South Downs Way each way (Martin Thomas)
Article Words : Christopher Somerville | 17 February

A wintry walking weekend in West Sussex

A winter wander through the delectable South Downs is certainly a brisk affair, but the beauty of this south-east county is also a bracing one

If any part of England is truly set up for winter walking, it’s the South Downs. This beautiful chalk upland, billowing like a set of sails, is threaded by an intricate network of well-marked tracks, bridleways and footpaths, many sheltered by hangers and copses of woodland. Meanwhile, down in the hidden valleys under the rampart of the hills lie cosy, fire-lit pubs in a scatter of flint-built villages and thatched hamlets so easy on the eye you wonder why chocolate-box illustrators and calendar photographers bother to look anywhere else. 

When the chance of a couple of days’ walking and a night away came up, we headed straight for West Sussex for two day-walks on the delectable downs around Chilgrove.

Day 1: South Downs to Sinai 

Length: 15km

Arriving in Chilgrove bright and early on a cold Saturday morning, we found the South Downs under soft winter sunshine. It was one of those energising days when you couldn’t imagine doing anything better than wandering up the old track through West Dean Woods. Pheasants scuttered among last year’s crisp brown leaves, and a treecreeper inched its way up an oak trunk, delicately picking insects from the bark cracks with its curved pick of a bill.

Up at the ridge we joined the South Downs Way, the ancient track that unrolls like a pale ribbon along these heights. A short mile on the roof of the downs and we were dropping down the steep northern face of the escarpment with a sprawl of countryside beckoning before us. 

We paused to look into the tiny church at Didling, once a chapel for shepherds, then strolled through the sheep-grazing fields towards Elsted around lunchtime. An energy bar and a swig from the water bottle? Not a bit of it. You’ve got to keep the cold out on a winter walk, haven’t you? Our lunchtime pie-and-a-pint in the Three Horseshoes went down a treat.

Returning up the north slope of the downs, a straight 100m climb to the crest of Mount Sinai, was a bit of a shock after the cosy pub but the rest of the walk was pure pleasure. Down in the tree-smothered hollow of Hooksway we passed the seductively snug-looking Royal Oak, and told ourselves we’d try it out next time. 

The well-found track of Philliswood Lane brought us back to Chilgrove, ready for a cup of tea and a sit down. A beautiful walk, taken at a nice easy pace, the sharp air nipping at face and fingers, muted colours across the landscape, a hint of frost and a touch of ice... just what a winter walk should be.

Route: Chilgrove – Staple Ash Farm – West Dean Woods to South Downs Way – Didling Hill and Didling – New House Farm – Three Horseshoes, Elsted – South Downs Way on Mount Sinai – Royal Oak, Hooksway – Philliswood Lane to Chilgrove 

Day 2: Sitting with St Chris

Length: 13.5km

An early start beckoned, with a fresh day summoning us out of bed and a Sunday circuit in prospect through the woods and ploughlands south of Chilgrove ... but we gave in to lazyitis and a late breakfast.

The beech trees in the woods above the valley, when we climbed there towards midday, threw long, dark shadows from their leafless limbs, with the low winter sun slipping between them like a shimmering ghost to lose itself in groves of dense old yew trees. We passed secluded Blackbush House in its lost-and-gone garden deep among the trees, and forged ahead down the long valley that led to Stoughton.

A drink and a sandwich in the flint-walled Hare and Hounds, and we were making north over ploughed fields and through forgotten copses to the downland hamlet of Up Marden and its 13th-century Church of St Michael. Swaddled in scarves, gloves and woolly hats, we sat in a spartan pew and inspected an ancient mural depicting Jesus being carried across the river on the shoulder of a big, tough St Christopher.

In East Marden we passed the village green and church, steering east to tackle the short, steep flank of Bow Hill. A final mile along a high upland track and we were dropping down towards Chilgrove once more. The valley lay striped with wintry sunshine and shadows; we sighed with regret at the thought of having to quit this seductive harbour among the billows of the downs.

Route: Chilgrove – Blackbush House – Monarch’s Way via Stoughton Down to Hare & Hounds, Stoughton – north by Inholmes Wood and Blinkard Copse to St Michael’s Church, Up Marden – East Marden – Hillbarn – Bow Hill Farm – Chilgrove Hill – Chilgrove