“Hi, this is Kevin from Alfriston Camping!”
“Oh, uh, hi!”
“Let me book you in for this weekend”
“Wha…? What? Oh, okay.”
And hence the South Downs Way chose itself to be my second overnight camp/hike trip in the UK.
I hadn’t been meaning to book a trip but I had been considering it. I wanted to check whether they accepted solo hikers on a one night stay given a lot of places asking for a two night minimum and sometimes even extra for a solo traveller – the bastards. But clearly Kevin was much too enthusiastic to read my email properly.
So there I was. A week in advance booked for my first hiking trip in a at least a year. Feeling intimidated by the 22 mile journey before me considering I’d only start couch to 5k the previous week.
Just then, the front door opened.
“Hi Margaret. You wouldn’t happen to want to do a hike this weekend would you?”
I expected the answer to be a resounding NO! considering she’d just got off the train from a 34mile ultra marathon.
Phew, a companion.
But then the freak out began. Do I have the gear? Is it going to hurt? Do I have the fitness? Margaret is an ultra runner – how will I keep up?!
Turns out Margaret had similar preparedness fears in terms of gear so on the Thursday we organised to meet a High Street Kensington’s plentiful outdoor shops to get her some essentials. Before we knew it we had Margaret kitted up with a summer sleeping bag from Kathmandu and a cheap backpack from Decathlon.
I don’t think either of us knew what we had gotten ourselves into.
Saturday 5th May 2018 – Lewes > Alfriston – 17 Miles (12 Miles Expected)
We hesitantly pulled our bags on our soon to be sore shoulders and headed down to the tube station. The district line chose to creep along the track at a snails pace. Eventually we pulled into Victoria Station and made our way to platform 17 for the train to Lewes.
There was frequent panic as the muffled announcements said something about the train splitting and we weren’t sure until we arrived that we were in the right section given we didn’t even know how to pronounce Lewes (it’s Louis not Lewz).
Once off the Train it was a walk up to the mainstreet for a quick bus ride to the start at Housedean Farm at around 11am. Mild panic again as the signs didn’t seem to clearly point us in one direction or the other (note to future hikers – it’s the to the left along the bridleway).
Then up, up, up. Passing French tourists before taking a moment to squat in the bushes before the trail opened out onto the bare hills.
I only wish I could’ve told my past self how easy the ascent to the ridgeline was given what we were about to experience not just later in the day but also 12 times the following day.
It was busy about but not as busy as we expected. Families with picnics, people with dogs and cyclists were a plenty but we had space to our own for chatting and observing the scenery. We spotted a few others carrying rucksacks. One man with gorgeous flowing hip-length hair who had the pace and look of a thruhiker. And a group of 4 lads tackling the day who we sent forwards into a herd of cattle with baby calves. They were willing ‘gentlemen’ offering themselves up to potential trampling so that we could test the waters.
We looked down on Lewes for the first half of the day aware that we would eventually have to go down to go up again – as life dictates.
So down we went to Southease where a tap for dogs and hikers was waiting for us. I quickly updated the vlog feeling sorry for Margaret to be around such an odd millennial and we sat for a while with some snacks fuelling up for the second half of our journey.
This was the first of many times when I realised I’m terrible at reading the elevation profile of trails. As we headed over a river we spotted our long haired thru hiking hero again who seemed to have taken a long break and watched as he marched forward into the distance and up the biggest slope we’d seen so far.
From far away it didn’t look too threatening and I’m always one to subscribe to the ‘get it over and done with’ party. The actual route was much more gradual but far longer than a thinly lined alternative that had been carved straight up the hill by a few brave souls. As we reached it we decided we were to join them.
Margaret with her weekly hill training (not just walking, my friends, but running Primrose Hill!) was on top of the world. I, however, felt my heart and lungs bursting from my chest. I spotted stars a few times and stopped our progress every 60secs to ensure I didn’t roll back on down the hill.
The whole time Margaret simply encouraged me. Talking nonsense which helped distract me from my achy chest. She let me lead and followed me upwards never commenting on my struggle until eventually we came out on top.
At the top we realised a hill never really ends and another gradual climb continued past some more cattle. We had by this stage mastered the ‘look confident and talk continuously’ method to passing through the herds of livestock.
Our late afternoon journey passed through a group of paragliders swooping in the distance and then above us. The wind on the hills perfect for pretending to be a bird. While watching them a couple who we had met on the train appeared. I’m not sure how they ended up behind us as I had thought they were taking a shortcut and we subsequently were left even more confused when they announced they were walking because they had a hotel booked in Eastbourne for the night… another 12 miles from where we were. It was 4pm.
The trail seemed to go on and on. Another theme for the next day. And eventually we found ourselves back in civilisation in the form of Alfriston. Confused about access to the campsite we asked a local lady where we might find the entrance.
“Go back up the hill to the tires and cross through the field. It’s on the otherside of the drop off.”
Back up the hill? Urgh. But okay. Let’s get ourselves to the camp.
Up, up, up, again and over the field. Down a suspiciously untreaded path to… a barbed wire fence. We walked up and down desperately hunting for a way through but were rewarded with nothing.
So back up the sleep slope and back down the other side of the hill to civilisation once again. Luckily the local lady had disappeared or she would’ve had a piece of my exhausted mind.
Instead of following the road straight to the campsite I suggested we go to the pub immediately for some much needed sustenance and pepping-up.
The meal at The George Inn was delicious! I had the chicken wrapped in bacon stuffed with spinach and cream cheese (avoiding the carby mash potato and only nibbling on a few roasted carrots and swedes) while Margaret thoroughly enjoyed her generously sized vege-burger. Highly recommend.
On our way to the campsite we spotted a breakfast menu at Moonrakers boasting a 8am open time. We resolved to fill ourselves there before tackling the next days walk.
At the campsite we spent some time wandering lost as Kevin’s promised ‘welcome party’ was nowhere to be seen although parties seemed to be going on all around us otherwise.
We located a spot in the middle of some cars and set ourselves up. First failure of the night when my tent decided it didn’t want to stand fully upright and instead chose to sag over half of my sleeping mat. I’ve still to figure out why. Margaret chose to keep the cover off the tent and simply sleep with the fly net and a clear view of the sky.
We took turns in the toilet block and found ourselves fading quickly although the campsite around us continued to roar.
A bit more organisation and some management of the site might have preventing the night to come. Constant lights shone into our tents, fire pits roared with no choice but to inhale the smoke leaving us raspy in the morning, and music poured out over the field with frequent karaoke choruses. My advise – don’t camp here as a hiker despite Kevin’s kindness. If they really want this campsite to work they have to set out areas for cars with tents and tent-only sections, for fire and party and a quiet zone for hikers, so the poor tent-only, no fire, no party hikers like ourselves aren’t paying £9 for 2 hours of sleep.
It didn’t help that my excellent hydration required frequent visits to the distant toilet block.
Sunday 6th May 2018 – Alfriston > Eastbourne – 14 Miles (10 Miles Expected)
6.20am and Margaret and I are both confused as to whether we actually slept or not. It was a confusing night where I was sure I was awake but suddenly felt the sunlight on my tent heating the condensation that now soaked me through. Thank god for my miracle quilt which was the only thing between me and hypothermia.
We were eager to leave the hell campsite so packed up quickly and made our way to our breakfast destination. Only to find that country 8am is not the same as city 8am.
After 15minutes of loitering outside we decided to carry on with our day. We had a headstart and I knew there was a cafe at the entrance to the Seven Sisters National Park so we focused on the 3miles ahead of us instead of the hunger pangs in our stomachs.
Once again my elevation profile reading skills failed us as the relatively flat walk I had promised to Margaret was replaced with awkwardly cut stairs into hillsides that seemed to continue forever.
For the most part I was much better at tackling these today than the previous day. Can fitness improve with such speed? Maybe just confidence.
After a particularly long stairway to heaven we peered out over the small town(?) of Exceat; the beginnings of the Seven Sisters National Park.
The Saltmarsh cafe was our destination – I had heard they opened at 10am and served brunch as well as having a tap for water top ups.
We stood outside the entrance waiting for the clock to turn 10am worrying that the same country-time might apply. Luckily a fellow tourist was brave enough to force her way in to the cafe just after 10am and see if they were willing to take the ever growing crowd outside into their courtyard.
The staff at Salt
marsh were outstanding and the meals equally as delicious. Despite my hesitation to indulge in coffee given it’s dehydrating effect I grabbed myself an Americano to go with my Cauliflower steak (with poached eggs and portobello mushroom). Margaret did the same.
We now have a new favourite brunch. I’m sure it was partly to do with our disappointment in the morning and the number of miles we had conquered so far but it was an incredible meal.
We packed up feeling completely satisfied and not too overstuffed. After another toilet break we made our way up on to the South Downs Way path. It unnecessarily took us up a hilly field and down again before leading us up the first of our seven sisters. I would recommend future, not so trail religious, hikers take the beach path which gets you to the same point but quicker and without the hill.
It was gorgeous. Looking down over the beach and along to the lighthouse in the distance we both paused to embrace our surroundings. The adrenaline of hill climbing giving us a euphoria for the sights that lay before us.
We knew this part of the journey would be hilly but again my elevation profile reading failed us as the moderate climbs ballooned into massively steep ascents. I tried my best to keep my back straight during them but sometimes you just have to keel over and keep your head down.
Still, I was faster and stronger than the previous day and although each of the hills took a little piece of my energy with them the view from the tops helped renew my mental game and we marched forwards to the lighthouse which we anticipated to be our end goal.
We were wrong. Or rather, I was wrong. My map reading must need some serious help because after the climbs of the Seven Sisters followed another multitude of climbs. At the lighthouse we expected to see Eastbourne, our ticket home. But all we could see was more hills.
Each time we reached the top of one of these hills another hill awaited us. And each time we sighed “we’re halfway there”. Like yesterday the anticipated miles were much longer than the actual miles. Margarets sophisticated watch letting out a squeak for every mile we walked. The squeak seemed to get more and more desperate for every mile after the 10 we had read would be the total for the day.
Eventually we found a turn off for the South Downs Way. With no sight of Ea
stbourne and only a pub and a busy road to our left we decided to trust the signage and headed down a bushy path on the side of a hill.
Trust was the best thing to do because suddenly – Civilisation! In the far distance… but civilisation nonetheless.
The path was winding and narrow but we trusted it now and made our way forwards praying for the moment when we would finally descend into the town.
There was one massive slope to conquer downwards (which now hurt more than going upwards) before we reached the sign proclaiming ‘the Start of the South Downs Way’. I could have cried.
But there was no time for that. We still had 35minutes to walk to the station. It was a race and my mind was not in it. Margaret and I were almost completely silent for the first time this trip as we marched through the streets of Eastbourne desperately trying to make the 3pm train to Three Bridges.
After a stop at Tesco Express we finally made it.
“I just want to go home.”
Train works meant another long journey to get home. Taking a rail replacement bus to Gatwick Airport before boarding another train to Victoria. My back ached as we stood on the bus and I couldn’t help staring down the sitting passengers wondering what they had done to earn a comfy seat given what we had just put ourselves through.
Hungry and tired and smelly we eventually fought with the district line again to get home with another stop at Tesco for supplies.
We planned out our tag team of showers and food before crashing in separate rooms still huffing in the 28 degree heat of London.
It was only as I was drifting off to sleep that I let some more positive thoughts back into my mind.
I walked over 30 miles when I thought I could only just do 6.
I saw incredible views which I got to on my own two feet with the support of a flatmate’s patience and encouragement.
I was sore and tired and definitely going to feel it for a while, but despite it felt like I could do anything.
My dreams were of my next hike which couldn’t come any sooner.