barge on the ThamesBarge on the Thames

It was interesting to see the Thames River get wider, busier, the surrounding area less rural, the boats bigger, and the houses on the river banks fancier the closer I got to London.  The Sounding Arch is in Maidenhead.  It was designed by I.K. Brunel and built in 1838. The brick arches are the widest and flattest in the world. Each span is 128 feet with a rise of only 24 feet. When built, it was said it would collapse (because of the flatness). Trains travel across it. The Thames River flows under it.

Sounding Arch over the Thames at Maidenhead. Designed by L.K. BrunelSounding Arch over the Thames at Maidenhead. Designed by I.K. Brunel

I stayed in central London for three nights. What a city! I could see St Paul’s Cathedral less than a half block away from my bedroom window. It blows my mind how a structure so massive and beautiful was built so long ago.  London is such a unique city with some very unique London hostels.

I finished the Thames Path National Trail at the “Barrier”. The Barrier is located on a 1,700 wide stretch of the Thames River down river (near Greenwich) from London. It has been used 137 times (other than for tests) since 1983 to hold back the water from high tidal surges and rainwater swells. The barrier operates by rotating six half-circular gates into an upright position. The gates, which are hollow and made of 1.6 inch-thick steel, each weigh 3,200 tons and hold back 90,000 tons of water.

Thames Barrier on the Thames Path National TrailThames Barrier on the Thames Path National Trail

My four month backpacking trip in England was an incredible adventure.  I connected with the land, people and history of this wonderful country and look forward to coming back to hike more trails.

To help plan your holiday you can find out more about the Hostels and Bunkhouses in the South of England.


About Melanie Harmon

Melanie is a 61 year old American and a double 2,000 miler (someone who has hiked the entire Appalachian Trail). She enjoys walking the Long Distance Paths of the UK and has covered many miles, mainly in the South. Her writing gives an outsiders impression of the people, places and peculiarities she encountered on her travels.