Earlier in the week I was considering a South Downs walk either Saturday or Sunday, the last day of January or the first day of February (pinch, punch). The weather forecast was for cold conditions and a strong wind.
I looked out of the window early Saturday morning and to my (childhood) amazement I could see snow on the ground. What followed in the next 15 minutes was the quickest gathering of walking gear, goodbyes to a disgruntled partner (I can’t collect trekking poles and rucksack quietly it would seem) and departure.
South Downs Snow
As I write this blog post a few days later there is snow again on the South Downs; the weather is fickle around these parts. A few miles to the west in Hampshire there is snow and ice blocking roads up the Downs; further east the ground is clear and the roads dry.
If you want to enjoy walking in the snow south of London you have to be lucky most times.
Back to the end of January: Not wanting to risk getting the car stuck up any icy hills I decided to walk from the village of Storrington up to the South Downs Way at Chantry Hill and follow the SDW eastwards as far as I wanted. I didn’t plan a circular walk this time, just a walk “there and back, to see how far it is“.
Chantry Hill Climb
I took one of my usual routes up to the South Downs Way from Storrington, Church Street to Greyfriars Lane and then clambered up the chalky white paths to the summit of Kithurst Hill. The cold ground temperature had solidified some of the mud and chalk as I scrambled up the paths.
It was quiet out, the snow only a centimetre thick, was just enough to deaden any noise there might have been. Thick grey-white clouds trapped a layer of cold air between me and the wintry sunshine that might have been.
The car park at Chantry Hill was a mix of footprints, dog prints, vehicle tyre tracks and mountain bike tread, in the distance I saw bright winter clothing disappearing over Sullington Hill. The mountain-bikers were off to enjoy the morning.
Wintry Chanctonbury Ring
I had the walk from Chantry Hill car park to Sullington Hill, Barnsfarm Hill all to myself. The cattle that normally graze Sullington Hill were today huddled closely around feeding troughs, the wind wicking away body heat from any isolated cattle not wise to “safety in numbers“.
Snow was still falling and across the landscape I could see from time to time large white clouds blanketing the localised ground, happy children waking up to a snowy dusting on a Saturday morning.
As I looked east from Sullington Hill, the top of Chanctonbury Hill would occasionally be obscured by low cloud. Standing 794 feet above sea level, Chanctonbury Hill was collecting more than just mysteries today, it was collecting clouds too.
I passed a group of hikers close to Barnsfarm Hill, heading west with happy dogs organising their human pack leaders. Cheerful greetings all round as usual, we’re a happy bunch on the whole.
Following the well signposted SDW I headed east and downwards towards the A24 dual carriageway crossing, not before trying the drinking water tap kindly provided by the South Downs National Park Authority; just opposite the private dwellings on Glaseby Lane. Am happy to say it was working fine, even in cold weather.
Chanctonbury Hill Trig Point Bagging
After crossing the busy A24 south of the A283 Washington roundabout, the SDW begins to climb again up Chanctonbury Hill. The path in places is very rutted and the chalk / flint combination extremely slippery in parts. I understand that the South Downs National Park Authority (SDNPA) have plans to improve walking conditions from the Washington car park upwards.
As I walked carefully upwards towards Chanctonbury Hill, parents walked downwards back to their soon to be warm cars. Children played with icy puddles, no gloves on..that’ll sting, ouch.
Chanctonbury Ring – Passing Point
On previous walks, Chanctonbury Ring had been my sunny lunchtime destination but today I was headed south-east towards Steyning Bowl. With snow still on the ground and the wind howling it wasn’t time to stop and linger for long. The cold death grip of winter was making itself felt today.
The Iron Age fort looking bleak in winter, you can understand why our ancestors worshipped the awakening of the land at spring time.
With a car park close by, this part of the SWD from Chanctonbury to Steyning Bowl was heavily populated, by populated I mean at least 10 people spread out along the route. Doesn’t anyone like a bitter wind to go with their Saturday morning coffee?
Around Steyning Round Hill
My trusty South Downs OS Map told me there was another trig point some distance ahead, just off the main SDW to the right. As I mentioned in another blog post, I don’t deliberately set out to visit or “bag” trig points but I always take a photo or three if I am passing close by. Wrapped up warm I walked onwards, with views of the English Channel just visible in the wintry sunbeams momentarily.
My walking boots though old (and about to be replaced) still have a fully waterproof Gore-Tex lining and are great for puddle splashing. The melting snow and ice made the SDW very wet in places but with a childish grin on my face I marched through them all. I did poke the deeper puddles with my trekking pole first at times!
With the trig point “bagged”, I admired the views. Looking to my left, the South Downs formed the natural Steyning Bowl in the distance and to my right the English Channel offered up hope of some afternoon sunshine.
I checked the mileage I had walked and decided to carry on east. Next stop would be for lunch.
The Super Steyning Bowl
The SDW trail is joined by the Monarch’s Way at Steyning Bowl, offering walkers a choice of path, both as scenic as each other. I continued to follow the SDW trail for a few more minutes before stopping for lunch.
Photos struggle to do the views justice; Steyning Bowl is a hill, an impressive amphitheatre with many sloping sides and an obvious dead-end, a natural cul-de-sac. To allow the weary walker (me) the chance to enjoy the vista, benches can be found facing the view. It doesn’t take much imagination to picture the scene on a breezy summer’s day with paragliders taking to the air from the surrounding hills.
The day of my walk however, sleet was still being blown in my face by the gusty wind; never the less the view was worth the walk so far.
After my hearty lunch (two homemade sandwiches and a nectarine) I walked another 15 minutes along the SDW as it hugged the steep contours of the side of the Bowl. What a difference a change of direction makes. The SDW trail now ran east / west and the wind was lazy, very lazy. A natural wind tunnel with me being the test dummy.
I was now standing on the north facing edge of Steyning Bowl; the wind was funneling into the natural cul-de-sac and left with nowhere to go but upwards, increased speed as it did so. If you have ever stood at Chanctonbury Ring and thought the wind howls, stand on the edge of Steyning Bowl in January, I can assure you it does the same, only 10 times stronger and colder.
The views from Steyning Bowl are impressive, even on a blustery day. It is well worth the walk, from whichever direction you approach.
About Turn and March
I was struggling to stand still and take a photo of the Bowl, a group of mountain-bikers in the distance were peddling furiously into the crosswind and seemingly not getting any closer to me. It was time to retrace my steps back home – my GPS tracker informed me I had walked just over 9 miles so far.
I retraced my route almost exactly, the only deviation being closer to Chantry Hill when I decided to take the longer route off the Downs via Kithurst Hill through the woods to Storrington.
South Downs Ranger
As I walked back towards the west, head down inside my hood, I was in my own world. The dry snow flurries of the early morning had been replaced by strong wind and wet sleet. The mountain-bikers of the Bowl still hadn’t caught up with me.
Along the trail from Steyning Round Hill to Washington car park I had the fortunate pleasure of talking on and off with a volunteer South Downs Ranger. He was out inspecting the various SDW signs and route markers. One of the suggestions I put to him were for more SDW “wild” camping permissions; that is, a list of land-owners who would be happy to provide a corner of a field for those of us that might like to hike 40 miles over two days and camp simply overnight.
Arriving back at Chanctonbury Ring, the sunbeams had finally broken through the heavy cloud, As I stopped to take a photo the Ranger said to me “you wouldn’t want to be anywhere else.” He was correct of course, despite the wind and sleet of earlier, the sunbeams breaking through the cloud can’t be truly appreciated unless you are watching them outdoors.
The weather had broken and my walk from Chanctonbury Ring towards the west was accompanied now by a brightness in the sky. I said goodbye to the Ranger at Washington car park and once more crossed the busy A24 and followed the SDW back up on high – next stop Chantry Hill car park.
Saturday Afternoon SDW
After crossing the A24 dual carriageway and until reaching Chantry Hill car park I never saw another person. I walked for maybe 2 miles and never saw a single human in any direction. I was the last man walking this Saturday afternoon.
Someone noticed from my blog “that I always seem to walk alone” but I think the reality is people don’t walk where I walk on Saturday afternoons! I certainly don’t choose to walk alone but at 2pm this Saturday, no one was to be seen. That’s not a bad thing always.
Turned Out Nice Again
The sky brightened up for the final miles of walking back to Storrington, all traces of snow and ice had vanished. People sat in cars at Chantry Hill and watched the sunbeams far away on the Isle of Wight. Sudden bursts of intense sunlight illuminated fields with that gorgeous late in the day pure light, that photographers enjoy so much.
High definition viewing returned once more to the texture of the landscape. Wildlife made the most of the late afternoon light and harvested food for the coming cold days.
Finally leaving the South Downs Way trail at Kithurst Hill, I walked back down through the beech trees to Greyfriars Lane and Coldharbour house, taking the footpath that runs almost due north to Storrington, the monastery and the bustle that is a Saturday afternoon for many.
Along the final mile of my walk I had another friendly chat with a local dog walker and we discussed what I always seem to discuss; the beauty that is the South Downs.
I’ll leave you with some final thoughts on this walk; despite the cold, the sleet, the wind I was still left with a feeling of being part of something good. I had chatted to people with genuine enthusiasm for the location. I had wondered at the wildlife footprints in the snow; wondering if their gait was better than mine. I was rewarded with evening sunshine. Worth every step.
Route: Storrington to Steyning Bowl and back
Distance: 18.81 miles (30.27 km) (including elevation)
Map of Walking Route
The map shown is a rough guide to the route that I walked. Please make sure you always follow safe and legal paths, roads and walkways. The actual location of the red-route on the map is an approximation. Never walk in the sea or off a cliff, please just don’t, you’ll get wet and I’ll get worried!