St Swithun’s Way

St Swithun’s Way is (officially) a 34 mile, or 55km long distance path running between Winchester and Farnham, named after a 9th Century Anglo-Saxon bishop of Winchester. This is the guy associated with the saying about if it rains on St Swithun’s Day (15 July), you’re in for another 40 days of it.

This legend is believed to have arisen from Swithun’s request to be buried outside his cathedral where people’s footsteps and raindrops would fall on his grave, then enhanced by the heavy shower that fell when they later moved him inside the expanding cathedral. Not surprisingly, this is the guy you should pray to in the event of a drought.

The path itself is a modern proxy for the first part of the Pilgrim’s Way to Canterbury, the rest being done by the North Downs Way. For me, Winchester makes a better and more meaningful start to the North Downs Way to align with the pilgrimage, as well as providing some symmetry with the South Downs Way which also starts in Winchester (and which also ends on White Cliffs!)

And so I decided to tackle St Swithun’s Way as part of a project to re-walk the whole of the NDW this year. The plan is to do the Farnham to Rochester section in August, then Rochester to Canterbury as part of the Kent Pilgrims’ Festival, before polishing off the rest of the eastern loop.

The SSW typically takes 1-3 days to do, depending on whether you’re doing it in “challenge” mode or merely doing at a more natural pace. Most walkers will do it in 2-3. I decided to target a two day walk, but keeping my options open if I couldn’t quite manage it, and had to finish the last few kilometres off the next morning.

Accommodation plan was simple – with only one (planned) night on the trail, I decided to seek a campsite, but go prepared to wild camp as a backup, and indeed in case I needed to spend a second night on the trail. It’s just as well I did, it turned out.

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Getting to Winchester was a bit of a faff, as it meant travelling through London in the morning peak so that I could then take advantage of a significantly cheaper advance far from Waterloo to Winchester. But it did at least work as a plan.

In Winchester itself, I already knew the way to the cathedral, as I was there in March for the South Downs Way start. Unlike the SDW, though, St Swithun’s Way actually starts at the cathedral, meaning that the trail leads you immediately a different way out of the city than the SDW.

And initially, that’s quite confusing as the signage doesn’t really get going until you’re out of the city. There’s the odd waymark on a lamppost but not enough to keep you on track. I took a few wrong turnings and found myself parallel to the actual path a few times, but eventually I found my way.

Now out of the city it was field edges and riverside walking to the first of the road crossings – the A34 and then the A33.

It helped that at this point the SSW shares its course with the Itchen Way and the Allan King (no relation) Way.

Under the M3 and a pleasant walk into Martyr Worthy, with a really nice church. And a bench outside, making for a good rest stop.

The pattern of field edges, interspersed with short stretches of road to join them up continued to Avington, where the SSW skirts the golf course.

After Ovington, the path meets the A31, which it parallels the rest of the way. Much of the original Pilgrim’s Way now lies under the A31. On the outskirts of New Alresford I came upon the watercress beds.

A road section past a big solar farm and into Bishop’s Sutton and the hope of the local pub being open, which it wasn’t. The next one, the Cricketer’s, seemed to be heaving in the beer garden so I decided to give that a miss too – I wasn’t that desperate.

Yet more road to cross the A31 and head for Ropley. As I entered the village, I was caught by another walker who was doing the Pilgrim’s Way itself. We jointly navigated our way into the village. It turned out she’d started an hour or so before me, and if I’d actually gone in the Cricketer’s I’d have met her there. She’d be the only other person I’d see walking the trail.

Fuelled at the village shop, I then started my 2km detour off trail to the camp site. Although they’re listed on Pitchup, I’d enquired about a “backpacker’s rate” as I wasn’t prepared to pay based on 2 people with a car pricing. A short conversation on Facebook messenger (they don’t have an actual website), an email to confirm I wanted to stay, and I thought I was all set.

It was a bit of a slog up hill to the site, and when I got there you’d never have known it was a campsite. There was no signage or anything. I knocked on the door of the farmhouse to no response, except copious barking. I explored further along the road, to no avail. Eventually, I gave it up as a bad lot, and activated plan B.

A further 2km back into Ropley to rejoin the trail then continued down it to find a spot, eventually tucking myself away in a quiet bit of woodland.

I was away at 06:35 the next morning, which meant that I passed the first cafe at the garden centre well before it opened. And the one next door. So now my target was Alton, at 11km into the day.

In Alton I found a little cafe up a side street off the main drag and set about demolishing a fry up.

The way out of Alton was another instance of patchy urban signage – it’s ridiculous that I find myself needing to check my position on gps more often in a town than the middle of nowhere! It sorted itself out and I found my way across a playing field then round the back of a couple of schools which looked expensive to attend.

Lots more field walking now, and field after field of wheat. For miles and miles.

My target for lunchtime was the church at Bentley, and I arrived to find a wedding in progress, so tucked myself away on a bench around the back of the church. I could still hear the music from inside – a pretty classic selection. A pair of small terrier dogs roamed around the churchyard.

I waited for the wedding party to emerge then made my move. More wheat fields and lanes to bring me to the point where I could see down into Farnham.

Now things started to go awry. A missed turn brought me out at Farnham Castle. I retraced my steps the couple of hundred metres and headed down the correct way, only to then go astray again. Complete lack of SSW waymarks coupled with not looking at the gps enough. Somehow I did a right instead of straight on that brought me out to the west of the town . Rather than (again) retrace my steps, I simply followed the road into town. I’d have been better off doing that when I went wrong at the Castle, the first time.

The waymarking into Farnham is terrible.

This latened my finish a bit, and added enough extra distance that I really needed a drink and a sit down before jumping on the train. Luckily there was a pub right by the station.

I, mostly, enjoyed this walk. I’d had the trail on my list for a while, but had been a bit ambivalent about doing it. I’d almost decided to amalgamate it into my NDW re-walk, when I found myself needing a short(ish) 2 day walk with an overnight, and the SSW fitted the bill.

As part of a larger walk, such as a pilgrimage to Canterbury, or a longer route, the SSW is a pleasant couple of days, but not a trail I’d really consider in its own right. It didn’t really hold a huge amount of interest for me. But I’m glad it’s done – it’s always nice to tick a trail off. And indeed just being out.

Total distance walked: 64km, which includes a 4km (and a bit) fruitless accommodation diversion, a 2km “navigational displacement” on the way into Farnham, plus the 1km to get to the start from Winchester station. There was a total of 762m of ascent.

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