I did it! I walked 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne along the South Downs Way. The walk took 9 days and is the greatest physical achievement of my life – so far.
The South Downs Way is mostly on a chalk ridge with spectacular views and for much of the walk you can see the English Channel in the distance. The well-marked route passes through farmland, woodland and small rural villages of Hampshire and Sussex before ending with a spectacular roller-coaster walk along the cliff tops of the Seven Sisters.
To be honest, I began the walk with much trepidation, some of which I described in my previous post Fitness Challenge: Walking the South Downs Way. The closest I’ve come to a long distance walk is a 37 mile hike I did in the Drakensburg mountains of South Africa when I was still in my twenties. A lot has happened to me healthwise in the twenty years since then. I was afraid that I wouldn’t have the stamina to walk 12 miles or so for 9 consecutive days and I was worried that my feet and my knees would cause me pain.
As it happened, I sprained my right ankle slightly on the second day and because I couldn’t tolerate any pressure on it, had to abandon my walking boots and walk the rest of the way in my old trainers. Armed with my trusty walking poles and ankle and knee supports I was able to carry on.
The Joy of Walking
Life becomes very simple on a long-distance walk. The only thing you have to do is walk a certain number of miles each day and reach your next stop. Then it’s time to find your B&B and go in search of the nearest pub for a well-earned drink and dinner.
I thought that I might have deep thoughts about my life while walking but the truth is I didn’t. I was truly in the here and now, focused only on putting one foot in front of the other and experiencing each moment in the present.
Long distance walking is the perfect way to escape the fast-paced lifestyle of the 21st Century. We could have driven the 100 miles between Winchester and Eastbourne in a couple of hours, but the fact that we chose to walk it over a period of 9 days put us into a different time frame and state of mind. We were able to appreciate the landscape, the weather, and the history of the area. We also had time to get to know each other (my partner and I did the walk with two friends).
Each evening, as the light was fading and we descended the chalk ridge into a village for the night, I felt as if I was a pilgrim, part of a long history of travellers who’ve walked long distances. I felt an incredible sense of satisfaction and achievement as I looked back across the Downs and saw how far we had walked.
The Sensuousness of Walking
With my mind free of clutter, walking became a sensuous experience. As I made my way up windswept hills I focused on the sound of birdsong, felt the wind tugging my hair, enjoyed the warmth of the sun on my skin, smelt the sea in the distance.
Meandering past fields of corn and newly harvested wheat, I watched the changing shapes and colours of the clouds with fascination and marvelled at how ordered the English landscape looked from afar.
Each day I became aware of changes in my body. Aches and pains came and went, I felt stronger by the day, the miles started going by quicker and climbing hills got easier.
The Emotion of Walking
On the final day, as we descended from Beachy Head into Eastbourne and saw our endpoint, I was overwhelmed with emotion. It was hard to believe that our journey was about to end and that we had made it.
The joy and pain of the previous nine days flashed before me – aching feet, a sprained ankle, sore knees, laughter, inspiring conversations and breath-taking views of beautiful English countryside. I thought about the years when I’d been unable to walk properly due to arthritis and the long recovery from knee surgery last year and I sobbed tears of joy and gratitude.
I had recovered. And I had finally achieved a long-held dream of walking a long distance path in England. I had done it! That moment on the hillside in Eastbourne was one of the proudest moments of my life.
The Legacy of Walking the South Downs Way
Walking the South Downs Way has been a life-changing experience for me. For a start, it’s given me a new found confidence in my body. The illnesses of the last few years left me feeling betrayed by my body, unable to trust it. But during the walk, I felt my strength and stamina grow and I was able to continue walking in spite of pain. I now feel stronger and fitter than I’ve felt in years.
It’s also opened up new possibilities for more long distance walking. Long walks at weekends are definitely on the cards and my partner and I are already talking of doing another long distance path in England next year.
But most of all, it’s left me with a sense of achievement. And a new-found love and respect for my body.
Read the introduction to my South Downs Way Fitness Challenge