Sunday, 1 February 2009

South Downs Way Day Two West Meon - Queen Elizabeth Country Park

Old Winchester Hill
Four weeks had elapsed since my initial outing on the South Downs Way and by now it seemed that the worst of the winter was behind us and the first signs of spring were definitely with us. I was very lucky with the weather once again although today’s sunshine was fairly watery and a mistiness hung around the hills.

Winter Walking
This section would be a short sprint as it was only 11 miles in length, with only a couple of hills to encounter. I also felt as if I had a lot more energy than my first outing in January. I got the bus back to West Meon and retraced my steps through the old station and back along the railway line that I had walked only a few weeks previously. When I got to the large overbridge, I headed left and began the long slow climb up Old Winchester Hill, somewhat curiously named since we are over 10 miles from the City bearing the same name.

Meeting For a Drink
As this was the bridle route rather than the more attractive footpath route, I had to put up with a mile or so of road walking. However, it did enable me to get up to a reasonable pace without having to worry about mud and rutted tracks. I didn’t get to have a particularly close up view of Old Winchester Hill as the bridle path by-passed it. I did get to have a better overall view of the hill, which is notable for being a large Iron-Age Hill Fort. On this slightly misty morning, the hill had a real atmosphere and it wasn’t too hard to imagine hoards of Iron Age warriors charging across the downs to defend their territory.

Combe Cross
At the brow of the hill, I left the road behind me and rejoined the official route. It immediately descended into the next valley and through a farm that was obviously geared up for ‘first nighters’ walking the route from Winchester to Eastbourne. All was quiet today, but I’m sure they get quite a lot of trade during the summer months. A little further on was an angling centre that did have some activity in the shape of some hardy anglers. From here I joined a chalky track alongside a field and could see my ultimate destination ahead of me, the large telecommunication mast at Butser Hill.

Butser Hill
For a section of the walk that was not following the ridge of the Downs, the views were surprisingly good with East Meon church spire ahead of me and the Downs definitely assuming their distinctive shape to the right. Soon I turned right along an old byway to head towards the Downs. Although not part of the current network of roads in the area, I could see that it once had some local importance due to its width and sunken nature leaving it isolated from the surrounding fields. I passed a couple of horseriders on this section; the first people I had seen actually travelling along the route all day.

At the end of the track I crossed a road by a small hamlet called Combe Cross. I’m not sure whether it was ever anything more than a small cluster of houses, but the only community facility I could spot was a postbox. The path continued across the road and from this point it was a climb up the now very distinctive scarp slope that would be so familiar for the rest of the hike. I made slow progress to the top and as I reached the brow of the hill I could see a bunch of ramblers heading in my direction very slowly. I groaned to myself as I thought I would have a lot of trouble passing them. I struck lucky however, as they headed off in a different direction just before I reached them.

Butser Hill Visitor Centre
The top of the hill presented a quite different atmosphere to the lowland area I had just come from. It was airy and by now most of the early morning mist had left. Ahead of me I could glimpse the Solent and all around me were the rolling Downs. The view from the top was quite amazing, with East Meon church visible far below me still and Old Winchester Hill now a distant landmark. Ahead I could see Butser Hill, with the masts now looking a lot closer.

A3 Snaking
I passed through a farm and then ahead I could see a rather derelict looking set of houses that looked distinctly military. I guess this would have been some sort of training base in years gone by, but the accommodation was almost criminally deserted now even though it could so easily be used as housing for the homeless. The base was quite large, and on one side of the road further ahead one part had been turned over to being an ecological centre, complete with bunkhouse for those wishing to stay.

Looking Back to Bignor Hill
Once past the centre, I headed into Hydon Wood, a very attractive section of walk with some early blossom (blackthorn?) in evidence and trees in advanced stages of budding. Before I knew it I was almost on top of Butser Hill and by now there were lots more people out enjoying the late winter sunshine. Bike riders, horse riders, hikers and even a paraglider were out on Butser Hill and as I still had plenty of time to go before my bus back into Petersfield I availed myself of the facilities on top of the hill. The toilet block was shaped like an old Iron Age round house, similar in design to those that used to be at the bottom of the hill in the experimental village that was once locate there but is now a few miles to the south.

Downland View
The views from Butser Hill were great, with Bignor Hill just about visible in the far distance (a future destination), Hayling Island to the south and still the sweeping view across the Weald to the north. Unfortunately the view was rather spoiled by the ribbon of road cutting through the Downs at this point, complete with the roar of traffic using the A3.

Downland View

My only job now was to descend to the road and the bus stop by the park, which took only a few minutes. I passed a few people heading the other way looking pretty breathless! I felt for them and felt glad that I was heading in the direction I had chosen.

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