Walking poles – some pros and cons…

Obviously I’ve been walking pretty much all my life, and I walk the dog every day, but I’m a relative newbie to full-day-walking and have just completed my first long distance walk. To start with I was a bit self-conscious about buying walking ‘gear’ – I felt like an imposter – but over recent months I’ve started to see the benefits of having the right kit.

outdoor clothing
it didn’t take me long to start wearing all the colours!

One of the things I knew I wanted to try was walking or trekking poles. I had previously enjoyed some Nordic Walking sessions from a fitness perspective, and was keen to feel walking as a whole-body (and a mind-body) process, rather than just being all about my legs and buttock muscles. Luckily I have a trekking friend who kindly lent me her poles for a prolonged amount of time while I was training, and I acquired my own poles just before I set off to walk the South Downs Way.

pacerpoles & trig points
Pacerpoles & trig points

Over the course of a week filled with some long & challenging walks, I weighed up the pros and cons of walking poles as I see them. These are my thoughts as a walker (carrying an 11-12kg pack over 8 continuous days), but also as a fitness professional and massage therapist with a good anatomical knowledge-base and a sound understanding of posture & movement. These observations are not scientifically tested, and you may not agree with all of them, and I’m OK with that because you can write your own blog if you want to!!!

The pros:

  • using poles creates less muscle tension in the legs and buttocks because the body is working as a more integrated system, which incorporates more core & upper body engagement. I got back from eight days walking an average of 18 miles a day with no aches and pains at all in any part of my body and I think the poles are largely responsible for that
  • there is less load on the hip and knee joints, because the impact is absorbed through four points of contact (rather than two) and comes into the body via the deeper core (postural) muscles and then to the limbs of the upper and lower body
  • walking poles remind me to walk with a tall, open posture which means that all the systems in the body (muscles, connective tissue, joints & circulatory system) are in the optimal position to work well with each other
  • the poles give extra drive on uphill sections and added stability/deceleration on downhill sections, enabling the body to maintain this open, upright posture even when the walking becomes more challenging
  • as someone who experiences vertigo, I found that walking poles gave me a greater sense of connection to the earth on high and exposed areas, and they especially gave me the confidence to stand, catch my breath & enjoy the view when my brain was yelling at me to keep moving in case I fell!
  • even without vertigo, I feel that walking poles give a feeling of confidence in relation to balance in general, and particularly on loose scree or where there is a noticeable camber – they don’t take away or reduce your body’s natural ability to balance, but I think they definitely enhance it
  • I find that the rhythm of walking with poles is quite meditative – it actually helps me to get into a smooth striding pattern and also helps me notice if I’m not walking evenly on each leg
  • although not something I can personally vouch for, I understand that using walking poles can help to reduce oedema (swelling) in the hands and forearms over prolonged walks, which makes sense because they keep the arms active rather than passive
  • walking poles are also great for bashing nettles, moving brambles out of the way, testing the depth of streams, checking the stability of stepping stones, propping up lightweight canopies and redirecting spiders & caterpillars that are descending from the trees and floating across your path …

The cons:

I had to wrack my brain for these as there really aren’t many negatives – here’s what I came up with:

  • poles are another thing to carry in your kit (even though they don’t weigh much) and if you find yourself not using them for long stretches of your walk I guess that could become annoying (although my preferred poles have found a genius way around this)
  • if you’re walking a dog on a lead it is much harder to get the benefit from walking poles – you can make do with one pole but I think many of the benefits are lost in this instance; I tend to stow them when the dog is on his lead and use them while he is running free, but will also look into a lead for the dog which goes around my waist so that I can keep poling …
  • they can become a potential trip hazard… more than once, on tired legs, I have almost caught myself on one of my poles, but it is usually a case of not focusing on what I’m doing at the time
  • it is harder (but not impossible) to check a map/phone/watch, blow your nose or eat a snack while walking with poles in your hands – I get round this by either stopping and resting my poles against a fence or tree or by tucking them under one arm (like an army sergeant!) while I walk, until my hands are free again
  • using poles can leave your hands & forearms more exposed to the weather conditions (sun, rain or snow) but sunscreen, sleeves & gloves will obviously help you to get around this issue

Which poles are best?

There is a wide range of walking poles available to buy, to suit different needs and different budgets, and I don’t pretend to have tried them all by any means! I have however tried two different styles and have found a firm favourite.

Most poles have a foam, upright grip with a webbing wrist strap. With this style of pole, you slide your hand through and over the strap, and rest your wrist onto it whilst lightly holding the handle. As you walk your grip stays light and you keep the weight of your wrist on the strap.

I used this style of pole for nearly all of my training and had only one problem with them – on longer walks (bearing in mind that it was spring so I wasn’t wearing gloves) I would start to find that the strap irritated the heel of my hand and my wrist and this would gradually niggle me more and more as the walk continued. On a positive note, there are many brands that offer this style of pole and they are easily found in outdoor shops so you can have a try before spending your money.

Once I started researching my options, I saw lots of positive reviews for Pacerpoles but wasn’t entirely convinced that they would be better, until I tried them. They arrived a few days before I set off on my first long distance walk and I was slightly anxious whether I would get to grips (no pun intended!) with the slightly different technique in time. On the third practice day I felt much more confident with them, but in hindsight I realise that actually I didn’t fully find my rhythm with them until a couple of days into my walk. And then there was no going back!

Pacerpoles ergonomic handle design
the handles are left and right-handed

These Physiotherapist-designed poles have a unique moulded handle which is fantastic. Pacerpoles rely on the angled, shaped handle rather than a webbing wrist strap, and as a result they feel really light to hold and much more comfortable.

Pacerpoles unique handle
Pacerpoles unique handle design feels light and comfortable to hold

The handle is held between the thumb and first finger and the heel of the hand then comes to rest on the ledge of the handle as you move forward. The idea is to move from the elbow, lifting and lowering the forearm with each step, rather than swinging forward from the shoulder. It is hard to describe the movement but once you try Pacerpoles you’ll get it!

me and my Pacerpoles at the end of the South Downs Way
done!

I honestly believe that I couldn’t have walked the South Downs Way without poles and I firmly believe that Pacerpoles were the best choice for me.

There were sections that were so steep (up and down), and sections that were so windswept, that I would not have felt safe walking without my Pacerpoles. Even more importantly though was the fact that I never got tired heavy legs – even on days when I felt mentally fatigued and close to exhaustion, my legs never struggled. My pack was heavier than I would have liked (about 12kg with enough water for a full day) but my posture still felt great. Every time I put my poles in my hands I remembered to ‘walk tall’ so they acted as a great prompt as well as a physical support.

Is it ‘cheating’ to use poles?

A few months ago, I had a conversation with someone who said she would never use walking poles because she liked to feel that she was using the strength of her own body for balance and support. She suggested that for her it would feel like ‘cheating’ to rely on poles.

This conversation was a real turning point for me early in my training, when I was still undecided about using poles, because it had me really pay attention to what difference (if any) they made.

I honestly believe that poles help me to walk further (and faster) without any muscle or joint pain. I can feel that my core muscles are providing me with stability and that my leg muscles are then able to work efficiently without any tension. I also no longer feel a long-term persistent niggle in the attachment point of my left hamstrings. (I hadn’t realised that this had stopped being an issue, until it cropped up again when I walked without poles one day after having used them for several weeks)

My goal when working with my fitness & pilates clients is to have them experience movement which is generated from their core and then outwards into their peripheral limbs, without holding tension in any area of the body. Using the core muscles as the base for stability, allows the arms and legs to move more freely, and so it seems natural & obvious to bring this principle to my walking as well. I think this is where Pacerpoles make the difference.

Anything that helps the body move well is definitely not cheating in my eyes! I don’t think using poles is cheating any more than wearing walking boots or waterproof clothing is cheating…it’s just sensible.

Conclusion:

My body simply feels stronger and more efficient when I’m walking with poles. I walked a total of 146 miles over eight days, with a pack, at an average pace of about 2.6 mph, and didn’t feel the need to stretch out my legs more than once in that time. I’m pretty sure that wouldn’t have been true if I’d been walking without Pacerpoles.

pack, poles & Kendal mint cake
pack, poles and a little Kendal mint cake!

Of course we are all different so I will leave you to make up your own mind about what equipment to use for day- or long-distance walking. But if you are a regular walker and you haven’t tried walking poles, I would suggest that you borrow a pair (preferably not mine because I will be using them!) to see how you get on…you might be surprised at the results.

If you want to read more about my adventure on the South Downs Way, start here with my notes from day 1

[In the spirit of openness, I want to let you know that I was gifted my Pacerpoles, for which I am truly grateful. However, in writing this post, I have been entirely honest in my appraisal of them and other walking poles. If anything, I have been more analytical in my assessment of them, to satisfy myself that my views have not been unduly swayed as a result]

Random ponderings from the South Downs Way…

walking on the south downs way

I never listen to music, audio books or podcasts while walking because I just love the connection with all the sounds in nature and the chance to let my mind gently process thoughts as I go. I have to admit though, that before I set off to walk the South Downs Way, I did wonder if eight days alone with my thoughts would drive me mad!!

I started to notice what I was thinking about while I walked and there were definitely some recurrent themes:

1) Not surprisingly I thought about my Mum a lot, still processing my grief for her and trying to understand the huge shifts in my family since she died. I think that her life outside her career was quite ‘small’ which is not intended as a criticism of her choices, but more an observation that she perhaps wasn’t a brave woman and never sought adventure. I honestly don’t know if this was her choice or just how life turned out for her. Realising this about her over the past 18 months, has made me very determined to not live small – I do want to have adventures, I like to feel challenged, I’m ok with feeling a bit uncomfortable or scared (within reason!) and when my time comes, I want to know that I have lived before I die. I thought about this probably every day as I walked – in fact, I’ve probably thought about it every day since she died. I didn’t reach any earth-shattering conclusions about how I’m going to live a bigger life, but I definitely made a bigger commitment to doing so…

my Mum

2) I thought every day about vegetarian food!! I was astounded how difficult it was to find good vegetarian food options along the South Downs Way. Admittedly I don’t eat out very often at home so maybe it is the same in pubs everywhere, but the lack of choice or the lack of simple meals was really bizarre. Even shops didn’t seem to stock vegetarian sandwiches, which isn’t exactly hard! One shop had eight sandwich options, all of which included meat or fish. Unbelievable!! One pub had the choice of potato & aubergine curry, vegetable chilli or teriyaki salad – ie. two versions of sloppy spicy stuff or the most disgusting salad imaginable (I know, because that’s what I ordered and it was truly vile). I will happily admit that I’m a tad fussy about food, but a range of options isn’t difficult – something spicy, something bland, something with pastry, something light, something traditional, something exotic… exactly the same as you could reasonably expect for non-vegetarian options. And my biggest gripe was this: if you are a pub serving a (meat) burger in a bun, with fries and salad, why on earth can’t you keep veggie burgers in the freezer and offer a vegetarian version of the same thing??? You already have the other elements of the dish, there is nothing extra to make and zero wastage – so SIMPLE!!! There were of course some exceptions along the way, but they were few and far between and the lack of good nutrition made a significant impact on me. If you’re a pub on the SDW, please add a veggie burger option to your menu…

simple vegetarian food is good…

3) I also wondered every day why the ‘downs’ are called ‘downs’ when clearly they are higher up than nearly everything else and when walking it seemed that I spent far more time going up than down!! I Googled it when I got home…apparently the name comes from the Old English/Gaelic/Welsh name for a hill or hill fort – ‘dun’. So now you know…

high up on the downs

4) Whilst walking, I was surprised to see so few other walkers (it was mostly cyclists) and then it occurred to me that there were even fewer women. I felt like I had entered an alternate universe – a giant boys playground! I did see women walking their dogs but it took until day 4 to see another woman hefting a backpack. There were sometimes female cyclists, but always in the minority amongst a pack of male riders. Is it just that women generally don’t want this kind of adventure or perhaps were they at home enabling the men to enjoy a few days of testosterone-fuelled escapism?? I honestly don’t know the answer but as a lone-walking woman I would just say to other women that the South Downs Way is too beautiful not to get out & enjoy, that it never felt anything other than safe and that adventures are not just for the boys. We need to even-up the numbers ladies – let your men stay at home while you go out to play!

5) My final ponderance came after a great meal in a pub, which was then sadly followed by one of the worst chocolate brownies I’ve eaten…why is it so hard to find a really good, made-for-you chocolate brownie? I’m not the best at baking by any means but I think I can make an ok brownie. It’s not really rocket-science after all… The one in question was too light and sponge-cakey, with no chocolate chunks (or actually any real chocolate at all) and it tasted a bit plastic and burnt. I think it is true of chocolate brownies perhaps more than any other cake-thing, that they so often look really tempting, but nearly always fail to deliver – and yet I can’t seem to stop myself trying them out. But not any more! I hereby swear that I will not eat another chocolate brownie unless I know that it has been home-made (not necessarily by me) and has real chocolate incorporated beneath it’s soft delicate crust…

homemade chocolate brownies from now on…

So there you have my top five thoughts-while-walking. You probably didn’t even want to know what they were, but if you’ve read this far, you do anyway – and at least you now know why the ‘downs’ are called ‘downs’ Jx

After the South Downs Way – notes from day 8

(Eastbourne to Bexhill) 

When I went to bed on Tuesday night I honestly didn’t know if I’d be able to get my boots on to walk one more day. Even though I didn’t sleep the whole night through, I managed to get enough sleep to make me feel more human again  and I was surprised how well I felt when I got up. I decided that I would do this last day for as long as I could. 

Eastbourne Pier looking beautiful in the morning light

I am very fortunate that I have no real experience of pain but I can report that the pain from the blisters on my heels was pretty bad! Once I had left Eastbourne behind me – and wobbled my way over the bridges across the marina – I made my way onto the beach where the tide was receding. Oh happy days!! Firm sand was so much more forgiving on my feet than paved pathways or pebbles. 

thank to whoever knew that I needed a receding tide 🙏🏻

I walked at a gentle-ish pace and stopped every so often to eat something (lesson learned from the day before) or rest my feet, although actually it felt more painful to get started again than to keep plodding along.

As I walked I was negotiating with myself how far I would be able to go. The options, in case I couldn’t keep going to Hastings, where to pick up a train at either Cooden Beach, Bexhill or St Leonard’s. I decided to aim for Bexhill, buy a portion of chips and then see if I could keep going the rest of the way.

By the time I reached Cooden Beach, the sand was more shingle and walking was becoming less comfortable again so I went up to the road and went on from there. Even though the pavement was hard underfoot it was at least consistent and the pain was just about bearable. With one mile to go to Bexhill I was struggling but seeing the DLWP was a great motivation. 

the end!

On that final stretch I realised that I was done! I would buy my chips and hobble to the station to start heading home. The end of my adventure!! I was a bit disappointed not to walk all the way to Hastings Pier but it seemed foolish to go on causing damage to my feet when I knew I had nothing to prove to anyone. I decided that it was definitely a good time to listen to my body…

I hadn’t planned on getting here by train, but it did feel good

The chips: I had been dreaming about buying a portion of chips in Bexhill for several days. The chippy there is fantastic and I thought they would be the perfect energy source. I ordered a large portion and dived in hungrily as I set off towards the station. They tasted amazing – hot, salty and vinegary – perfect…but possibly a little more than my stomach could stomach! 

After several days without hot food, and actually very little food altogether, my body suddenly went into shock and I honestly thought I was going to vomit in the street!! I hadn’t even eaten many but they were determined to come out. Happily the nausea gradually subsided without me making a show of myself and sadly my perfect chips ended up in the station bin. What a sorry end to a wonderful walk!!

my walk!

My total distance was 146 miles over eight continuous day. My highest hill was Butser Hill at 270m (even though it didn’t actually feel like the highest one). My lowest point was probably lunch in South Harting on day three. My favourite hill was Old Winchester Hill. My favourite bed was in a shepherd’s hut called Dolly.

My biggest regret is not doing it sooner but better late than never?! This plaque on a bench at Bo Peep Hill says it better than I ever could:

So now to rest a bit, pop my blisters (I know it’s not advised but it feels so much better!), have hot baths and early nights, cuddle my dog, see my girls, find my appetite, cut the lawn and do some more walking!!! Jx

South Downs Way – belated notes from day 7

(Southease to Eastbourne)

Day seven was an even longer day and another one with limited stoppage time and no note making, so I’m catching up at 3.20am the morning after because my throbbing, aching feet woke me up a while ago.

Proud to report that when I didn’t suffocate H from NZ last night!

trig point #1 of the day – Beddingham Hill

The morning began with a steep climb up towards Firle Beacon. Came across sheep and a deer but no cows so I had chance to stop and enjoy the views. The highest point was some way off and of course there were about 50-60 cows on the path further ahead but I wasn’t phased. I strode bravely ahead to my second trig point of the morning – albeit on the other side of the fence with just some sheep for company, with a bit of barbed-wire negotiation at the top!

trig point #2 of the day – Firle Beacon

There something about finding a trig point that really makes me smile. They’re pretty ugly I guess but by necessity they’re always in the most high up places and therefore usually surrounded by beautiful scenery. I will miss them when I’m home.

Ever since I started planning this walk I was certain I wouldn’t try the Seven Sisters route (going inland via Jevington instead) As the walk went on, and vertigo kicked in more often, I knew that I wouldn’t go over the cliffs, but decided to walk down to the Cuckmere Estuary anyway, before turning back to Alfriston and then on to Jevington. As I was walking there I started to believe that I could do the cliff section, and I knew I would regret it if I didn’t try.

Cuckmere

When I got to Exceat (just above the river) I bumped into the only other walker I had met on the way who was also doing the whole thing in one go. I had seen him on day 4 but then not since and I had been wondering how he had got on. Turns out he got to Exceat 10 minutes earlier and was just going for a coffee with his wife (who had met up with him there) before taking the cliff path to the end. So nice to see a familiar face.

I made it this far…

So long story short: I grabbed a vegetarian sos roll from a cafe, topped up my water and headed for the cliffs…and then I got to the start of them, saw someone standing on the edge, burst into tears and sat down to consider my options:

  • feel the fear & do it anyway
  • walk back up to the road and walk along the edge of it as far as Eastbourne
  • take a short-cut to Jevington and continue from there
  • retrace my steps back to Alfriston and complete the SDW via the inland route

I felt that the only honourable thing to do, given that option one was beyond me, was to retrace my steps and finish well without cutting corners… even though this option added more than 8 miles to my daily total.

The Jevington route was definitely not the easy option – it was actually my biggest number of floors climbed on any day of the whole walk! Once again I was so thankful for my Pacerpoles for keeping me going on these steep inclines.

Sadly I missed seeing the Long Man of Wilmington on Windover Hill. I had expected him to appear above me somewhere en route, but by the time I realised I would need to walk above him and look down the hill, my vertigo legs were back in play and I decided to give him a miss. I can always drive by and see him some other time!!

trig point #3 of the day – Eastbourne (with rain clouds)

The result was a 26.1mile walk that day, two painful blisters and much emotion when I finally sat on my bed in Eastbourne. I didn’t feel any sense of achievement at that point – it was more relief – but I did it! I walked a total of 133 solo miles, travelling only by foot, from Winchester to Eastbourne.

The biggest mistake I made on day seven was not eating enough. I had an almond bar and an apple for breakfast before setting off at 7.20am; grabbed a couple of mini pastries as I left (eaten on the way to Firle Beacon); ate part of a slice of cake when I got to Alfriston; ate part of the vegetarian sos roll and threw the rest away; ate a spinach & something pastry on the way back towards Alfriston, and then almost nothing else until I arrived at the YHA in Eastbourne 6 hours later.

I think the emotions of the day really got to me and I was just so tired and desperate to finish that I didn’t want to slow myself down by eating anything, and actually I was beyond hungry too. Now I’m back home I’m still struggling to eat anything other than crisps, but I’m sure that will ease over the coming days.

I’ll add an update for day 8 soon…I still had a way to go after Eastbourne!!

South Downs Way – belated notes from day 6

(Truleigh Hill to Southease)

I didn’t make any notes as I went along on day six. I did have time before I left in the morning but instead I spent ages looking out to the off-shore wind farm at Shoreham and then I guess I just focused on getting where I needed to be. 

well over half way – good to know there’s a defib just in case 🙂

Day six was the long one – 20 miles on paper / 23.2 miles on foot. More of it was on grassland than previous days which was nicer underfoot but made it much harder to see where I’d come from when looking back. I missed the sense of progress, but at the same time this was the first day with views forward to the cliffs at Eastbourne. Maybe towards the end of a long walk it is good to look forward and start to land back gently into life? 

So back to the start of the day…

I slept for almost 8 glorious hours – but still woke up around 5am. Once I was ready for the day I had to wait for breakfast, but as soon as it was ready I made up 3 jam sandwiches, grabbed a couple of mini pain au chocolate and an apple and headed out the door, eating as I walked.

There were cows within the first hour! I walked (very bravely) through the first group (who were lying down so clearly not interested in me) and was feeling like a warrior – until I saw a small but feisty looking herd waiting to greet me at the next gate!! I decided to wait until someone else came along (safety in numbers and all that) and then noticed two male runners coming towards me so decided I would watch their route and then use it for myself. Happily one of the men read my anxious face at the gate and offered to walk me through the cows to set me on my way. My hero!! Thank you lovely man, especially since you had been telling your friend how much they scared you.

my hero – man on the right

In the ‘cowfusion’ I didn’t check the signage properly and ended up walking a section a little off my path, which took me nearer to the edge and closer to the para gliders leaping off Fulking Hill than was desirable. Total vertigo-inducing sensory overload!!! 

Anyway, I survived, found the right path and carried on past the donkey wheel at Saddlescombe, the golf course at Pyecombe, the ‘Jack & Jill’ windmills at Clayton and on to Ditchling Beacon. On the way I stopped off at Pyecombe church for a cup of green tea (as you do) and an M&S service station to buy something for lunch (the ‘no pork sausage rolls’ were really good – will buy again). The man at the till asked if I had any fuel to pay for – seriously?! I’m wearing a back-pack and holding pair of trekking poles!! Hahaha!

trig-picnic #2

After 20 mins eating lunch atop Ditchling, it was onwards past Plumpton, across the A27, under the railway and up, up, up onto the ridge around Kingston-near-Lewes. I felt as if I was on the ridge for a couple of hours before the gradual decent towards Rodmell and finally Southease YHA. If I thought it was windy the previous day, it was nothing compared to the breeze along the ridge today – I could almost not stay upright in places and used the elastic straps on my poles for the first time.

poppies along the ridge

Today was the first day I’ve had my Pacerpoles in my hands all day. Not only are they brilliant for climbing and descending the hills, but today they really helped me to feel more grounded when the winds were buffeting me about. Very happy I had them today.

Tonight’s sleep is possibly not going to be great! I’ve had an hour or so already but it’s currently 12.30am and H from NZ has just finished sending emails and is now snoring like a good un! And M (not from NZ) spend about 30 minutes repeatedly running water, washing her face & wringing out a flannel before starting on her teeth…there’s a bathroom down the hall!!! She already told me that you can’t come to a hostel and expect to sleep…but I shall repay the favour in the morning when I get up early…. [I was actually very kind when I got up at 5.30am – collected all my belongings and left them sleeping undisturbed]

Also, it was my first (happily only) night in a top bunk. Apparently M reserved a bottom bunk and H from NZ has a bad knee. The other lady here is lovely and offered to swap with me but I reckon if I can walk the length of the South Downs Way on my own, I can cope with a top bunk for one night! And if I really don’t like it, and the snoring carries on too long & loud, I’ll go find a sofa in the lounge…

Eastbourne tomorrow! I can’t actually believe how far I’ve travelled cross-country, although I think my feet can. I’ve got all the way here with just one small blister inside my right heel – the same point I felt it on the very first day I think – but for sure my feet are feeling the miles now. I think sleep will help so I’m going to give it a try – I might just shove my pillow over H from NZ face though first!!! 

South Downs Way – notes from day 5:

(Houghton to Truleigh Hill)

Oh dear! Worst nights’ sleep ever. My first night in a hostel – with 3 more nights in a hostel to come… I got back from dinner to a totally empty, blissfully quiet, place. My roomies had arrived while I was out and perfumed the room with Lynx body spray – haven’t smelled that since my boys were in their teens! Window open until flying things started coming in; window closed.

Ear-plugs in; eye-mask on; slept from 9.30pm for a whole hour…and then I was awake for the next three while all around me doors slammed, room-mate snored, showers ran, toilets flushed, hand-driers whined and the bathroom extractors hummed FOREVER!!!!! Honestly the sound of the fans nearly drove me to start walking at 1am but it finally went quiet around 1.30am all the way through to 4.49am! 

In the middle of all the goings-on, I realised around midnight that I had left all my walking socks on the washing line earlier on, so it was out with the ear-plugs, off with the eye-mask and out to get them in just in case it rained overnight. Walking in damp socks would have been a bad, bad start to day 5.

So here I sit, 5am, cup of hot water by my side, room-mate still snoring, looking forward to my next hostel night tonight, where apparently I’ll be sharing a room with participants from the ‘Big Church Day Out’. I pray that they will be a quiet bunch, although have since found out that it is a music festival so maybe not?!

crossing the River Arun – half way to Eastbourne!

On the road just after 7.30am to take a detour via the local(ish) shop to buy provisions for lunch to save me going off route later today. I need to eat less bread today so no problem that they didn’t sell any vegetarian sandwiches! I opted for a piece of cheese, apple, dark kit-kat, fruit pastilles and extra strong mints – the latter two to help my gut settle down a bit as I walk. 

trig-picnic

Once on the road I made steady progress although it felt like I was continuously climbing for the first two hours. Came across some cows and calves being sent onto a new pasture, thankfully off the route, but I walked uphill with them for some way before they reached the end of their field. 

Today has been all about:

  • the skylarks who have cheered me on nearly the whole way;
  • the spitfire that flew directly overhead, looped down behind some trees and then soared above me again – just incredible (I cried!!);
  • lots of road/track miles
  • lots of piggies near Bramber and
  • loads of wind whipping in off the sea

It finished with more cows & calves right across the path – I climbed over the fence into another field to avoid them, only to find I couldn’t get out of that one, so I cried, climbed back over the fence again, got a grip, walked on my way, and cried again when I got safely to the other side!!! 

I’m not coping very well with vertigo – funnily enough it gets worse the higher I go (who knew??) – and it’s made me really worry about the Seven Sisters section on Tuesday. I’ve decided to cut myself some slack by taking the decision to walk inland via Jevington instead, although I’m planning to walk to the Cuckmere estuary first and maybe once I’m there I’ll just carry on…a decision for Tuesday!

Tomorrow is my longest day (20 miles) so I’m hoping for good sleep tonight and an early start in the morning. Wish me luck Jx 

South Downs Way – notes from day 4

(Cocking to Houghton)

The hospitality last night was wonderful and made up for a tiring day. A good meal, good sleep and good breakfast have helped me feel more human again today.

The long down hill section that nearly finished me yesterday!

This is a shorter day and not too many hills so far. Highlights so far have been an early trig point and stunning views across the south coast, including the many wind turbines off-shore from Shoreham [which I saw every day onwards from here].

south downs way trig point
trig point near Cocking
RIP Rolo

I came off the route to visit the Roman villa at Bignor – light lunch (aka a stodgy scone, bag of crisps & slice of fruit cake!!) and a bit of culture before I head back up again. Bizarrely the site here has no electricity so the urn & fridge run off gas cylinders! They do however have some pretty amazing mosaics from the original flooring – and the slightly macabre remnants of the bones of two babies. 

I’ll add more later when I’ve picked the cherries out of my fruit cake and taken photos of mosaics….

Bignor, South Downs Way
Dining room floor, with underfloor heating obvs!

Cultural interlude complete – a 3-mile, 2-hour round-trip – I headed back up the very steep hill to the SDW and got back on with my stroll through this green and pleasant land. My Pacerpoles have been put to good use every day so far – there have been gradients that I don’t think I could have done without them – except maybe by sliding on my bottom going downhill!!

I only got these poles three days before I left home, having used different poles while I was training, but I am really pleased I switched. The design of the handles is brilliant – light and comfortable to hold with no straps to irritate my hands and wrists – and I now feel well-practised in the different technique required for Pacerpoles. I’ll write more about them later…

Nothing much to report – more stunning views, more hills, a few more people out and about today – and I arrived at my home for the night at 4pm.

South Downs Way near Bury
south downs way views

An hour later my bed is made, I’m clean, my clothes are clean and going through a spin cycle in the washing machine and there’s green tea in my mug – happy days. 

I felt like a more seasoned adventurer today – I remembered to buy water when I stopped to eat and unlike every other day so far there were no careless wrong-turns made immediately after lunch. Feeling proud!! 

Today I’ve been dreaming of a veggie burger, in a bun with fries on the side. I’m sending vibes to the pub down the road as I post this…[I had to settle for a halloumi burger which was pretty good!]

Tomorrow, just after I leave here I will hit the official half way point for the SDW, although my mileage is already more than that…

South Downs Way – notes from day 3

(East Meon to Cocking)

I was definitely ready for my bed last night after 21 miles with my boots on. I could have done without the 4 & a half mile round trip to the pub for dinner, but the food was great, the WiFi & phone charging were useful and walking without a backpack was quite nice! And I saw a deer on the way home (it’s not in the photo – I just wanted to share the golden light with you)

Woke up to the sound of the dawn chorus at 4.30am then managed to doze a bit longer until the sounds of the sparrows in the roof space became too loud to ignore. I went to sleep as the sun was setting so I guess it’s ok to wake as it rises – although a later start would have been very nice.

Since it’s going to be another hot day an early start on the road might not be a bad thing, but my planned breakfast stop (an hour from here) doesn’t open until 10am. By 7.30am I’m ready to go but hanging back a little longer just to let the air warm up a bit and because my legs aren’t quite ready to start walking again yet. Was just thinking what I’d trade for a cup of hot water right now!! 

Dolly the shepherd’s hut has been very comfortable – I think this might turn out to be my favourite sleep of the whole week. Tonight is my only b&b and then I’m staying in hostels all the way home. 

South Downs Way mileage post

Set off at 8am so now I’m waiting at the Queen Elizabeth Country Park for the cafe to open – I really need a mug of green tea and some non-snack-bar breakfast. Had a weird moment with vertigo/jelly legs coming down Butser Hill – it wasn’t a very steep descent but there were signs of cows which made me extra nervous. Met a lovely old man on the way down and chatting with him helped me to settle into my legs again.

I have driven along that stretch of the A3 many times but today was my first time seeing it from above and walking underneath it. Lots of memories of Portsmouth University years today… 

Long morning, not many views but beech trees everywhere – plenty of shade but the air feels steamy & stifling. I’m definitely feeling the effects of yesterday’s miles but my PacerPoles have been a great help in getting me up & down some very steep inclines! Every time I use them I remember to ‘walk tall’ and seeing these tress today reminded me to do the same.

As I left the QE Country Park behind me, I saw this fabulous honesty table by someone’s house – what a thoughtful thing to do:

Honesty table along the South Downs Way
flapjack, water & glasses, dog biscuits & a dog bowl and a jar of wild flowers

I took a turn off route for lunch in South Harting. It was a memorable meal, not because it was nice but because it has been repeating on me ever since… ‘vegetarian’ seems to be a slightly alien concept hereabouts – I’m craving simple food, vegetables, fruit and cheese. 

After lunch I walked around and then up the second Beacon Hill on the SDW – and when I got to the top I burst into tears! Not sure if it was the sheer exertion of the climb, the after effects of lunch or the breathtaking views to the Solent but either way I decided it was time to break open the Kendal mint cake to calm my soul and soothe my guts. Seems to have worked but I need to get moving soon – the flies are buzzing around suggesting that perhaps I need a shower?!?! 

South Downs Way trig point

Today was a really long one. The afternoon miles went on and on and on – rough ground, loose flint and chalk, short sharp climbs, long steady climbs, steamy heat and my first time running very low on water. The guide book suggested a distance of 13.5 miles on this stretch but I finished on 18.6 miles! I went off piste for lunch, had an initial climb to re-join the route this morning and made a few wrong turns, but there’s no way they added up to 3 extra miles so I’m not sure where the other 2 came from??! 

On the South Downs Way near Cocking

I trudged along dreaming that there would be a bath at my b&b, and THERE WAS. I don’t think I have ever been so happy to see a bath in all my life. Now I’m clean and well fed the day doesn’t seem so bad after all so I might carry on a bit further tomorrow Jx 

South Downs Way – notes from day 2

(Beauworth nearly to Butser Hil)

Day one felt like I was just getting myself in the right place to start in earnest. I had high hopes that from today onwards the views would be spectacular…and they were!

On the road by 8.30am and reached my first trig point within the hour.

Also hundreds of cows so I decided the cycling route into Exton was a better option than the walking one. Took a stop at Meonstoke post office – an apple and a cheese & onion pasty gave me a welcome ‘bag break’ sitting in the shade for a while. I even had a moment with a dog lead in my hand – looking after Raffi while his dad went inside for a newspaper.

I’m feeling good walking today – I’ve settled into wearing my pack, boots feel good and I’ve found a good pace so far. 

Old Winchester Hill was brilliant – felt like I was standing on top of the world. Met two ladies at the top, one of whom has been going there since she was a child and now takes her grand-children there – how wonderful.

It’s way too hot but there’s patchy shade a lot of the time. Sitting inside at Meon Springs enjoying a cup of green tea, crisps and a chocolate brownie – slightly odd lunch but very welcome chance to sit and talk trout with the fishing crowd, as you do.

Added another 6+ miles after lunch, including a missed turn, some long climbs, amazing views over the Solent, more cows (happily behind a fence) and a shepherd’s hut to sleep in.

A good day today – everything I dreamed of and hoped for. Currently enjoying gnocchi and the first wi-fi since Winchester Jx

South Downs Way – notes from day 1

Departure!

Awake at 5.10am & too edgy to enjoy breakfast but left on time with 2 pyjama-clad girls. Finished reading ‘All The Light We Cannot See’ (Anthony Doerr) on the way to London & found a grateful recipient who told me her son would be very envious of my walk & that she’d pass the book on when she’d read it.

Glad I had extra time at Waterloo to find toilets and buy some breakfast. 1st drama was realising phone was only 40% charged – maybe I switched of the socket last night?!! Or actually, maybe it wasn’t plugged in – doh! No sockets on train to Winchester so already making use of portable battery pack… 

My pack is heavier than I might like (11kg with water) and the weather is a tad warm but I’m ready…

The walk:

Winchester was horrid – I just wanted to get in a green space but it seemed to take forever! Wandered towards the cathedral (didn’t actually see it); bought a spinach & ricotta pasty (it was actually a folded pizza filled with peppers); took it back but failed to find another savoury vegetarian option so left with nothing; missed the official start point, went back to find it and then started – beautiful but short stretch along the river; and then seemingly no signs! In hindsight I think they’d been turned around but still annoying. Once I found my way it seemed an age getting out of Winchester and then the road noise could still be heard for a few miles. Finally, after a few tears (thinking about all the things last year that had brought me to that point, missing my mum, tired & a bit frustrated at the patchy start) I took a few big breaths and found my feet.  

Met a ginger Archie and had a brief surge of homesick-for-my-pooch tears. Stopped to apply my first compeed (left heel) and ate my cheese roll from home. Stopped again the take out toe spacer. Realised I was going to reach my destination before 3pm!!!

I deliberately planned an easy day to start with but I think the desire to get going took over. Note to self – next time, set off later or sit and have lunch in Winchester! No matter – sat in the shade with water, book and snacks waiting for the pub to open. Remembering that this is a holiday and sitting down is permitted.

The evening:

The accommodation was fairly basic but the bedding and towels were clean and there was the unexpected bonus of a TV & a bath. Neighbours watched; clothes and body washed. I’d planned an early dinner but once I sat down I didn’t want to move, and then a big group of Harley’s rumbled into the car park and jumped ahead of me in the dinner queue!! It made for a really nice vibe in the bar though, as I half read, half eavesdropped, and ate a really delicious spinach & ricotta cannelloni.

When I woke at 5am to the calls of the peacocks next door it occurred to me that their owner must be the same man who had remonstrated with the bikers as they left at 8.30pm last night, presumably about the noise they were making!