Walking the South Downs Way is a great option for anyone wanting an easy/moderate long distance trail that can be completed in under 10 days.
The South Downs Way is one of 16 National Trails in the UK. Stretching the full width of the South Downs National Park, the trail starts in Winchester, Hampshire, finishing 100 miles later in Eastbourne, East Sussex. The full trial has about 4,150m of ascent.
Although the relentlessness of the hills shouldn’t be underestimated, I’d say this is a good trail for hiking and backpacking beginners. The views are pleasant and consistent. The trail incredibly easy to follow. And you are never far from a pub or road if you need a getaway.
My experience hiking the South Downs Way
I’ve walked many sections of the South Downs way multiple times (especially my favourite stretch – the Seven Sisters walk). Deciding to try it as a multi-day hike, I also walked the second half of the trail over 4 days from Amberley train station to Eastbourne with my husband.
This was the first multi-day hike I did carrying my own camping gear and it was a good introduction.
We walked this 50mile stretch self-contained, wild camping along the way. The views are especially spectacular on this half as you have the famous cliff fronts and ocean views. The first half of the hike is more woodland and farms.
Although the second half is more beautiful, it is also more exposed!
The weather when we hiked was terrible. The winds from the ocean were especially relentless and with no shelter en route we were out in the elements for most of the day. Having a miserable time we decided to cut the hike short, condensing a relaxed 4-day hike into a tougher 3 days.
Walking the South Downs Way would’ve definitely been more manageable if we were not wild camping. A hot shower and break from the rain would have made all the difference.
How long does it take to walk the South Downs Way?
8-9 days is a good estimate to walk the entire, covering around 12-15 miles a day. Your mileage will considerably increase though if you are traveling into villages/towns for accommodation as there aren’t many conveniently located on the trail.
People also walk the South Downs way as a 2-day 100mile challenge. Or you could try and beat the 14hour running record if you really want to give your legs a battering!
How hard is it to hike the South Downs Way?
This is a very manageable trail in so much as the route is easy to follow and the terrain is flat and with very little ascent. You do still need to be able to complete a long day hike comfortably with a day pack (or more if you are planning to camp).
The hills on the coastal section of the hike can feel a little endless at times – lots of up and down. But nothing steep or too big.
Navigation wise, the trail is consistently marked (with an Acorn on the sign post – indication a National Trail – with a yellow arrow showing the right way for foot users). Although I had a map with me it was barely taken out of the bag except for planning camp spots and working out how far we’d come.
East to West or West to East?
Most consider East to West to be the best way and I agree! This way you save the best views until last, build up resilience for the more relenting coastal hills and can also finish your trek with seafront chips in Eastbourne.
Transport to and from the trail
One of the best things about the trail is how easy it is to get to the start and finish using public transport. For the start point you want to head to Winchester. For the end you will be catching a train from Eastbourne.
Although there are long distance car parking options in Winchester, I’d urge you to do your bit for the environment and take the train. It also saves you the hassle of needing to return to the start point at the end.
If you want to just do half of the trail, you can catch a train to Amberley and head either East or West from there.
Camping on the South Downs Way
Camping is tricky as there aren’t lots within easy access to the trail. If a campsite is a 2-mile walk from the trail this means you are doing a 4-mile round trip to get there which can be frustrating.
You could look at organising taxis and pickups for some of them or wild camp (see my heading below on wild camping!).
This Campsites South Downs Way directory lists all the campsites available near the trail.
Suggested itinerary if intending to camp
If you are planning on walking the South Downs Way while camping en route, here’s a suggested itinerary to get you started:
Day 1: Winchester to Cheriton – 6 mile
Camping at Holdean Farm (Cheriton, Nr Alresford, hants, So24 0NX) close to the trail.
Day 2: Cheriton to Petersfield – 13 miles
Camping at Wetherdown Camping (Droxford Rd, East Meon, Petersfield, Hants, GU32 1HR) close to the trail.
Day 3: Petersfield to Chichester – 19 miles
Camping at New House Farm (New House Lane, East Dean, Chichester, West Sussex, PO18 0NJ). It’s about a 2 mile hike to reach the campsite from the trail or you can arrange a taxi pickup.
Day 4: Chichester to Amberley – 13 miles (Camping wild camp spot)
Camping at High Tittern (High Tittern Lane, Amberley, grid ref. TQ032123) which is a wild camping space right on the trail. There are no facilities.
Day 5: Amberley to Poynings – 18 miles
Camping at Saddlescombe Farm (Saddlescombe Road, Poynings, BN45 7DE) close to the trail.
Day 6: Poynings to Lewes – 13 miles
Camping at Spring Barn Farm (Kingston Rd, Lewes, BN7 3ND)
***Note that Spring Barn Farm has now closed. There are other accommodation options in Lewes from B&B to Airbnb rooms or I’d recommend wild camping this night***
Day 7: Lewes to Seaford – 18 miles
Camping at Foxhole campsite (Seven Sisters Country Park, Exceat, Seaford, East Sussex, BN25 4AG) close to the trail.
Day 8: Seaford to Eastbourne – 12 miles
Wild camping South Downs
Can you wild camp on the South Downs Way?
Legally you are not allowed to camp on the South Downs. However, I have wild camped and found that if you are considerate and follow the rules, it is tolerated.
A big section of the South Downs is privately owned farmland which you shouldn’t be camping on without permission. For this reason, the only suitable places we found were small flat spots very near to the trail itself. As the trail is well used this means really following the pitch late and leave early rule so you aren’t disturbing anyone else on the trail.
With Bivvy bags you would definitely find wild camping South Downs easier (read more about in this Bivvy Bag guide). We used a small discrete 2 man tent without issue.
Before choosing to wild camp on the South Downs Way, please do read this Wild Camping UK article so you know the correct etiquette. And know that you may be asked to move on and will need to do so without complaint.
This film shows a couple wildcamping on the South Downs Way…it’ll give you an idea of the types of spaces you might find:
Other accommodation options
If you don’t want to camp there are plenty of other options providing a bed for the night. From guesthouses, hotels and also rooms on Airbnb.
If you’ve not used Airbnb before you can click here to get a first time £34 off voucher.
For a full list of accommodation options on the South Downs Way, head to this National Trails page. A lot of the places are a mile or more from the trail so you may want to look at coordinating taxis to pick you up.
Baggage transfer option
There is a baggage transfer option if you are keen on walking the South Downs Way without having to carry your bag.
For a quote you can contact [email protected]
Where do you find water on the South Downs Way?
Water wasn’t so easy to come by on the trail. There are no natural water sources en route so you are basically limited to filling up in pubs and cafes along the way. Occasionally there is a tap and trough placed for hikers.
This took a bit of planning – it’s especially important that you check opening times for cafes and pubs in advance. I marked all the water options on the map and in advance planned how much I needed to fill up at eat spot to keep me going to the next.
Most of the places were happy to fill our bottles for free.
It’s always good practice to have a spare 1 liter of water with you than you think you need. Especially on a hot day.
Here’s a list of the places en route where you can find a drinking tap:
- The Milburys – Beauworth, SU 570 246. (fill up in the Pub)
- The Shoe Inn – Exton, SU 614 209. (fill up in the Pub)
- Meon Springs – Whitewool Farm, SU 655 215. (fill up in fishing lodge when open)
- The Beech Cafe – Sustainability Centre, SU 676 190 (fill up in cafe)
- Queen Elizabeth Country Park – SU 718 185. (fill up in cafe)
- Hill Barn – A286 crossing, SU 879 166. (tap available)
- Amberley – Near river Arun crossing, TQ 025 124. (tap available)
- Franklin Arms – Washington, TQ 123 129. (fill up at pub)
- Parkfield Farm – Washington, TQ 118 119. (tap available)
- Botolphs – River Adur crossing, TQ 198 094. (tap available)
- Truleigh Hill – YHA, TQ 220 106. (tap available)
- Devil’s Dyke – TQ 258 110. (fill up at pub)
- Saddlescombe Farm – TQ 271 114. (tap available)
- Housedean Farm – A27 crossing, TQ 368 092. (tap available)
- Southease Church – TQ 423 052. (tap available)
- Alfriston Village – c. TQ 520 030. (fill up at local cafes, pubs or toilets – lots to choose from)
- The Eight Bells – Jevington, TQ 562 017. (fill up at pub)
- Seven Sisters – Country Park, TV 518 995. (fill up at tap behind toilet block)
- Birling Gap – TV 553 960. (fill up at pub and public toilets)
- Beachy Head – TV 590 958. (fill up at pub and public toilets)
What to pack for the South Downs Way
To see what kit I take for multi-day treks, check out my thru hiking gear list. Obviously if you aren’t planning to camp you can ditch the cooking stuff, tent and sleeping gear.
As UK is especially prone to rain I’d also add waterproof trousers to this list, otherwise this should cover everything you need.
Overall opinion on walking the South Downs Way
The trail can’t compare to the vast emptiness of our big national parks like Snowdonia or the Lake District. However, for an easier paced walk the South Downs Way is a great option.
The views are pretty and quaint and the Seven Seas section (nearing Eastbourne) dramatic.
Perhaps the biggest downfall is just how busy the trail can get on summer weekends, especially along the coastal stretch. For wild campers or those looking for a quieter experience this will probably grate a bit.
With all that in mind, I’d recommend doing the second half of the trail (Amberley to Eastbourne) over a quiet mid-week 4-day break if you can. Rather than feeling the need to do the full trail if time is short.
Top tips for hiking the South Downs Way
- The trail can be really busy during sunny weekends. This is especially so for the Beachy Head/Seven Sisters section. Try hit this part of the trail mid-week if you can.
- The wind from the ocean can be strong and relentless at times. I’d suggest bringing a buff and a warm hat you can pull over your ears to give your face a break on especially windy days.
- Don’t stand too near the edges of the cliffs – even if you see others do the same. Lots of people have accidentally fallen to their deaths getting too close or being distracted taking pictures.
- Pick up some useful advice in this Long distance walking tips guide. You might also want to check out How to pack a hiking backpack like a pro.
- Once you complete the trail you can get a completion certificate to keep! Follow this link to order yours.
Walking the South Downs Way
If you’ve got any questions or any tips to share, please do use the comments box below.
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