Part Two – Exton to Buriton
Having shaken off the lethargy that comes once the initial excitement of any activity wears off, we were dropped at Exton. After adjusting rucksack straps and blowing into clasped, cold hands we started the second stage of our South Downs Way journey (SDW). Passing the church and crossing a B-road, we were soon back on the route proper. We remarked that when you walk even a short distance in the countryside a strange, thankfully temporary, ‘phobia of roads’ can take one over; a real sense of dread descends. Crossing roads, a thing most people do every day without a second thought becomes a daunting trial when you spend a short time among hills and fields. This mania seems to lift once one returns to a town or village and scrambles headlong for the pub.
Safely over the road, we crossed the River Meon. We were venturing down a section of the SDW that a few weeks before had been closed due to flooding. The path was to a certain extent still under water, but passable. It was obvious from looking at the hedges and brambles, now stained grey with mud, that the water had been much higher. The earth floor in the undergrowth was swept smooth with no leaf litter to be seen, save where it had been washed into piles against some fallen branch. The small stream that normally ran obediently alongside the path had created itself new channels back to the Meon, scouring out the earth and exposing the gravel of the path bed and the white, bone-like, root systems of now doomed plants in its crystal clear waters. Path and stream seemed to battle it out as the walk went on. The sides of the path grew steeper and the water got deeper. Soon the path had become a chalk stream and we were reduced to groping under branch and over root on the high banks. As Robin remarked ‘though it was harder going than a brisk stamp along a ridge, it was rather good fun.’
We struggled to decide which path to take after crossing the track bed of the now disused Meon Valley Railway. We all changed our minds back and forth and then took the wrong path. After a short detour via the Monarch’s Way, we were back on target and with a beautiful sighting of a woodcock which made the unplanned detour worthwhile.
Old Winchester Hill isn’t that close to Winchester, nor was it once the site of ‘Old Winchester’ but, nonetheless, that’s its name. The SDW doesn’t actually pass over the hill but skirts around its base. Unperturbed we walked up its slopes through a wood of yew and ash to the summit. We paused, taking in views back to Beacon Hill in the west and, to the south, watched through the haze as container ships plied their course along the Solent.
The path after Old Winchester hill takes its time to lead you away from the Meon Valley, as it zigzags and ‘horseshoes’ around. Past red kites, beech hangers and chalk pits we went, through picturesque farms and friendly fisheries, before ascending Salt Hill. We stopped on the sheltered path under a hornbeam for lunch which Robin had prepared – including Guinness and Cheddar Cheese Crisps! At the top of Salt Hill we could just see Portsmouth’s Spinnaker Tower, with the radar station on Portsdown Hill in the foreground. We passed Leydene House (once the home of Viscount Robert and Lady Peel), which was requisitioned in 1941 by the Royal Navy for use as a signal school and so became HMS Mercury. Now decommissioned, it is a sustainability centre that serves a very good cup of coffee. Another patron of this establishment was a well-fed toddler who was eating an apple with one hand whilst banging plastic a banana on the floor with the other.
As we started the long slog to Butser Hill we passed a fallen tree. This giant was, we estimated, two-hundred years old. It seemed from the colour of the exposed bark that it wasn’t long since fallen. It hadn’t blown down completely, with a large root mat of earth still clinging to its roots, but had snapped off half way up the trunk where it diverged into two huge limbs. While fascinating to see, it was something terrible to behold. You could marvel at a force capable of splitting a branch ten inches thick while hating the result.
Atop Butser Hill we were honoured by rays of sunshine, though our attempts to spot the spire of Salisbury Cathedral forty miles away were in vain as sadly the horizon blurred under a blue haze. Walking down Butser Hill, with that slightly stalling gait that comes while trying to keep both balance and speed on a steep descent, we kept a cautious eye on the A3 ahead. It was okay – a tunnel crossed into Queen Elizabeth’s Country Park.
Soon we were descending through former chalk pits, now a nature reserve, into Buriton. Once extensive, these chalk pits are long gone, but the embankments and track beds of their railway network make for excellent paths around the tree and fern covered slopes. Buriton’s church, St Mary’s sits with the village pond in front of it. The pond, complete with ducks and flowers, retains the village’s sheep dip.
And awaiting us in the boot of our ride home: Adam’s homemade bacon sandwiches, Robin’s homemade ‘Old Winchester Hill’ biscuits and a thermos of Edmund’s homemade Costa coffee.
On the banks of our sunken stream were Lesser Celandine (Ficaria verna). Robin writes ‘This flower, a true harbinger of spring, was Wordsworth’s favourite flower (not the Daffodil!). Its bright yellow petals reminded him of rays of spring sunshine; he even has some carved on his tomb and wrote three poems about the plant. We also found the little spiky green Eurasian shrub Butchers Broom (Ruscus aculeatus), used by butchers of old to sweep the sawdust from shop floors – today used for blood disorders as a herbal remedy.’
Robin’s Bird list
Ravens, robins, tits, little egret, red kite, buzzards, goldfinches and the star of the show a woodcock erupting from the bushes by trail and flying off rapidly. They breed in Scandinavia and Russia this one will be fattening up ready for the long migration ahead.
Robin’s Recipe: Buster Hill Cocoa Biscuits
I’ve given them the name of the hill as they remind me of the thick dark yew woods on the sides with the sprinkles of gorse flowers on the top! The content – oats – remind me of the tottle or quaking grass (the original oat) on the downland.