South Downs Way: Cocking to Queen Elizabeth Country Park

19 Jun

South Downs Way sign

I just can’t get enough of the South Downs at the moment, and although the weather was a little disappointing, it turned out to be one of the most memorable days for a long time, mostly for the right reasons.

It is getting more complicated to get to the start and get back from the end of these walks, but getting to the start provided the first surprise of the day, our train was held up because of a steam train! I knew there was a steam tour passing through Sussex today, but didn’t think I would actually see it. Not that I could actually see much, but it was unquestionably a steam train, a rare sight on the mainline this day and age.

After the train came a bus ride to Cocking Hill Car Park, and almost straight away a walk up Cocking Down. Halfway up the hill is a rather large chalk boulder (pictured below). Like a giant marble, it is begging to be pushed down the hill, but I guess it is probably fixed in some way (or too heavy to be moved). According to my guide book it a work by sculptor Andy Goldsworthy and is part of the Chalk Stone Trail.

Chalk boulder

Up on the top of the Downs the views are quite spectacular, unfortunately because of the combination of poor light and haze my photos don’t do them justice. To the south Portsmouth with it’s Spinnaker Tower was clearly visible, with the Solent and Isle of Wight beyond that.

Closer to the path the next point of interest was a cemetery, but not the sort of cemetery I am used to, there were no headstones at this cemetery. The Devil’s Jumps (part of which is pictured below) are described on the information board as being "the best example of a Bronze Age (2000BC – 800BC) barrow cemetery on the South Downs". The Downs are dotted with smaller barrows and tumuli but these certainly take some beating.

Devil's Jumps

Not far from the Devil’s Jumps is a much newer memorial, a nice flint built memorial to Hauptmann Joseph Oestermann, a German pilot. It seems rather unusual that a German pilot should be remembered in such a way, and the story is certainly worthy of further research, such as who actually put it there?

Flint memorial

The path continued in a north-westerly direction, before turning westwards near Mount Sinai and climbing up Pen Hill, there once again the were some spectacular views, this time mainly to the north-east. Dropping down from Pen Hill, you are confronted by the bulk of Beacon Hill. The South Downs Way actually goes around the side of Beacon Hill, but I took a quick detour up to the top to visit the trig point and admire the views.

Looking east from Beacon Hill

As you can see from the pictures, there was plenty of cloud about. There were larger gaps in the cloud which allowed the sun to briefly spotlight certain favoured parts of the landscape. For most of the walk though it was still pretty warm, despite the lack of sunshine.

The biggest surprise of the day came after retracing my steps down Beacon Hill and walking around it to the other side. I was just beginning the climb up from Bramshott Bottom to Harting Downs when I heard the sound of a plane, or was it a helicopter? It certainly didn’t sound right, not a normal light aircraft, something bigger perhaps? Suddenly a big black shape appeared above the trees, no wonder it didn’t sound right, it took me a few seconds to realise it was a Lancaster bomber, passing a couple of hundred feet above my head!

I quickly pulled my camera out, but only managed to catch it disappearing to the east. There is only one Lancaster bomber flying in this country, with the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, but what was it doing over the South Downs?

After the physical and emotional high points the rest of the walk became rather disappointing, heading west from Harting Down the path entered a thin strip of woodland and the temperature seemed to drop dramatically, and I was glad to get out into the brief spells of sunshine again.

The path westward from Harting was quite a challenge, not so much physically, but mentally. I had been going for nearly four hours without a break, I was starting to get hungry, my legs were beginning to ache, but worst of all the South Downs Way was becoming boring.

There were no real views to speak of, the path was pretty flat and mostly farm tracks and roads. Worst of all it seemed to go on for miles, although in truth it was only a couple of miles. Then came the county boundary, leaving West Sussex and entering Hampshire, this should have been an occasion worth celebrating, but there was no sign marking the border and it wasn’t easy to tell I had crossed it. The only noticeable indicator was a slight change in the style of signposts.

It was a real struggle to keep going, I needed to find somewhere to sit down and have a bite to eat, ideally somewhere in the sun, preferably with a view and a bench, and definitely soon. But there wasn’t anywhere, finally as I came to a bend in the road, I seized the opportunity. There was a length of wood acting as a step up to a footpath, that would have to do for a seat.

Not your usual picnic spot

It wasn’t much of a picnic spot, but I set off after only ten or fifteen minutes rest with spring in my step. I had looked at the map, there were only about four miles to go, the end was almost in sight. Suddenly I heard bells, they were loud and clear, I thought for a moment it was a mobile phone ringtone, but no it was definitely church bells, presumably carried up on the wind from Buriton Church.

It didn’t take long to finish of the last four miles. The last two were through the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, with nice wide paths and lots of signposts. In the end it took me about five hours to walk the fourteen miles and was glad to finally sit down in the bus shelter, by the side of another busy road as usual.

Getting home wasn’t easy: bus to Petersfield, train to Havant, train to Horsham and finally a bus home. Although I didn’t have to wait long at each change of transport, it still took me about two and a half hours to get home, but at least I was sitting down all the way.

So now I am in Hampshire, with only two sections to go until Winchester, the signpost at the country park said 23 miles to Winchester. The next section is going to be interesting, it should finish in Exton, Hampshire the home of some of my MITCHELL ancestors. I am really looking forward to having a look around the village and at the church where some of them were baptised and buried. The problem is that I still haven’t worked out how I am going to get home from there.

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