The first backpacking trip of the year always feels a bit weird in the lead up: typically, it being, or having recently been, winter, there may have been a bit of a gap since the last one, and it’s as if I’ve forgotten what preparing for a trip is like.
This is one reason why I generally keep it modest for the first one of the year – either heading for familiar areas, or for very short trips if I don’t know the area very well (last year I did the Elham Valley Way, for instance). I also tend to stay local, which means these trips are an ideal opportunity to tick off one of the shorter local long distance paths.
But that gap since the last “proper” trip (which in this case was the West Highland Way) does make the whole thing seem bigger than it would otherwise have been. This usually leads me to over-prepare and this is why I spent pretty much all of Sunday studying maps and the LDWA’s long distance path database looking for the perfect trail to tackle.
After flirting with about a dozen possibles, mapping and routecarding three of them, in the end I went back to my first idea. And that’s the Clarendon Way – a path I’d tucked away on the back burner for a future time when I might attempt a southern coast to coast, but which came leaping forward as a candidate for my Walk the Chalk project.
The Clarendon Way is a long distance path between Salisbury and Winchester named after the Clarendon Estate – a former royal hunting estate in medieval times, the most obvious remnant of which is the ruins of Clarendon Palace. It’s here that it is believed that Henry II started to get pissed off with Thomas Beckett, and we know where that led!
Leaving aside the historical stuff and looking at the trail, it’s essentially a walk along the chalk downs crossing the Wiltshire/Hampshire border, part of the link in a chain of chalk downlands stretching from the Wessex downs all the way to the White Cliffs of Dover. This is one of the less glamorous bits of chalk landscape – boasting nothing like the White Cliffs, Seven Sisters, Needles or the deep glaciated dry valleys of the Yorkshire Wolds. But chalk it is, and as such forms part of my project.
At an official 44km (27 miles), it’s a bit short to use up valuable backpacking time in the summer months, but it’s an ideal length for a winter one, and that first one of the year. There doesn’t seem to be a particular direction for the trail – it seems to be walked equally east-west or west-east. So for me the choice of direction was driven by the logistics of getting there and back.
I was going to walk this the week before, but a landslip between Basingstoke and Hook effectively poleaxed the idea of travelling by train, and I’d lost the window to do it before I realised that I could get a coach to or from both ends of the trail.
So Tuesday morning, saw me in a throng of commuters heading up to London, so that I’d make my coach from Victoria. Being ready to go earlier than expected, I went for an earlier train into London, saving me both money and crowds. The journey down to Winchester, itself, was nice and chilled on a not very full coach. It reminded me how much nicer a daytime coach is compared with the nocturnal ones I seem to have developed a habit for using.
Inconveniently, the coach stop for Winchester is at the Park and Ride to the south east of the city. Rather than pay for another bus into the city centre, I walked, intercepting the South Downs Way partway, making the rest of the walk easy to navigate.
At the cathedral, where the trail starts, there were a load of lorries with “Panalux” on the side, and barriers across the main entrance. Clearly something was being filmed, and snippets of other people’s conversation suggested it might be the next series of The Crown – I’m guessing it’s Diana’s funeral, if so. Around the other side leading to the Undercroft, a row of cranes were shining lights through the windows.
As is by now standard with Winchester, the signage of the trail was poor to non-existent. The South Downs Way seems to be the only trail that has a decent amount of waymarking in the city centre, and even that only works if you are alert to where you should be going – you can’t blindly follow it hoping you’ll go the right way. The other trails, well, nothing.
All I found as I made my way out around the back of the cathedral, through the back streets, and past Winchester College was a Camino Inglés waymark (the St James Way created by the Confraternity of St James to make the English route to Santiago a bit longer for people travelling from the UK), so I followed that, mumbling to myself that I hoped I found a Clarendon Way one before reaching Santiago de Compostela.
A pleasant route past the water meadows, and round the back of Winchester College, I found the first Clarendon Way marker – luckily just before the point it diverges from St James Way. After that it wasn’t too bad – across a muddy meadow and up a bush-lined path to the A3090. Here I diverted to Sainsbury’s, finding the Way did go across the footbridge rather than straight across the road (as I’ve seen in a couple of videos of the walk).
On the other side of the footbridge, I was spat out into a housing estate with a waymark pointing completely the opposite direction to the OS map. I followed it for a hundred yards or so, then reviewed the gps again – sometimes the way a road curves means it’s easier to see which is the right way by going a little further on from the point of confusion. Not liking it, I retraced my steps to stick to the map route, which after all was what I was primarily using to navigate. Of course I could have used the printed map by Nick Hill, which seems to be the only real guide available to the walk, and which I had stashed in my pack. This would have shown me the error I was about to make. But it wasn’t as convenient as looking at the OS map on my phone.
So now I found myself exiting the housing estate, and crossing the golf course, complete with signs threatening wounds from flying golf balls if I put the merest fraction of a foot off the path (I presume there’s therefore some sort of forcefield which prevents walkers being hit by golf balls whilst properly on the path!).
The A3090 to cross again and I could see where the (OS) map showed the path – around the field opposite. It looked a bit trespassy though so I stuck to the road, reasoning I’d pick the trail up again at the roundabout I could see. But I didn’t, and found myself fighting my way back onto the (OS) map route through some trees and the path at the field margins. I did find this nice Winchester City marker stone though.
This path was fine, and clearly one used by locals, but it wasn’t technically the Clarendon Way (unless you’re the OS of course). It hit a road and a short way back along it was the crossroads where the New Route comes out. I was back on the trail. I’d not been on the “proper” route but had avoided most of the road walking that particular new routing seems to involve.
Navigation now was easy, but legs were tired. If I’d just turned left on that road, I’d have cut some distance and tiredness out, as the path curved around to rejoin it again later on anyway. Now it was a matter of walking the road alongside Farley Mount Country Park for a few miles.
I reached Farley Mount at sunset, and briefly considered stopping there, but if anywhere was going to get nocturnal visitors, it would be there, so pushed on, eventually coming to a stop in a wooded patch.
I just about got the tent up before it became too dark to see. A short while later I thought I heard voices approaching, along with the thrashing of undergrowth being pushed aside. It turned out to be a small group of deer in the adjacent field, and they soon moved off, leaving me to a quiet night.
I had a decent night’s sleep in the tent – I’d pretty much used up my legs the previous day. Waking to mist, I didn’t hurry in getting ready and it was almost 9:30 before I was exiting the wood and regaining the trail.
As I descended down a frosted-over muddy path, I had to take considerable care – it was pretty slippery in several places. Not that there was much to see on either side anyway – a blanket of mist remained, and stayed for most of the day.
It was pleasant enough walking along the lanes, but after yesterday’s signage issues I was alert to every path junction – or so I thought. Somehow, I managed to miss a turn as I reached Hoplands and forged ahead down the lane heading for King’s Somborne. I knew about 1km further along that something wasn’t quite right, but after confirming it on the map, decided to carry on rather than retrace my steps or attempt a more direct recovery of the route across the field that separated us.
King’s Somborne wasn’t overflowing in waymarks either, and only the OS map got me out of the place. Up a hill and I nearly missed a waymark off road by a stile. If I hadn’t happened to look that way as I passed, I’d have carried on.
This path brought me down to the Test valley where the way across the concrete bridges was pretty natural. Here I found a whole load of swans just sitting in an otherwise empty field.
Leaving Houghton and I was struggling for momentum, so it was good luck to happen upon a bench for a rest. As I sat there 3 lads came the other way and stopped to chat. They were clearly doing the Clarendon Way too – they had Nick Hill’s map. They apparently stayed in Broughton the previous night, which given it was nearly midday meant a very late start. So I suspect they actually stayed a little short of Broughton, judging by the amount of camping gear they were carrying.
Certainly, there seemed like a number of places they might have stopped as it was copse after copse on the long drag into Middle Winterslow.
Never have I seemed to have taken so long to get from the edge of a village to its centre as Middle Winterslow. I’d walk past some houses and then be plunged into a field to cross, then repeat.
I got there about 3:30pm and popped into the shop quickly – I didn’t want to trust the store cum Post Office in Pitton (just as well, it turned out to be closed).
Leaving Middle Winterslow, I took the signed route alongside a recreation area which brought me out at the church in West Winterslow. Here I had a brief crisis of navigation before following the path along the edge of a field. It turns out this was wrong too.
A local I encountered in this field suggested the Clarendon Way was over a stile on my right which seemed to lead only into undergrowth. He was wrong – it was actually on the byway on my left at the other side of the field.
Whatever, I found Pitton easily enough and ploughed on through – I was losing the day and with the misty conditions, there would be no sunset – just a gradual loss of visibility and darkness.
I topped out on the last big climb of the walk and found myself a spot in the trees.
A cosy night in the tent, and warmer than the previous one. It was also an early night as I had to be up before light in order to be sure of being in Salisbury in time for my coach.
I awoke around 4 and struggled to get back to sleep, aware of the alarm I had set for 6am, and the noise of the deer passing through the woods. In the end I gave up and watched some downloaded TV, then started packing up at 6 – I didn’t want to overdo the earliness either.
It didn’t take long and I was walking for 7am, initially dark over crunchy frozen mud, then as the light grew so the track became easier underfoot. Rabbits played ahead of me on the path.
I was at the ruins of Clarendon Palace pretty soon, and as I’d made good time, lingered a while. I was surprised how extensive it was – all the videos I’d watched pretty much just showed the one surviving wall standing up and not much else. In reality there was a lot of stumps of walls poking up out of the ground and trenches where you could see other remains.
Back on the trail, I soon saw the spire of Salisbury Cathedral ahead, and from then on was a matter of following my nose, especially as the waymarks dried up on the outskirts of the city.
I arrived at the cathedral, took a few pictures and headed off to find some 2nd breakfast and kill the remaining time before my coach home.
Thoughts on the Trail
I’d like to say it was really good to be out on the first backpack of the year, but in truth it was all a bit mixed. Certainly it was good to tick off the trail, and in the summer, or just brighter weather generally I’m sure I’d have had quite a good time. Spending a whole day with everything shrouded in mist took the edge off it a bit.
But the elephant in the room is the navigation. This is not the easiest trail to follow for several reasons:
- Waymarking is intermittent, especially in the cities at either end of the trail. It’s here you most need it too.
- The route shown on OS maps is not actually the up to date current route – there are several changes, yet to be reflected.
- Apart from the OS map, which would otherwise be the easiest way to navigate, the only map of the trail I’m aware of is the hand-drawn one by Nick Hill, which is excellent but which many people intending to walk the trail might not stumble across.
- There is very little detail “out there” of the route changes – everything I found was anecdotal via blogs or You Tube videos.
- Where the trail shares a portion of its route with other trails, often the other trail’s waymarks seem to take priority. Between King’s Somborne and Middle Winterslow you will see more Monarch’s Way signs than Clarendon Way signs.
In my next post, I’ll go into a bit more detail on the navigation.
On a personal note I’d add that the first backpack of the year is not the best occasion to be fully alert to navigational tricks. I’m not in the groove for the year yet, and coupled with poor visibility, couldn’t “feel” my way across the landscape. The short days just add pressure to the situation – in both cases I was racing darkness to find a stopping point for the day.
So, in conclusion, I’m glad to have done the trail; glad to have set the ball rolling for 2023; but also glad the trip wasn’t longer.
4 thoughts on “The Clarendon Way”
This brings back memories for me! I certainly agree with your assessment re the intermittent waymarking and the differences between the route on the OS maps and the current route on the ground. I walked it carrying stuff for staying at B+B / hotels but no camping equipment as a very long walk in a single day in October 2021 (49.2km with wrong turnings!): https://trekkingadventuresbackpacking.travel.blog/2021/11/05/map-185-the-clarendon-way/ and by the time I arrived at Clarendon Palace, which should have been one of the highlights of the walk, it was virtually dark and I just rushed on to Salisbury. I stayed in Salisbury for a single night then caught a bus to Marlborough ready to walk the Ridgeway National Trail. Following reading your blog, I think I’ll go back and have a proper look at Clarendon Palace sometime.
That’s a hell of a lot for a single day, even travelling light. I think it was the right decision to save the palace for the end, but as you say, you’ll have missed enjoying it in the dark, and probably by then not got much inclination anyway! I’m looking forward to hitting the Ridgeway later in the year – going to attempt the full Greater Ridgeway.
Have you considered finding or creating a .gpx track file for these walks which you can then overlay on your digital mapping device of choice? It’s not fool proof (not for this fool anyway!) but it really helps me to focus more on the views and less on the navigation
Well I pretty much do that. Technically it’s a route rather than track file I have on my phone but at the end of the day it’s a line on the map showing where I need to go. What I should have done is reviewed Nick Hill’s sketch map and created my route file from that rather than simply trusting that the trail marked on the OS Map was the one to plot the line on. The issue wasn’t in the method I used, but in the data I fed it!