Winchester to Cocking: 64km (40 miles), 1,369m ascent (4,491ft)
It was a pleasant journey to Winchester. As someone who hasn’t commuted in over two years, and with no intention to ever do so again, I hadn’t relished piling on a rush hour train along with all the miserable people. But as it turned out, I was just late enough to avoid the peak, but early enough to still get where I was going reasonably early.
As I alighted at Winchester, had a bit of a faff with my pack and gear, and set off down into the city centre, all of the usual feelings of embarking on a long distance walk came to me: excitement; anticipation; uncertainty as to how it would pan out; relief that I could just focus on one thing for the next week; the feeling that I would not be this clean for a week.
Winchester itself is a lovely city, as befits the ancient capital of England. I’d not been here for donkey’s years – my last visit being somewhere in my childhood. Then, Winchester was both full of boring old stuff, and also a place to avoid and curse about on the annual journey to the West Country. The motorways solved the latter; growing up the former.
I spent a while just soaking up the atmosphere of the city centre, had a good look at the outside of the cathedral, and then really had to get on with the walk. So down to pay my respects to Alf, and thence to the Mill for the official start, it having been moved from the cathedral in recent years. I couldn’t actually get up close to the start board, as it was behind a locked fence/gate, so a selfie from a distance was the best I could do.
I crossed the road and followed the River Itchen through an urban park, SDW signs not exactly in abundance. A couple of wrong turns that at one point saw me walk backwards down the SDW, because I’d inadvertently cut a pointless corner off. I worked it out eventually though, and climbed up a lane to leave Winchester behind. Soon the roar of the M3 was in my ears.
Just the other side of the M3 was a choice: left for a walkers only path, or right for a cycle-friendly version along a road. For most of its journey you can cycle along the same route the walker takes, but at the two ends they diverge slightly. This was only a small divergence though. Naturally I took the footpath, which led across a muddy fields to the sound of firing from the nearby range.
At this point it started raining, as though the weather had waited until a point of no return to unleash itself. Luckily it didn’t last long, and this was the last time on the trip I got wet.
A stretch of road and the first daffodils, and bluebells. Then a muddy ascent up a hill to say a final goodbye to Winchester behind.
I stopped in a little wood just past Cheesefoot Head for lunch. Half an hour and not a soul came past on the SDW. Long may it continue.
The afternoon began with a lot of lane walking that seemed to go on for a bit. The second crossing of the A272 brought me to Holden Farm and the first water tap, which I took advantage of. I didn’t want to rely on the next one for my camp water, and find it was empty.
The next part of the walk passed in a bit of a blur: I was sluggish with an extra 3kg in my pack, due to the water. But eventually I arrived at the top of Beacon Hill. At not much past 4pm, it was too early to stop, but I’d already met the minimum distance I’d set myself for the day.
A bird of prey circled above me while I decided on the plan for the rest of the day. This would now be a juggling act between finding somewhere to stop, and timing it for the fading light.
I set off again, and as often happens with me, had a late afternoon spurt of energy. Fields and lanes passed, with the orange glow behind each growing each time I paused to look and take a photo.
Eventually, as the sun dipped below the horizon, I found a place that would do, got the tent up and hid inside. Around 8:30pm I heard voices nearby and they lingered for about half an hour. I’m not sure they actually saw me though.
The first night camping is never a good night for sleep, which was very handy for getting me up and away early. The sun was just rocking up for the day as I crested the top of Old Winchester Hill and walked down to the car park to take advantage of the picnic area to stop for breakfast – coffee and a porridge bar. I craved something more substantial though.
The Sustainability Centre was therefore my target as there’s a cafe there. Moreover the guide book (Trailblazer 2018 guide, as I couldn’t wait for the 2022 version to be published) said it was open Tuesday to Sunday. And there’s water there too.
The byway past Small Down and over Wether Down was first shady and then horribly muddy. I was relieved to reach the end of the byway and emerge near the Sustainability Centre. Ignoring the sign, I headed straight for the cafe, filled with water and was then dismayed that the cafe wasn’t open. Back at the sign, I could see it said open Wednesday to Sunday. Today was Tuesday – bugger.
The next hope was Butser Hill, where the, now discredited, guide book says there is a “snack shop”. Clearly this was going to be some way short of a cafe, but how short wasn’t clear. More byways, and some quietish lanes yielded the answer: it was essentially a kiosk in a toilet block. Moreover it was shut, not unexpectedly at this point.
I used the facilities that were open, and then made a brew in the picnic area, while I contemplated the map and my route card – I was shortly going to reach my minimum target for day 2, when I crossed the A3.
I dropped down to cross that road and to drop into the visitor centre at Queen Elizabeth Country Park. At the third time of asking, finally a cafe that was open. A mediocre sausage roll, piece of cake and a coffee sorted me out.
The day had now warmed up quite a bit, and so I took the momentous decision to change into shorts. The afternoon’s walk began with a long draggy climb up through QECP, at just the point that my rucksack chest strap decided to ping off. Not wanting to stop again and faff with it (at this point I thought it was actually broken), I soldiered on.
A bit of a sit on a log near Fagg’s Farm while I summoned up the energy for the next bit of up and down rollercoaster. The track over West Harting Down passed under my feet a lot faster once I put some music on. Also along here, a local chap caught up with me and we chatted for a while – he apparently walks a chunk of the SDW each day. He darted off to one side, saying he’d see me later. He had a lot more confidence in my progress than I did at that point.
Lo and behold he caught me again just before the road to South Harting, where he headed off. I meandered through the wood and then climbed up onto Harting Downs. A long sit and a think on a bench for a rest then ensued before I walked on to find somewhere to pause for the night.
It was clear even before it was light that I’d picked the spot where the avian community had decided to hold some sort of festival: a huge amount of bird song, squawking and general activity brought me into the new day.
I was keen to be away , as although it had been a much pleasanter camp than the previous night, it had been tinged with a little bit of uncertainty as to what the day would bring. The last forecast I’d seen was for rain today, and I was keen to see if that had changed. Having no signal in the little dip I’d chosen for my camp, the promise of a mobile signal lured me back up onto the crest of the ridge.
This confirmed the crap forecast. I wasn’t looking forward to the afternoon which promised to be pretty much unbroken rain without decent amounts of shelter.
I decided not to climb up to the second Beacon Hill of the trip, and stuck to the official SDW around it. A well-defined path along field edges and through woodland had me flowing along nicely. At this point I was keen to get to Cocking quickly, as I’d already decided to drop in there for supplies: bacon cravings were currently at maximum.
There were a few things to see on the way: I took some time out to go off and look at the Devil’s Jumps – a group of well-preserved Bronze Age barrows. There was also the memorial to joseph Ostermann, a German airman shot down there in 1940.
As I climbed up to Linch Ball I had the thought about going one stage further: not just re-supply in Cocking, but stop there for the day. The campsite at Manor Farm appeared to be open according to its website. If so, I was pretty confident there would be space. The only thing was the 3pm check-in time, as it was only now just after 10am.
A call to the owner sorted this all out: yes it was open, and arriving early wasn’t a problem. Indeed, my likely arrival time would coincide with a convenient time. I threw myself into the rest of the walk, buoyed by the prospect of avoiding the rain entirely with my decision.
I did pause for a few minutes at the chalk boulder, where a large party of ramblers had also stopped. Some of the usual sort of chat ensued before I waited for them to clear off so I could photograph the boulder without all the additional people in the shot.
I arrived at the farm around 10:40am paid my £8 and pitched up at the far side of the small camping field. Then it was down the rutted farm track into Cocking itself to see what Cocking Stores had to offer.
The answer was quite a lot – there wasn’t much overall volume of stuff in there, but there was an impressive range. Somehow, I found a way of stashing sausages, bacon, rolls, chocolate, pastries, toothpaste, cake, beer, Lilt, orange juice, ham and crisps.
I slipped and slid my way back up the farm track to the tent, getting undercover just before the spitting turned into full-on rain. As it hammered down for much of the afternoon, I was happy I’d made a good call, even if it had disrupted the schedule a bit.