‘Petersfield to West Meon’ – walk, South Downs Way

Old Winchester Hill and fort above the Meon Valley

2021’s Autumn has been colourful, dry and warm in Southern England; excellent weather for getting out. It is a luxury to be able to walk on a surface that doesn’t attempt to suck your boot off or entice you to slip and land on your coccyx. Yes the daylight disappears early in the evening but the peace of the gloaming is another another facet of the pleasure of being outside.

This walk is just over 12 miles in length, an undulating route taking 4.5 hours or more, along the ridges and downs and woods of the rolling Hampshire countryside. It takes in a couple of hill forts and some delightful stretches of enveloped path with a Hobbity quality to them. It also does have stretches that feel a little suburban but for the most part it is a not too strenuous route which can be shortened to suit in lovely countryside with excellent views and good paths. Link to route on OS website here, map at the foot of the page.

I have never walked the western end of the South Downs Way (SDW), it having the start/finish point of ‘Buriton’ when I walked it first as a teen. But with two legs remaining in order to complete my more recent walk of the SDW, I wanted to see why it had been extended, other than for the obvious spectacle of Winchester itself. It also reminds me of the inspirational rolling countryside I used to hitch around when at art college in Surrey which found its way into my sketchbooks.

I have tried to complete each leg using public transport wherever I can which has been largely successful. A cab or two has been necessary when buses or services have been cancelled but otherwise, I have found local buses to be excellent to get me to and from railway stations and trains to and from London. It takes a bit of planning and a bit of waiting sometimes but there are a lot of pubs near a lot of bus stops and more importantly I don’t use a car to get some fresh air in the countryside I value.

From home in North London I took the Overground to Clapham Junction to connect with my train to Petersfield. For tickets I use Trainline.com which I think is the best discount online seller with a good app and cheap fairs, particularly with a railcard that reduces the fares by a third. A little over an hour later I arrived in Petersfield and fifteen minutes later having bought lunch, caught the bus for the ten minute ride to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park which lies on the SDW to the southwest of Petersfield. It went wrong here. What I thought was a tunnel wasn’t so I chose to cross the A3 dual carriageway, not knowing that by walking down into the park to the E there is a service road that runs parallel to the A3 that has a perfectly safe underpass half a mile N of the bus stop. In my nominal defence, there was no useful signage to be seen near the bus stop to help.

The slope up to Butser Hill

The route proper begins (having used the safe and convenient underpass) in the fields at Hilhampton Bottom under a Yew clad amphitheatre up the long slope to Butser Hill. A lung buster with which to start the walk but as temperatures were in the single digits and a strong, cold wind was blasting the hills from the N, it was a great way to get warm. by the time you reach the top you’ve gained 400 ft and far-reaching views to the shipping in the Solent to the S. On a warmer day there is a viewpoint which would be a great place to spend a few minutes but I was keen to crack on given my short day. Frustratingly the route now uses the road for the next half mile before thankfully turning onto a drive at the end of which the stony chalk footpath begins. The overall feeling I get from this route is primarily one of being cozily wrapped by hedgerows and arching trees of Hazel, Field Maple, Beech and the occasional Yew festooned in lengthy strands Travellers Joy.

Travellers Joy seed heads and setting Sun

The going is easy with the occasional glimpse to the N across the Hampshire countryside as the route continues to the W. At about 3.5 miles you cross a couple of roads and pass by a number of houses and a cafe, as part of a sustainability learning centre, until the path strikes N along a rising ridge with rewarding views then more enclosed tunnels of Autumn colour. At mile 6 the route turns to the SW and descends along a roadway to Whitewool Farm. They have kindly provided a drinking tap by their car park at the point where the path turns and crosses their beautifully clear chalk spring fed Trout ponds in which the fish can clearly be seen. The route circuits the farmyard and rises to a chalk pit then heads NW up a broad path until it meets a road at the top of the ridge where the path doubles back to the S.

Beech hanger above Whitewool farm

At about mile 8 the path heads W again and circuits the Old Winchester Hill nature reserve. The fort is amazing, with earth ramparts above the hillside and commanding views to three sides. The route then heads W. across the fort and descends through woods and farmland. At mile 9 my route leaves the SDC and picks up the Monarchs Way heading N towards Peake Farm and cottages (in order for me to get my bust at West Meon). Beyond these the route rises until meeting a minor road. Turning left heading NW past Hayden’s Farm the path then takes a right into a disused railway cutting below a bridge. By this time there was little light left and the silence was punctuated by a lone owl and the mad flapping of wings in the branches above as I disturbed piogeons roosting above and headed NW towards a small road into the village of West Meon, following the increased sound of traffic and the occasional light in the village. There is a footpath on the right of this minor road that avoids the main road and brings you closer to the bus stop to Pertersfield (on the same side of the road and next to the ‘Thomas Lord‘ pub which has accommodation), but I didn’t know where the stop was so followed the main road. Blissfully, I had 45 minutes before my bus was due so warmed up in the lovely pub, the bus ride returning me to Petersfield Station in about 15 minutes for my journey back to London.

I wore my Salomon X Ultra 3 boots as my go to for routes on decent paths. These with an insole from Footactive. Their UltraLite Innersole works well for me as the forefoot is padded but isn’t too thick, so doesn’t impact on the volume of the toe box. I need some padding on the heel as well which this offers. It can be bought at a discounted price (as at November 2021) from Sportpursuit.com. My Darn tough Light Hiker Micro Crew Hiking Socks are my go to for a long walk and they performed well as always. I have yet to put a hole in one of their socks, just buy a size up. My Marmot Alpha 60 Jacket/hoody worked brilliantly in the cold, dry windy conditions over a winter weight base layer. It isn’t totally windproof but the open weave of the pile lining creates a wind cheating layer of warm air while remaining really breathable. It’s brilliant technology. The lining is everywhere so no cold spots and when the hood isn’t used it makes for a great neck warmer. It’s light and packs small so unconsciously I keep choosing it for trips and end up relying on it for the cosy warmth it offers – review here. I dispensed with a waterproof layer as rain wasn’t remotely possible but took my Montane wind jacket as a further, but unnecessary, layer. With Merino beanies and rab powerstretch gloves, Bergan’s Torfinnstind Pants completed my clobber – ultralight softshell but wind cutting and stretchy. Sadly no longer made but testimony to the qualities of the brand. Poles – carbon three part by Leki which pack away when travelling, my backpack – the trusty Osprey Talon 22.

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