South Downs Way Through Fresh Eyes

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Home Sweet Home is always a little more lovely than I remember it. There are some things I always look forward to, such as the delicious Marks and Spencer’s food, the 24hr convenience and abundance of quality yet affordable clothing shops. Yet I am always taken aback by the simplest of things that I had forgotten such as the crispness of the early morning air.

South Downs Way signage hike baby family
South Downs Way Marker

So many things I didn’t notice when I lived here. Being away for years at a time gives you fresh eyes with which to admire the scenery. I find myself repeatedly remarking on how green it is here. Considering we are staying in what is considered to be densely populated southeast England, the entire hour and a half journey from London Heathrow airport to my hometown of Shoreham By Sea is spent winding gently through the picturesque countryside of rolling hills and postcard vistas. Life seems to be everywhere. Once I may have looked at an overgrown roundabout, or grass sprouting from cracked kerbs as ‘un-kept’, now I see it as life sprouting from every opportunity. Ivy grows up the side of houses and moss covers the roofs. The flint walls, dating back several hundred years, are home to a patchwork of lichen and fungi. It really is quite beautiful and yet I never saw this when I lived here. I truly enjoy seeing this region again from the perspective of a tourist.

I grew up in Shoreham By Sea, a seaside town that sits neatly between Brighton to the east, the Adur River and Shoreham Airport to the west and the hills of the South Downs to the north. In 2011 The South Downs National Park was gazetted, preserving the region from the inevitable growth of suburbia with booming population.

My parents live just outside the national park and I have spent many Sunday afternoons ambling across Mill Hill and Truly Hill, enjoying the panoramic views over Shoreham and the airport.

Long ago, Jed and I decided that the next time we visit the UK we would walk part of the South Downs Way, a 160km trail from Winchester to Eastbourne. Still feeling the affects of jetlag, our first few [very early] morning walks had been much colder than expected. The cosy central heating in the house builds a false confidence that you could quite comfortably go for a walk along the river with only a jumper. We ventured out on our first morning thinking it was ‘just a bit chilly’ but after a short time the wind picked up adding a wind chill to an already brisk morning (we spent that afternoon in the outdoor shops stocking up on cold weather gear).

Friday morning turned out to be perfect walking weather so we rugged up and set off for our first UK hike with Maddie. We weren’t too sure of the conditions under foot, and didn’t know how happy Maddie would be in the cooler weather so planned to start our expedition at the nearest access point to the South Downs Way, and just give my mum a call to pick us up when we were done.

Family hike on the South Downs Way
Jed, Suzy and Maddie on the South Downs Way

At just after 7am we were dropped off at the top of Mill Hill, about 5mins drive from home just inside the national park. We wrapped Maddie up in practically every jumper and jacket we had, strapped her into her carrier and set off. Walking east, the trail follows the paved road up and over Truleigh Hill to join a compacted chalk aggregate trail further on. The views are stunning, both to the north and to the south. As you walk you are treated to views down valleys and to Shoreham and the neighbouring towns beyond.

Maddie was happily chatting away as we walked. A few cars passed us, probably one every five or so minutes. We could hear someone honking their horn in the distance. Road rage up on the hills? Early on a beautiful Friday morning? Surely not! The beeping continued and appeared to be getting louder. A tribe of goats appeared from behind some trees, followed immediately by the source of all this noise – an old Range Rover. The farmer was using the car to herd the goats, beeping them along and through an open gate to the next field. Amused, we agreed that this seemed a pretty efficient way to move the animals around.

The farmer stopped to have a chat. He was a friendly man, probably in his late sixties or early seventies. He told us of his regular cycles from his home in Mile Oak all the way to Chantingbury Ring along the South Downs Way. At just over 20km return, it’s a nice weekend ride, but I’m not sure I fancy the uphill stretches.

Bench with a view on the South Downs Way
Bench with a view on the South Downs Way

Many cyclists passed us throughout the morning, all cheery and rosy cheeked. We all looked blushed, not from the physical exertion but from the cold wind. It was a bright, clear morning, perfectly refreshing. The sun had been up for hours but there was still mist settled over the hills giving the landscape that classic English countryside whimsical feel. Taking deep breaths of the chilly air caused our noses to run and our lungs to sting, but not in a bad way. It’s the feeling of fully utilising your lungs and taking in all that country goodness. Parts of the trail pass through farmland. Every now and then we would pass a fresh cow pat and would remark on how we found the smell strangely pleasant. I guess the smell of cow poop holds some sentimental power over us. I never thought Jed and I would have a discussion about liking the smell of excrement, but there you go.

A little further up the road we came across two little lambs grazing in a field. They sure did seem happy to see us! They hopped over to the fence, poking their cute little faces through to say hi. I didn’t want to take Maddie out of the pack as she then gets upset putting her back in so I bent down to let her see the lambs. This was not as easy as it sounds. The road was cut down about a foot into the surrounding land, and the fence about two feet from the road. I managed to wiggle myself down to a semi-sitting position on the grassy kerb (which, by the way, was still wet from the morning dew) and leant awkwardly towards the animals, steadying myself on the fence. Maddie was now leaning at a 45 degree angle and was face to face with the lambs. Boy, was she happy! She giggled and wiggled as they excitedly sniffed her fingers. One even tried to have a nibble on her, which sent her into contortions of laughter. After a few minutes, and sensing an impending injury from sitting so awkwardly, we moved on.

Maddie playing with some friendly lambs during our hike of the South Downs Way
Maddie playing with some friendly lambs

The part of the South Downs Way we were walking passes close by to Shoreham Airport. I think its formal name is Brighton Airport but I will always know it as Shoreham Airport (other local nostalgic local place names include the Palace Pier and Hove Actually). Small planes passed overhead frequently, only a hundred metres or so above us. Above them we could see the big jet planes sitting in a holding pattern as they approach Gatwick Airport. Maddie, following in her aeroplane-fanatic granddad’s footsteps looks to the skies every time she hears an aeroplane. She points and repeats “puh, Puh” which probably means ‘plane’ in this instance. Granddad will be proud!

After about 40mins Maddie started to grizzle. I stopped to take her outer layer off and give her a cracker to chew on. Before leaving the house she had unpacked the bag of Mini Cheddars, a classic English childhood snack, licked a few and then stuffed them back into the side pockets of the Osprey carrier. I managed to find a few to keep her happy as we walked on. She tends to moan when she’s getting tired but we have learned that intervening doesn’t help much. If we chat to her, take her out or try and distract her it just prolongs her misery before she falls asleep. It can be hard being around other people when they give you that look of “why are you just letting your baby cry?”. Believe me, 2 minutes of tired grumbling is way better than an hour of overtired baby! We walked on singing Old MacDonald Has A Farm. Two verses in, she was asleep.

Sleeping baby hiking South Downs Way
Maddie having a nap

We had stopped to take a break at Devil’s Dyke but Maddie had only been asleep a short time when we arrived so continued on. By this time I was getting a little hungry but hiking with a baby restricts when you can take your breaks. I’d rather let her sleep for an hour and wait to rest than risk waking her prematurely.

I remember visiting Devil’s Dyke many times as a child on family days out and on school trips. Devil’s Dyke is steep sided, deep, v-shaped valley in the north of the South Downs. Local folklore tells of how the valley was formed when the Devil tried to dig a channel in the South Downs to allow the English Channel to flood the churches in the low-lying land beyond. I vividly remember being mildly traumatised as a schoolgirl, thinking the devil would return to finish his job. It still gives me goosebumps now. Moving on….

Shortly after Devil’s Dyke you come across Saddlescombe, a tiny hamlet nestled into a cosy valley. Farming in Saddlescombe dates back over a millennium, with early farm buildings being listed in the Doomsday Book. The farm was even home to the Knights Templar for around a hundred years from 1225. Today, the farm is owned and operated by the National Trust. We walked on past and spotted a quaint little café. We would have stopped but needed to keep walking whilst Maddie was sleeping. The trail winds past the farm and alongside some quaint semi-detached cottages. The gardens were colourful and thriving. We stopped to exchange some polite conversation with one of the tenants. “Perfect weather for it” he commented. He was spot on; it was the perfect morning for a long walk. At that moment I heard some chatter from my little passenger. Maddie was awake, hooray! This signalled brunch-time. We turned around and hot-stepped the short 150m back to the café.

South Downs Way - Wildflower Cafe baby hike family
The Wildflower Cafe at Saddlescombe

The Wildflour Café is a wonderfully charismatic little place. The two welcoming ladies who run the café work from a little caravan situated in a walled courtyard, their counter a rustic wooden table. Scattered around the courtyard were picnic tables and charming garden furniture. The menu of organic, fresh produce was mouth-watering. We settled in and ordered poached eggs on toast for Jed and grilled halloumi and pepper pita for myself. We lazed around for an hour or so, ordering more coffee and grazing on the homemade cakes and muesli bars. Maddie was quite content wandering around smelling all the flowers and chatting to people who wandered by. What a delightful way to end our hike.

Hiking in Southern England is enchanting and very much different to our usual Western Australia. To observe this land again, seeing each detail anew, is a wonderful experience. I am so excited to share all this with my little daughter and look forward to sharing my first home with her as she grows.


South Downs Way baby hike sign
The farmers at Saddlecombe Farm are taking a stand against all these speeding children.

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