I switched off my head torch. There was only darkness around me. I could not see anything until my eyes got used to this unusual lack of light. I was snuggled in my brand new sleeping bag on my brand new sleeping mat. Felt like a pro adventurer for a little bit. I was alone, just as planned but I’d lie if I said that I wasn’t even little scared. Darkness has some specific feel to it. I still don’t know if I like it.
I arrived to Winchester that morning just past 8 o’clock. It was drizzling with rain, not wanting to get wet before I even started the walk, I took my waterproof out and headed for the little town. I started with Winchester Cathedral which is packed with history. Jane Austen was buried there, Henry III baptised and Mary Tudor got married to Philip of Spain in that same place. As you walk inside you can’t help but gasp with admiration to this spectacular place. It was humbling. I then headed for Wolvesey castle, walked by the towns college and passed the statue of King Alfred before heading to the rolling hills of Hampshire countryside and the beginning of my South Downs Way adventure.
The smell of green grass hit my nostrils as soon as I crossed the bridge. There, finally I was on my way. So eager to walk, so ready to be my own companion so ready for the camping under the stars. Before I knew it I reached a charming little village of Chilcomb, I admired their traditional cottages as I passed them. Was a little amazed that people still make an effort to hold on to the tradition. I stopped a couple of hours later near the Milbury’s. There was a beautiful pub where logs were cracking in the fireplace. The warmth spread around the whole area making you feel warm as soon as you walk through the door. It wasn’t even cold that day but that fire really made this place feel like home. I always loved real fire. I remember waking up as a child on the winter mornings next to the fire place at my grandma’s cottage. I would sit in pajamas staring into the fire, no worries no other places to be. So simple yet so special and beautiful. Only now I’m older I really starting to appreciate it.
I asked for a local Ale and chatted with a couple sitting at the table enjoying mid Monday morning drink. They asked if I could take their dog with me as he could do with a long walk but somehow I doubt our understanding of a long walk would be the same.
The rain stopped but the trails were left wet and muddy. Most South Downs trails is chalk. So in the wet weather it sticks to your shoes like a glue. I wore my trail shoes and they were mostly fine, but the chalk covered slightly with falling autumn leaves gave me few scares of near fall. And this time I really did not wanted to end up in the puddle of mud. I could easily imagine myself falling to the ground. And if you know me, even my little falls always end up in a disaster, the best i’d have my knee cut open and the worst broken ankle. And as much as mud spa sounds good I don’t think this would feel anything as pleasant. Plus I took only one spare set of clothing, I had to at least try and keep them half dry.
Soon I reached Beacon Hill. By the time I got to the top my legs were not only warmed up, they were on fire. This feeling of burning would spread through my legs many more times as South Downs turned out to be an up and down experience. The views were worth the pain though. Green fields, tall trees, fatty bushes and chalk grassland were all around me. It reminded me of home. When I was a child I’d walk for hours with my grandmother through famous polish forest coves, I’d run on the trails before reaching the top and out to the big fields where men and women worked. For me as a child it was great fun, my grandma always prep some food and make a picnic area on the sides of the field for me and my siblings to enjoy. It was with this memory I walked into the little town Exton where I stopped for a lunch at the Shoe pub. Food was described as delicious and reading up in my guide book I felt obliged to have a traditional English plougmans with hot soup. I was not disappointed.
The day was nearing the end and I had to decide on my first camping spot. I wasn’t too far from the highest point of the South Downs, the Buster Hill which has an elevation of 271m above sea level. There was also a promise of a shop and a coffee at the top. Win win, I thought. What a great end to day one. If only things were so easy. The shop was closed, as it turned out the next day late September and beginning of the week is seen as a dead time in the South Downs and even big pubs don’t bother opening its doors to the potential customers (or at least one). This would prove to be a big problem the following day where I did not find single open place until about 3pm. And it was tiniest little corner shop about 40 minutes away from the Way. I was not impressed. I did buy a sandwich there and crisps and some chocolate bars. At this point being nutritionally healthy did not even crossed my mind. I was so tired and hungry and aching all over I just wanted to sit down somewhere, have a hot meal and just rest. Instead I sat at the bench near graveyard and munched on egg sandwich before moving back to the Way. Up the hill…oh how I wanted to cry.
Before setting up my first camp I sat at the bench with the freat panoramic views all around. The evening felt warm. I closed my eyes and enjoyed the birds singing and the feel of gentle wind tinkling my face. It was a shame that the clouds completely covered the sky. The sunset would have been spectacular in this place. I was imagining for hours pink and orange sky. Puffy clouds forming nice bed for the lowering sun. Me standing on the top of the hill with my hair blowing in the wind….like in the scene from “Gone with the Wind”. Instead the sky was grey and I was left with fast approaching darkness.
I chose little spot not too far from the trail, hidden behind a little bush. I did not want to be in anyone’s face but I was also too scared to camp too close to the wooded area on the side of the hill. You just don’t know what sort of monsters might hide in there.
I dose off instantly. Not for very long as I heard a loud sound of heavy breathing. I was desperately looking into the darkness. I sat down in panic trying to find my head torch in my sleeping bag only to realise it is still on my head. The noise was getting louder. Eventually I saw little white light coming from the bottom of the hill and with that I saw a biker, he was riding up the hill and hence the heavy breathing. Phew, nothing too scary then. I don’t think he even saw me. Once he was gone I relaxed into my sleep again. I woke up some time in the middle of the night. The clouds disappeared and the sky had a beautiful dark blue color with millions of stars on it. I could barely believe the amount of stars that were shining on me. Living in London I nearly convinced myself that the stars no longer shine. But here in the middle of this amazing countryside, they were. I was staring at those beautiful diamonds and thought to myself that his is why I do it. I would have missed this if I was not here. I would have missed it if I had the tent. Wild camping was amazing. Most of the time. Because if you are anything like me, an amateur who sometimes does not have the brightest ideas and sets the camping spot on the hill, wild camping can also be a hard work. I kept sliding down. Not ridiculously fast, but every hour or so I would find myself further and further away from my bag. I would then attempt to drag myself back up to the original spot. Of course I would be too lazy to come out of my bag and got to the better location, no instead I would grab the grass with my both hands and try to pull myself up. Eventually I think I just gave up. It was long way down anyway!
I set my alarm few minutes before sunrise time. But there would be no beautiful sun rising this morning or the next for that matter. Thick fog would spread across the Greenland like a spilled milk filling even tiniest gaps. I could barely see the end of my own hand. I dragged myself out from the comfort of my oh so warm sleeping bag into the coldness of Way. I must have put every piece of clothing I had in an attempt to keep myself warm. I packed my bag and headed for the Queen Elizabeth National Park which was only few minutes away. It was 7 am and as I walked to the bottom of the Buster Hill I saw a group of horse riders. We exchanged greetings and went our separate ways. Breakfast was on my mind but I soon realised that there will be no place to have such luxury. I sat in the beautiful woods instead and ate fruit pot! It had to do for now. In all fairness I am a lazy eater anyway. Often I skip meals simply because I can’t be bothered to cook. This was not a novelty for me.
Cold and foggy morning soon warmed up as the sun pushed its rays through thick clouds. It was perfect autumn day. Crisp and fresh air, blue sky with some white puffy clouds! Sun kissing tree leaves. Real indian summer. I felt lucky. I was here on my own having the pleasure of the time to enjoy it.
Second day was on one side an easier one. I knew where everything was in my bag. I figured out how to read the map in my guidebook. I felt like I’m staring to belong. The walking itself was becoming a little bit of a challenge though. My legs were fine, more than fine. Felt great. It was my back that was giving me issues. Pain on the side of my middle back was at points unbearable. I stopped and stretched many times but it would give me little or no ease at all. I would dig my knuckles in between bag and my back trying to self massage tense muscles. I knew that I will have to work hard on my core strength if I want to succeed in next year 825 k hike in Spain.
In late afternoon I came across little note pointing to the pub. It was 20 minute walk away from the Way. The guidebook warned that the route is via very steep and very muddy downhill which can be challenging and need to be taken with caution. The guide even recommended to have a walking stick, I was convinced that this would be place I will have my mud bath or at least aided slide to the bottom….but what the hell. Pub was calling.
I found a tree branch and used it as my walking stick. Oh what a difference it made. I felt so good walking again. This really eased the back pain too. I also felt like a real long distance walker, you know those people that when you pass them they just have that something about them which screams a pro. I felt like that. I walked like I’d do it every day. I was proud, head up high. Shame there was no other people to witness it. I am sure I looked cool.
In the pub I met Olivia who shattered my dreams of a meal saying that they stopped serving until after 6 pm. I had a beer, then another and after little rest I picked up my bag and set for the exit. Then i saw it. The big white and black with lots of cream in between layered cake. Sitting on the side of the bar with a note on the top. It was chocolate and praline cake made by a local lady. Olivia offered to pack it in the box for me. I had my dinner sorted.
The climb back to the Way was tough but beer had clouded my senses and I don’t think I struggled that much.
Second night was approaching fast. My confidence was boosted and this time I decided to be more comfortable and find somewhere flat and further away from the trail. I was set for a good night sleep.
I walked passes some fields until a saw a little circle of trees in the middle of one of them. It was perfect. I walked across and set my camp between the trees. I snuggled in the sleeping bag and enjoyed a cake. I had some water, brushed my teeth and was ready for sleep. Then I heard some noise. I turned to check what it was and I saw herd of deers. They stood few feet away from me, looking at me and me at them. My heart stopped. What was I supposed to do now. Could they hurt me? Would they? It was already dark, finding another spot to sleep could prove difficult. I kept using my head torch to see if they were still there. Little shiny eyes kept popping in the darkness of the night. Bugger, I thought. I Googled if deers hurt humans sleeping in the wild and as expected there was no answer. I did not have much choice and to risk it. It looked I was going to sleep with some company.
I woke up just before 6 am, no sign of deers just thick fog. It was cold, very cold. About 20 minutes passed and I saw some signs but not those of South Downs Way. Was I lost? I mean it was me so yes of course I could be lost. My sense of direction is non existent. I decided to go back. The fog lifted a little. I realized that just by the field where I slept was a crossroad which I did not see last night nor this morning and therefore I missed the turning.
By midday of day 3 I reached little town Amberley, half point of the South Downs Way. 50 miles! I walked more that that with all the coming off the Way for food trips but officialy this was the distance completed. And it felt great. Reaching this point. Sun was shining. I was near river Arun enjoying good breakfast and coffee. I was definitely in my happy place. Initial plan was to walk another 10 or so miles that day, however I would then have to find a bus and return to this very place to catch train back to London. So I thought that finishing here will make more sense. It will be easier to restart my walk here too. After some food I went to the pub and had a beer. I sat by the river and enjoyed the sun, the freash air and the silence.
With this moment my mini adventure was over. As I sat on the train I felt relaxed. I was tired but rested. I felt happy and sad but most of all I felt very strong sense of achievement. 50 miles isn’t that far to walk, but it was not about that. It was about making an effort to experience something different. To experience the feeling of my own company. It was about stripping away the modern comforts we rely on. And depend just on myself. It was about pushing my own boundaries and stretching my comfort zones.
I feel I achieved what I wanted to. I learnt and I grew. And I loved it.