South Downs Way sign Red Bulletin - why Rambling is cool

9 Reasons why Rambling is cool

Words and photos: JJ Dunning  

Rambling isn’t just for retired people. Here’s what I learned by walking 50 miles along the South Downs Way 

Two friends and I recently went for a massive walk.

The aim had been to raise money for charity, but what we discovered along the way was that walking – or rambling, or hiking, or whatever you want to call it – is not just for enthusiastic retirees in khaki shirts and short-shorts. It’s actually amazing; for fitness, for mindfulness and for just being with your friends.

I might just be saying all this because it didn’t rain, though.

Some facts about the South Downs Way

  • The route is believed to be 8,000 years old
  • It stretches 100 miles across southern England, connecting Eastbourne with Winchester
  • It’s hilly: if you add up all the ascents, they come to three times the height of Snowdon
  • The South Downs National Park gained National Park status in 2011

Here are nine things I learned by walking 50 miles along the South Downs Way…

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1. Walking is one of the best ways to travel

The view from Chanctonbury Ring is spectacular. (If you get decent weather, of course.)

© JJ Dunning

On our walk we passed plenty of gasping, sweating mountainbikers. Many of them were attempting to do the full 100-mile trip from Winchester to Eastbourne in just one day.

It’s an impressive feat of endurance, but it seems a shame that those on bikes are in too much of a hurry to really take in the view.

At walking pace, you notice more; you can stop at Harting Down and admire the copper-spired church below; you can stand at Chanctonbury Ring and see for about 100 miles in either direction.

It’s not supposed to be a race, so slow and steady wins.

2. You’ll be seduced by nature

South Downs Way views - often there's not a town in sight

Look at that! Not a Pret A Manger in sight.

© JJ Dunning

It’s a really obvious thing to say, but loads of Britain isn’t a housing estate. 

Once you’re up on the hills you get a sense of perspective. For much of the way, there was hardly a town in sight. Turns out you can get lost on our tiny little island.

3. Travelling on foot makes you feel like a poet

As your feet begin to ache, your head starts to swim. Maybe it was just the weather we had – it was glorious – but we all got a little maudlin over the beauty of the landscape.

Looking over my notes is like reading the diary of a soppy, Kerouac-obsessed, Wordsworth-wannabe teenager. I’ve put down things like “carpets of green gossamer” to describe the ripening cornfields. I’ve recorded the “bucolic bounty” and umpteen “vistas”.

None of this is how I usually talk.

4. Even the simplest (and most unimpressive) milestone can take on overblown significance

South Downs Way views - it's not just a big rock

More than just a big pointless rock.

© JJ Dunning

Walking long distances isn’t easy. If you’re not careful, it can also be demoralising. You have to set yourself little goals and waypoints; reaching the next one can give you the surge of enthusiasm you need to keep going.

You’ll find yourself completely delirious to have reached a car park you’ve been anticipating for 45 minutes, even though it’s just a patch of gravel with a Rover Metro parked on it.

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5. You can eat what you like

We calculated that to walk 30 miles a day you’d need to eat about 5,000 calories. I like eating, so I didn’t question the maths behind this statistic. I just stuffed my face.

6. Stuff you found SO BORING at school is suddenly interesting

Let me talk to you about Bronze Age burial mounds. Wait! Come back! A few miles west of the village of Cocking, on top of a hill, there are five man-made lumps called ‘barrows’. They’re… you’re not listening, are you?

If you’d walked to them by way of an 8,000-year-old road, you’d understand, man.

7. You’ll get surprises and treats, just by being there

South Downs Way views - Paragliders at Devil's Dyke

Paragliders at Devil’s Dyke, near Pyecombe.

© JJ Dunning

On our trip we were treated to endless spectacles. In no particular order, we saw: an aerobatics display by a passing Spitfire, an array of wheeling Paragliders, a delicate moment as a butterfly emerged from its cocoon, a herd of young deer wading through a cornfield, a slowworm, and a constant stream of multi-coloured butterflies.

To be fair, we also saw an awful lot of horse manure. But whatever – the good stuff was really good.

This is more than a walk - it’s your journey to Mordor.

8. You’ll have great chats with your friends

South Downs Way charity walk with friends

Left to right: Jon, me, Nadim. This photo was taken shortly after an intimate discussion on the merits of Ainsley Harriott.

© JJ Dunning

When you agree to do something like this with your friends, you are essentially undertaking a Quest. This walk is your journey to Mordor.

Then, once you’ve finally run out of Lord of the Rings quotes, you’ll set about putting the world to rights.

About 15 miles outside of Winchester, we did finally scrape the conversational barrel.

“He’s too much of a showman,” one of my friends was saying, passionately, as if arguing a political point. “He’s too pantomime.”

“I love him,” retorted the other indignantly. “His book is one of my favourites.”

Never has the oeuvre of Ainsley Harriott been debated so rigorously. I’m glad we got a chance to really thrash it out.

9. Once you’ve finished, you’ll feel like you can walk anywhere

South Downs Way views - the path through cornfields at Cheesefoot Head

A path through cornfields at Cheesefoot Head, a few miles shy of Winchester.

© JJ Dunning

Once you’ve undertaken a big walk, your calf muscles are pumped and you feel like you can get anywhere on foot. Work? Walk it. Birmingham? It’s just up the road. Aeroplanes? What’s the rush?

Despite your aching feet, rambling is moreish. I’m already planning my next trip…

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07/2016 Red Bulletin

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