Sunday 22 July
Last night, over my fifth glass of Prosecco, a 13 mile walk along the South Downs Way estimated to take 6 hours seemed like a good idea. But this morning, leaning on the parapet of a bridge over the River Meon in Exton village it did not seem such a great notion.
When we set off earlier this morning everything seemed to be in our favour - it was cool and dry under a settled grey sky. Both the buses we had to catch, a local bus and the summer special the South Downs Rambler had arrived on time. We got off on the main road and walked the short distance to the centre of Exton village. Our way brightened by a colourful array of Hollyhocks that surrounded us. Special because they are not a common sight nowadays.
Our first mission was to find some indication of the whereabouts of the South Downs Way, a rural path from Exton Village back to Winchester. I was distracted by the unusual sight of a thatched well in a pretty cottage garden which my companions poured over an OS map and consulted an app that had never been known to be wrong.
It was during my wanderings that I spotted a signpost for the South Downs Way in the middle of a climbing rose. It was indicating the path went in both directions but gave no information concerning which town/village they led to. More consultations of maps and apps. I was more worried about the addition to these signs that read 'temporary route'. In my experience this suggested a diversion adding unwanted distance to our walk.
Direction decided, we set off. Generally, I rely on my own sense of direction to divine the right way but this has known to let me down and sometimes resulting in a return to my starting point. I was happy to let my companions make the decision. Soon after we set off we began climbing – not a steep climb but one that seemed to go on forever. There were respites as we trudged along. We passed the Exton Park Vineyard and spent some time trying to spot grapes on the vines – a good excuse to stand still for a while.
We also had brief glimpses of the lovely rural scenery through gaps in the tall hedges on either side of the road for a start.
Then, for me, who was some way ahead at this point there was the welcome relief of a gate that led into a field. A chance to relieve myself of some excess fluid following my rehydration programme early this morning. It was while I was gazing at the landscape in front of me I realised I was standing under a signpost for the real South Downs Way. When my companions arrived I pointed this out – it was not going in the right direction for us (I knew that) but, a bit further along the lane we found another signpost, that did point in the right direction. Shortly after joining this path we discover we are still 10 miles away from our final destination – Winchester.
But at least we are now on a very rural path skirting fields of crops and enjoying open views across the countryside. Our spirits are lifted when the OS map reveals the existence of a pub not far away. We are looking forward to sitting down, having a coffee and using proper toilets. There are no benches on this section of the South Downs Way. A final push and we reach the pub – it looks deserted as we approach. And it is. A sign at the front says it is closed for refurbishment. So we flop on the nearest grassy bank and have our lunch there.
Refreshed and ready to set off again we consult the oracle – the app that tells us where we are and how much further we have to walk. I can’t believe we still have another 7 miles to negotiate. We set off again, gritting our teeth as we force our limbs into motion and stride out until we get to the next junction. Here we find a board telling us there is a café one mile ahead at Holden Farm. But, is it a mile in the right direction? The app has been put to sleep due to a nearly expired battery but it is woken up and informs us the farm is on the right path. We cover that mile at a better than our average speed today and are soon sitting in the shade sipping hot and cold drinks. The sun made an appearance an hour earlier and we are all feeling the heat.
Before we set off again maps and apps are out as I have suggested we might happen on a bus stop sometime soon so we check bus times and distances. With another 6 miles to go to Winchester and the prospect of a very late dinner this evening this seems a good option. But the app tells us we will arrive at the bus stop 10 minutes after the bus goes by. Of course we could walk a little faster. But a better solution is found – the sister of my companions is called and agrees to collect us when we reach the main road at Cheesefoot Head. That final mile takes us past the Boomtown site where preparations for this huge music festival are taking place. And just beyond this site our meeting point and a snack van. Never has an ice cream tasted so good even though it was black as I decided to risk an new flavour called black coconut which was delicious.
When we finally get home at 6 pm, I open a bottle of Prosecco – I’ve earnt this one.
Valery Collins is the Experienced Traveller
An excellent raconteur, Valery has been writing about her experiences on the road since she started travelling 25 years ago. After publishing four books she turned to online travel writing.