South Downs Way Day 1 – Winchester to Exton

Published 23 February 2010. Last updated 18 February 2020

Temporary footpath sign on Beacon Hill

I couldn’t actually tell you where the South Downs Way starts in the city of Winchester. My guide book seemed suitably vague – suggesting it was somewhere near a youth hostel. Online I found nothing useful; just comments that it started in Winchester. Well I knew that already.

Starting near a youth hostel didn’t seem particularly awe-inspiring, so I headed to the city’s cathedral; it’s grand Norman era sitting peacefully in a small area of parkland. I would have headed inside to appreciate it, however they wanted £6 and over a fiver for a quick tour round before doing a twelve mile walk didn’t exactly scream value for money. Ironically if they’d let me in for free, I would have probably given them a £4 donation for my brief visit…

I was in Winchester to start the South Downs Way – the hundred mile National Trail which runs from Winchester to Eastbourne, across the lovely South Downs of England. The Way walks from one end to the other of the forthcoming South Downs National Park.

It’s an area I’d done a lot of day walks in, many of which pop along part of the trail in various levels. And as I had a few days of leave to use up, I decided to do the whole thing, doing it pretty much as Catherine had done in 2006.

Rather than walking it all in one go, I’d planned to do it over four weekends – breaking it up to meet conveniently sited train stations. I’d travel from home on the Friday morning, walk for the day, stay over somewhere on the Friday night, walk for another day then head home for Saturday evening.

I had it all planned – two Fridays, a week off (well, off walking – I’d actually be in work instead), then two more Fridays, arriving in Eastbourne in a blaze of glory having walked it all. Hurrah!

But first I had to find the beginning of the confounded thing, winding my way through the shopping streets of the city on a chilly morning trying to find a youth hostel. I never actually found it, finding instead a YMCA on the same street. I decided that was good enough and found a sign for the South Downs Way across the road. Well if it hadn’t started here, it must be nearby. I was on my way.

A swan on the River Itchen in Winchester

As it happened, it was also the last South Downs Way sign I saw in the city of Winchester, and almost immediately I got lost after walking down the river and missing a turn off near Wolvesey Castle.

After walking through a housing estate, I finally got to an area where the Way was signposted, declaring I’d already gone a mile – so only 99 to go then! From there-on-in, the Way would be very well signposted, meaning I barely had to look at my guide book if I didn’t want to.

Crossing over the motorway that provides Winchester’s eastern boundary, I headed into the countryside.

St Andrew's Church in Chilcomb

I had a relatively easy day ahead – I’d told my B&B I’d be there around five, leaving me with about six and a half hours to cover twelve miles of pretty level walking. All nice and achievable. So I had no reservations about diverting off the way to visit the attractive Saxon church of St Andrew’s in the village of Chilcomb. Okay, we’re not talking a major diversion here. Just a half mile up the road and then a half mile back. Apparently it’s very nice inside, however I didn’t pop in.

Passing by a military training area, with suitably churned up fields, I spent some time trampling alongside fields and along country lanes, stopping off on a handy embankment on a lane grandly titled “King’s Way” to eat a sandwich, before passing by The Milbury’s – an enticing looking pub which I was severely tempted to pop in having found that I’d got there about an hour earlier than I’d planned.

The Milbury's pub in Beauworth

Instead I settled down for some tea at “Wind Farm”. Seeing that name on the map I naturally expected huge wind turbines. What I found was a farm in a very windy place.

Catherine had already warned me that first day wasn’t particularly “downsy”, and whilst although I have no particular beef against field walking, I was rather glad to find myself at the top of Beacon Hill overlooking the Meonstoke valley. As well as admiring a beautiful view, I was also sharing the path with a number of other walkers having spent the day walking down empty paths.

Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way

The path down to Exton – where I’d be finishing up for the day – was clearly marked and it appeared I had 70 minutes to do a 1.3mile trek downhill. Time enough to dawdle, and wandering around the hill I spotted a rather hidden and covered up signpost pointing into a field.

A sign telling people not to follow a sign as it will lead them to a dead end

A sign over the top said that the South Downs Way would be going that way, but basically didn’t yet – people following it would ultimately find a dead end. Well, with time to waste, I popped through the stile and went to see where the South Downs Way would be going.

The view from Beacon Hill on the South Downs Way

A few minutes down the faint path, I was treated by an even better view of the valley. The kind of view that makes you just breathe in and be happy to be alive. It was the first of many great views that I’d find on the South Downs Way, and put a spring in to my step as I took the path down to Exton.

Finding myself outside The Shoe Inn, I called up my B&B who had offered to collect me. It was then that the heavens opened – it had been spitting on and off all day with some sort of alarming routine. First a few specs of water would appear on my glasses. Then I’d wait a bit to see if there would be any more. There wouldn’t be so I’d clean my glasses. Almost immediately it would rain a bit more. This had happened on and off all day! Still, at least the heavy rain had waited until I’d finished!

The Shoe pub in Exton

After having a shower, a clean up and a cup of tea at The Copper Room B&B in nearby Corhampton, I was dropped back off at the Shoe Inn for an excellent meal and a couple of pints whilst reading a collection of Philip K. Dick’s short stories. If you’re in the area, I can thoroughly recommend the Shoe – my confit shoulder of lamb was divine, and the goey chocolate brownie was fantastic.

Happily fed and supped, it was time for bed. Tomorrow would see me walking another twelve miles to Buriton, before heading off the Way for another three miles to catch the train home at Petersfield. Some good views were promised, and the weather looked even better. I couldn’t wait!


CAtherine Ames

8 September 2011 at 4:16 pm

Thank you for this. I’m about to begin the South Downs way tomorrow in Winchester. I’ve just completed the North Downs Way and made a photography book of it. Enjoy!

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

10 September 2011 at 9:19 am

I recently started doing the North Downs Way myself – doing it in stages inbewteen various other stuff. So far only done two days of walking but hopefully I can polish off at least half of it this year.

Hope you enjoy the South Downs Way – it is lovely.

Kevin Green

1 November 2011 at 11:24 am

The North Downs Way is a very underestimated trail imho .I really enjoyed it and have just finished the last leg Sunday into Dover.Im going to do the alternative 2 sections via Canterbury next year once the clocks have gone forward again. Best parts are the last 2 stages from Wye to Dover,some really serious up and down stages near Maidstone and back in the Surrey stretch Box hill was majestic with great views down to the south downs .Also i found it easy to do the single sections from the book driving to my end point and taking the train to my starting point.
Enjoy it..i know you will

Sarah Wooller

4 May 2014 at 8:53 pm

I shall enjoy reading through this. We have decided to do the SDW in two sections – one of 2 days at the Eastbourne end and the other of 4 days at the Winchester end. Accommodation seems rather scarce which is a bit scary but I hope it will be ok. Anyway today getting inspired on Wolstonbury hill was fun!

John Gallop

7 May 2014 at 6:41 pm

I always enjoy reading your walks pages. We’ve just finished the South Downs Way, going east to west, and the signs guide you to an official end point at King Alfred’s statue, not many metres from your starting point at the cathedral. We are now beginning the North Downs Way and have thoroughly enjoyed your book on it, warts and all! (I’m not looking forward to all that road noise but I’m sure there will be plenty of compensations.) Keep up the good work!

petra cullmann

14 March 2015 at 11:01 am

Hello Andrew,

You have wonderful and very helpful Website. Must have put a lot of work into it. I appreciate this.

Looking at the photos of the South Downs Way I got the Impression that it is a lot of Farmland, Wood and not to be compared with so-called picturesque England as for example in the Cotswolds or in Constable Country. I would like to do a trail to find beautiful countryside like the cotswolds, Cornwall or Constable Country. Could you make some suggestions please, if you have the time.

Thanks a lot and many regards from Germany/Bavaria,

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

16 March 2015 at 9:23 am

The first day is quite farmy, but once you get onto the Downs themselves the South Downs Way is beautiful. Although even up on the hills you’ll find sheep and crops. The views are fantastic though. As you may guess, I’m a bit of a fan. And I’m afraid I haven’t yet explored much of Essex or the Cotswolds. One day I’ll get round to doing some walks out in the Cotswolds especially…

Grant Hazell

16 October 2017 at 10:56 am

The SDW starts at the ‘Old Mill’ in Winchester and heads out into the countryside from there.

Lynne Manning

19 January 2018 at 8:13 am

Winchester city mill is an ancient mill owned by the National Trust, and was a youth hostel for the first half of last century, up to about the 60,s I believe. A good place to start the walk from.


9 May 2018 at 3:50 pm

Only just found this – what an excellent read! – and while it’s seven years old, for someone who’s never been, nor rambled, I am delighted to do so vicariously.
It is quite inspiring, so one never knows!

Chrissie from Nottingham

27 May 2018 at 12:11 pm

I am taking part in South Downs Way Annual Event in June 2018 along with 199 others! Although I am a relatively seasoned walker, I have never walked 100 miles over 9 days before, however I have walked the north Cornwall coastal path from Padstowe to St Ives, which was 66 miles over 6 days in 2010. The fact that the first day is fairly flat, encourages me – I’ll let you know how I get on!

Raymond thatcher

24 September 2018 at 5:26 pm

RRJThatcher 83 Now ex-member of ‘6-legged chicken’ on the Downsman Scout(ers) Hike 1967-date Buriton start. 3 wins of 15 hrs! Still lead w/group in France can’t stop; good for cardio-vasc & ego. short of fellow-nutters now. Happy to share the story: ex-school-mate seeks money for a new breed of chicken (drum-sticks?) sets up farm. Mate goes looking for his return-on-inv; sees field full of 6 legged chicken. Asks: Ret-on-inv?? Reply: You ever tried to catch a 6 legged chicken! Great walking days/Downs.

Carri Lee

14 January 2019 at 4:39 pm

YHA Winchester closed in about 2005, I remember we took both our kids there! Such a sad loss, it was a lovely quirky interesting place! YHA were hopeful to find a new site for a Winchester hostel, but as yet nothing :(
Thanks for this great website!

Jan (Chimptrips)

12 July 2020 at 8:45 pm

How I laughed when I read this. We also got managed to take a wrong turn to Wolvesey Castle and then started the walk through the housing estate. A very ambiguous signpost!

Patrick Neville

21 September 2020 at 12:05 pm

Hello I’m thinking about doing this route in a week do you recommend places to stay

Andrew Bowden (Rambling Man editor)

25 September 2020 at 2:12 pm

Hello Patrick – it’s been some years since I did the South Downs Way and at least two of the B&Bs I stayed in are no longer operational. As such, I don’t really do recommendations!

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