Our day 4 South Downs Way walk from Cocking to Houghton had been glorious. We’d covered 17 km (which we thought was a lot), got sunburned, seen glorious views, and enjoyed a comfy bed in the bunkhouse. All was well in our world.
Day 5. Houghton / Amberely to Steyning / Upper Beeding / Truleigh Hill
The forecast for day 5 was rain but we weren’t too worried. It had been such a beautiful on day 4 so really, how bad could it be? A little light shower? Not a problem. We were halfway and I was more worried by the fact that I was pretty sure we had four tough days ahead in terms of distance and ascents. And I was trying to work out how to tell Emma that the walking was about to get harder. In the event, we woke early to a dry day and decided to say our farewells to Steve who was also staying in the Bunkhouse and walking the South Downs Way (but at a much faster pace than us) and set off at 8 am. Thank god we did because little did we know that day 5 was going to be brutal. The map said we had a 21 km walk ahead. The map lied.
From Houghton, we took the slightly longer route over the River Arun (rather than walk up the main road). The first ascent of the day is around the back of Amberely Museum and up Amberely Mount. It’s a steep climb and as we started to climb, it started to spit. It’s just a light passing shower, we chirped cheerfully. I know this stretch of the Downs reasonably well and I was excited to show Emma the amazing views. Sadly, it was too cloudy but I wasn’t perturbed. After all, we had the rest of the day.
By our 5 km first stop of the day (just west of the Kithurst Hill car park), we decided to take shelter in a clump of trees. It was raining steadily and we thought it would be drier undercover. It wasn’t. And it was getting cold. Although perhaps that was because we only had t-shirts, shorts, and light raincoats on. Neither of us had packed proper wet walking gear – like backpack covers and full gagools. Big mistake. At this point, I also started to think that Emma might be reconsidering her life choices. Having not had a holiday in years, she was spending her one week off in the freezing cold and wet, carrying a heavy soggy bag with me. But still smiling, we pushed on. Surely the rain would stop soon.
These days, the South Downs Way is diverted at Washington. It used to go straight across the A24 but dodging traffic is never a good idea so nowadays there’s quite a long diversion down through Washington village and up again. I reckon it adds a good 4 km if not more onto the route. Unfortunately, in estimating the distance of this section, the good people who created the maps do not seem to have accounted for this. By the time we got to the point where the path starts its descent to the village, it was absolutely pouring and we were very cold. But we knew there was a pub in a village (that opens at 12.00) and decided if the worst came to the worst, we’d take shelter in the church until the pub opened (owing to our early start it was only 11.30 am).
The Washington de-tour
The church was locked. So instead, I thanked God for my small bottle of gin which I supped as we sat under an awning, shivering, until the pub opened. I can’t say we received the warmest of welcomes in the pub but it was dry, warm and they served a fantastic lasagne and chips. And we were in no rush to leave. We chatted with some Dutch walkers until we had to accept it was time to go. We’d done about 10 km so far and on my estimates, we had about another 10 to 12 km to go. There is a shortcut from the pub across the fields back up to the South Downs Way. Unfortunately, it’s not properly signed, so instead you have quite a long and not very pleasant slog up the side of a pavementless road. It felt like we’d never get back on to chalk.
Heads down and keep going
The second half of the day was nothing short of an endurance course and a test of mind over matter. There are not many photos of day 5 because my hands were too cold to operate my camera, it was too wet to get my camera out and it was too foggy to see anything anyway. Visibility was very poor. From Chanctonbury Ring all along to Steyning Bowl, you are right on the ridge of the Downs, and the wind and the rain bit into our souls. We couldn’t see because the salt air was stinging our eyes. We couldn’t stop because it was too cold. And we couldn’t really talk because the wind stole our voices. Just short of the Steyning Bowl we had a bite each of protein bar. We’d done 18 km. Surely not far to go. Although I was beginning to have doubts about the map’s route estimate.
Just before we reached the famous pigs that live up above Steyning and Botolphs, we met a man going the other way. He estimated it was about another hour to Truleigh Hill. Neither of us needed to hear that. It was a very low moment. By now it was 3 or 4 pm in the afternoon and we were very cold and tired. Not sure what else to do, I gave Emma a caffeine tablet. We could just make out the old Shoreham quarry but it looked far away. I knew we should also be able to see the pylons at Truleigh Hill but we couldn’t.
From the pigs (there was a farmer up there on his tractor who watched us trudging along in the gloom as if we were insane) you descend down into Botolphs and cross the River Adur. There is a water station here although we almost missed it. There is also a really interesting church but we didn’t stop. You’ll normally also find a horse box café here but they had given up and gone home. No one was out. This stretch just seemed to go on forever until you finally cross the main road to Shoreham and start the final (seemingly neverending) ascent to the youth hostel at Truleigh Hill.
At this point, I thought I might have a heart attack (hindsight tells me it was probably too many caffeine tablets which we were now popping like sweets). Emma was counting. I now know when she counts, she’s at breaking point. She asked me how much further. I told her half a kilometer. It was a lie but what else could I say? She didn’t need to know there was another 2 or 3 km. It was still raining hard and freezing. We saw a car on the road ahead up to the youth hostel and Emma said, let’s watch it to see how near the hostel is. I said, let’s not.
We finally arrived at the youth hostel at about 5 pm. We’d walked 28 km and were freezing and soaked (did I mention that?). I have never been more relieved to be in a dormitory. Admittedly their dry room doesn’t work, my towel was the size of a hanky and I had no change of clothes but apart from that, happy days. And there was Steve (our companion from the day before) looking bright as a button drinking beer in the cafe. I wasn’t sure if to laugh or cry!
That was the second time this year that I have been caught out by the weather on the South Downs in the summer months. It’s a salutary lesson and one that I don’t want to forget. I guess if you’re walking the South Downs Way you have to have at least one bad day of weather but I am very very grateful that it was just one. It was not a fun day and not a day I want to repeat. But we did it. And as my son says, you can always do more than you think you can do. And I got top bunk! You’re not allowed to take alcohol into the youth hostel. But I still had my little bottle of “honey”.
Break this section up with a stop at Steyning, Upper Beeding or Bramber. And whatever the forecast says, always, always have proper waterproofs to hand. This stretch of the South Downs Way does also have some of the most amazing views all the way along and it’s worth a stop at Chanctonury Ring which is a clump of trees cloaked in legend and local folklore. There are a couple of famous dew ponds as you make your way along the ridge too.
- The Ascent up Amberely Mount
- Chanctonbury Ring
- Steyning Bowl
- Elevation 679 km
- Car parks at Kithurst Hill, Chantry Post, Chanctonbury Ring, Steyning Bowl and Trueleigh.
- Pub and campsite in Washington
- Camping (White House Campsite) near Steyning Bowl
- Water station at the River Adur
- Youth Hostel at Truleigh Hill with cafe, restaurant, camping and water station
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