One hundred miles isn’t that much. This is what I’m telling myself in the days before setting off to thru-hike the South Downs Way. Packing and repacking my bag, checking the weather forecast, staring at maps and apps, lamenting the fact my boots are old and the rest of my gear older, it never really occurs to me that walking 100 miles through Southern England might be, you know, challenging.
In part that’s because, emotionally, I need it to not be challenging. Over the past few months I’ve been fermenting a daydream-goal so much more difficult that it might feel completely out of reach if this turns out to be hard. Basically, I’m thinking: I need to be able to run 10k comfortably if I want to run a marathon.
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And that’s true, but what I’ve conveniently forgotten is that running 10k also requires effort. And you need to actually put on your running shoes every once in a while if you want to make it happen. As I heave my pack onto my shoulders at 6 am on a late summer Wednesday morning I’m effectively putting on running shoes for the first time in 16 years.
One hundred miles isn’t that much…
At the very start of the Covid-19 pandemic I got put on furlough. Travel was restricted, businesses were closed, people weren’t allowed to congregate; rather than do something constructive, like learn how to make banana bread, I spent my time delving into the YouTube labyrinth.
I do not remember how I ended up there, but eventually I found myself obsessed with watching epic daily-vlog-style accounts of people hiking the Pacific Crest Trail – Elina “Tip-Tap” Osborne and Mari “Taco Salad” Johnson, in particular.
The Pacific Crest Trail (PCT) is one of 11 National Scenic Trails in the United States. Running from the US-Mexico border to the US-Canada border, it is some 2,650 miles long and takes 5-6 months to “thru-hike” (hiking from end to end in a single trip).
It’s difficult to know exactly how many people attempt to thru-hike the PCT each year. The Pacific Crest Trail Association – the authority on all things PCT – doesn’t keep track. But it does maintain a list of people who claim to have completed the trail. I’ve found a few articles of uncertain authenticity suggesting that roughly 60 percent of those who start a PCT thru-hike manage to finish. So, pre-Covid, the PCT was welcoming give or take 1,700 intrepid souls each year.
Last year’s numbers were down and the PCTA refused to acknowledge any finishers in 2020 (because they really shouldn’t have been on the trail) but note how the number of finishers has shot up in the social media age; I’m not the only one being inspired by YouTube videos.
Though, I first heard about the PCT in the early 2000s. I was living in Southern California and often hiked sections south or north of Lake Morena County Park. Back then, the number of PCT finishers hovered closer 130 each year and I’m willing to bet most of them were REI employees. Knowledge of the PCT was largely for the hard core.
I was enamored by the thought of walking the length of the United States. The whole idea of it, and thru-hiking in general, felt exotic and surreal and fantastical. I bought several books about the PCT but never managed more than a day hike – in part because, I’ll admit, backpacking seemed kinda scary. The books I’d found – written by the hard core for the hard core – contributed to that feeling, effectively insisting that one be a Navy SEAL-level survivalist before even considering taking on the PCT.
I eventually got over some of my fear when I returned to Minnesota a few years later and learned about the Superior Hiking Trail (SHT), which runs 310 miles from Duluth, Minnesota (home of Aerostich), to the US-Canada border. I didn’t ever thru-hike the whole thing but covered some sections on weekend trips, the last of which taking place in late summer 2005.
Less than a year later, I moved to the United Kingdom and my gear, which I had gone to the trouble to bring with me, soon grew dusty and old from neglect. Britons have a different attitude toward the outdoors. Partially that’s because what’s classed as “the outdoors” is different; there are no truly wild places here. But also it’s the case that engaging with the outdoors is not seen as a common-man sort of thing to do.
In Minnesota and Texas and California, and pretty much every other place in the United States (and Canada), there are few things more blue collar/working class than grabbing a tent and a cooler full of beer then heading off into the woods with your buddies. In Britain, the outdoors is too often elitist – the dominion of gaunt, middle-class white men (always white men) with their socks pulled up over their trouser cuffs, and laminated maps hung around their necks like elementary school children wearing hall passes on their way to the bathroom.
In Wales, I found that, despite being surrounded by hills and green spaces, the overwhelming majority of residents did not engage with the natural world. When I would tell people about my desire to go backpacking they either expressed bantering disdain at the idea or told me that such a thing simply wasn’t possible anywhere in Her Majesty’s United Kingdom; you could spend an afternoon trudging up a hill in the rain, perhaps, but no true adventure was to be had here.
For the most part, I (foolishly) bought into that narrative until motorcycling introduced me to Scotland. I bought a sleeping bag and went on a handful of overnight trips with my wife, but it was not until the spring of 2020 that my long-dormant fascination with thru-hiking was reawakened – thanks to videos of cheerful people walking from Mexico to Canada.
This reawakening of interest ran parallel to my finally (and painfully) untangling myself from crippling debt. I had learned/was learning how to control my finances and could now imagine thru-hiking scenarios with a greater sense of: “Yeah, that actually could happen. No, really. I actually could do that.”
Fascination with PCT videos quickly gave way to fascination with hikers’ tales from the Appalachian Trail (AT), a route that covers some 2,200 miles from Georgia to Maine. You’ve probably heard of the AT. Bill Bryson wrote a book about failing to complete it, which got turned into a movie with Robert Redford and Nick Nolte.
I got hooked on following the adventures of Jessica “Dixie” Mills and, later, Lisa “Tex” Parker and Kelly “Nine Lives” Hays among others. You’ll notice all these people have nicknames. That’s a thing that seems to have developed since I first learned about the PCT almost two decades ago: everyone who hikes these long trails gets a “trail name,” a nickname (traditionally) bestowed upon them by the folks they meet along the way.
The trails, it seems, have become a wayfaring community. People form “trail families” to support one another and share the load; previous finishers, “trail angels” show up along the route offering “trail magic,” sodas or beer or food provided free of charge to hikers; and everyone chugs along with the mantra that “The Trail Provides.”
It sounds amazing.
I have decided that I want to hike the Appalachian Trail when I turn 50. I don’t want to say that doing this is a “goal” because I have grown tired of always failing to meet my goals, but, yeah, it’s a goal. Fortunately, I am still quite a few years away. I have time to plan and train. I may be naive and given to overconfidence in my physical ability but I still understand that the AT isn’t something you tackle successfully without prep.
So, as I say, here I am on a Wednesday morning in the summer of 2021, setting off to thru-hike the full 100 miles of the South Downs Way (SDW). Money is not my friend at the moment, so I have purchased the cheapest backpack that Go Outdoors sells and filled it with gear that largely dates to that summer trip on the SHT back in 2005. Same REI tent (now discontinued), same Therm-A-Rest sleeping mat (also discontinued), same metal camping mugs, same pocket stove, same Leatherman. At least my cheap-o sleeping bag is only 6 years old.
The history of the SDW stretches back centuries, with some sections having been used for more than 8,000 years. But the trail as we know it today dates from 1987, when a connected route from Winchester to Eastbourne was completed. The SDW is predominantly off-road and mixed-use – available to walkers, horse riders and cyclists who enjoy rocky terrain – with a few short sections of country road. More or less spanning the width of South Downs National Park, its route passes just 3 miles north of my house. But getting to its eastern start point from where I live means spending an hour and a half hopping trains.
You can probably guess exactly what will go wrong with my SDW attempt when I tell you that my plan is to complete it in four days. That means walking 25 miles a day. With 15 kilograms of gear on my back. I’m 16 years older than I was the last time I went backpacking and even back then I never attempted 25 miles in a day.
At its eastern end, the SDW officially starts at a simple cafe called The Kiosk, about 1.5 miles from Eastbourne train station. I get lost trying to find The Kiosk, then lost again within 50 feet of hitting the trail. Eventually, though, I settle onto a well-trodden path that hugs chalky white cliffs overlooking the English Channel.
Soon I’m approaching Beachy Head (mile 1.8) – a 531-foot cliff that looms over a sea sparkling so brightly with sunlight that it’s almost disorienting. The morning is warm enough to have already shed a few layers and the sun so intense that I’m a worried about getting sunburn.
Beachy Head is where Phil Daniels’ character trashed his scooter in Quadrophenia and, sadly, scooters aren’t the only things that get thrown off the cliff. People sometimes choose to do the same with themselves. This is apparently one of the most popular places in the world to end one’s life, with dozens of suicides taking place here each year.
The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team patrols the area at all hours, hoping to intercept people and give them a chance to think and talk things through. On this morning, though, all they can do is offer coffee and counsel to the police officers and search and rescue personnel who have been called in to deal with the death of a 49-year-old woman. Local news will later report that hers was the second death in less than 24 hours.
The scene fills me with sadness. I’ve been in dark places and can empathize. I feel sad that someone has slipped through the chaplaincy team’s fingers, but also sad for the chaplaincy team who may feel they’ve somehow failed, and sad for the police and response officers who are having to deal with this on Wednesday morning. And I know this is kind of silly but it strikes me as deeply unfair that this has happened on a beautiful, calm summer morning.
I’ll spend the rest of the day feeling unsettled, some part of me needing to put as much physical distance as I can between myself and Beachy Head.
Eventually I relax enough to take my first rest of the day. I settle into a spot just below the crest of a hill – out of the wind – and dig into my bag for a chocolate Hobnob. I have decided that I will allow myself four cookies a day, the rationing of food and breaks having been the focus of most of my preparation.
Which has been a silly point of focus. I’m not going to go hungry. The area surrounding the SDW is heavily populated. I doubt there is a single point on the route that is more than a mile from some kind of civilization. More often than not the SDW runs near or right through towns littered with cafes, pubs, markets, grocery stores and B&Bs. Indeed, I am only carrying food for the mornings and evenings, because I expect to find my lunches along the way.
Equally, there is no need to carry a water filter; in addition to all the cafes, etcetera, where one can politely ask to have water bottles refilled, there are 12 drinking water taps along the route – an average of one every 8.3 miles. The AT this is not.
Thru-hikers are easy to spot: laden with enormous packs that stand out amid the cheerful families, day ramblers and runners that give the SDW a bustling feel. I’ve not yet come across thru-hikers going the same way as me but I’ve encountered a few who are finishing their west-to-east adventures. A couple from Ireland. An Eastern European couple. A cheerful quartet of people from the Netherlands.
SDW hikers don’t get trail names and there is no trail magic unless you’re taking part in one of the dozens of charity events that take place on the route each year (like Oxfam’s Trailwalker Challenge). But there is a willingness to stop and chat, and a sense of connectedness in mission that allows thru-hikers to ease, if not necessarily drop, their usual social barriers.
One thing that will strike me over the coming days is the number of young people on the SDW. Most are participating in the Duke of Edinburgh’s Award (more commonly known as the “D of E”), a program aimed at inspiring young people. Part of achieving the award involves going on an “expedition.”
I know this makes me sound like I’m 103 years old, but I can think of no other way to say it: it is delightful to encounter these young people on the trail. Seeing them makes me feel better about the future of Britain and the universe in general.
Usually they’re hiking in groups of three or four but sometimes I encounter packs of a dozen or so boys and girls, playing music on their phones or recording posts for TikTok – invariably led by a kid who is the very definition of the phrase “strapping young lad” dwarfed by a comically enormous pack. At one point I’ll encounter a kid burdened by a pack so large that I will ask him if he is, in fact, carrying a coracle.
He will, of course, have no idea what I’m talking about.
All the kids are fresh-faced and I’d be surprised if any are older than 18. Normally it is The Way Of Things that these kids wouldn’t even bother to look at a 45-year-old man, let alone stop and converse with him. But on the SDW they are chatty – asking how far I’ve walked, how far I’m walking, if I’ve seen certain wildlife (“We saw a badger last night!”), and so on.
My favorite of the groups I meet will be a trio of girls using compasses, rulers and pencils to work out their exact location on a map. The SDW is so well-trodden and signposted that I’m not even carrying a map, and at the particular point where we meet the path is bordered by fence on one side and bramble on the other.
“I’m pretty sure you don’t need the map here,” I tell them playfully. “There’s nowhere else to go but straight.”
“Yeah, but map reading is a part of the challenge,” says one of the girls. “We don’t have to do it. But if we don’t, we’ll know that we haven’t. And we want to do the challenge properly.”
There is hope for us all.
The Southern England coast is exactly as it looks in pictures. Which is to say you don’t have to turn your head in a certain way, don’t have to focus on a specific point, don’t have to apply a special filter to find yourself walking through the landscape that you’ve seen in hundreds of photos: undulating green hills abruptly disrupted by pristine white cliffs that drop straight down to a glittering blue ocean. The air is clean and fresh, a light saltiness hanging on the tongue with each deep breath.
The SDW wanders through some 7 miles of this before turning north and following the meandering River Cuckmere inland. The trail starts to climb toward the ridge line that it will follow for much of the rest of the trail, giving a bird’s eye view of the lazy, ox-bowing Cuckmere, which on this particular afternoon is full of amateur paddleboarders.
If I were hiking the AT, the prevailing advice at this point would be that I should look for a place to set up camp. Adding in the miles walked to and from train stations I’ve put in roughly 10 miles so far. On the AT you’re supposed to take things easy in your first week or so, allowing your body to acclimatize to the challenge of walking long distances. I’m not on the AT, but the whole “not having backpacked at all since George W. Bush was president” thing means I should probably be following the same advice.
Not that I necessarily could, anyway; there’s no place to stop. One of the many ways in which Britain’s National Trails differ from the United States’ National Trails is in the absence of free campsites or areas where dispersed camping is allowed. Legally, the only place you can pitch a tent along the SDW is at one of the handful of commercial campgrounds scattered near but not necessarily on or even close to the trail.
Cue my standard rant about camping in the UK. As I wrote in my article about riding a Harley to Britain’s most westerly point:
“Campsites in the UK, and Western Europe in general, are a disappointment to anyone who’s ever been to a state or national park in the United States… Campsites here are generally just open fields, manicured lawns, on which you are left to pitch your tent in whatever spot you can find – more often than not with the high risk of having some group of Londoners or Brummies who have never before been outdoors pitch up 3 feet from you and stay awake until 4 am drinking, complaining about midges.“
Additionally, British campsites are stupidly expensive and – especially in the case of those located anywhere near the South Downs Way – too frequently booked up months in advance. So, I’m planning to wild camp, ie., pitch my tent in whatever field or wooded area where I think I can get away with it. Technically, wild camping is illegal outside of Scotland. But in practicality, fortune favors the brave. I used to work for the UK’s national parks and the general attitude of park rangers was: “If I don’t know I don’t care.”
In other words, pick a quiet spot out of sight, don’t draw attention to yourself and leave no trace.
Key to not drawing attention to oneself is waiting until dusk to set up your tent – when low light makes you difficult to see from a distance and there’s unlikely to be anyone else about. It’s lunchtime now. But I do at least stop to eat at a cafe next to the Seven Sisters Country Park visitor center (mile 8.5).
The ongoing pandemic somehow means the cafe isn’t serving any of the sandwiches or hot meals advertised on the menu boards, and the apologetic girl behind the counter informs me that I’ve unfortunately arrived just after a busload of tourists ransacked the place. All she has left is a single sausage roll of questionable age and some red velvet cake. I purchase both, along with a packet of crisps and one of those overpriced Italian lemonades, then gobble everything down in less than 5 minutes.
This will not be the first time my plans have gone awry. In fact, that’s pretty much standard operating procedure for me. Off the top of my head, I cannot think of a single adventure in my life where something did not go at least a little bit wrong.
You would think, then, that I would be better at contingency planning or would have developed the ability to adjust my plans according to the reality of my situation. Not so much. More often than not, I adopt a Welsh attitude toward things: clearly and accurately assessing the situation, then doing nothing to change it.
Sitting in the bustling garden area of the cafe, belly full of sausage roll and red velvet cake, I know that my plan to walk 25 miles today is unrealistic. My body is making this painfully clear. The straps of my bag have been digging in and now my shoulders are tender to the touch. I am aware of hot points on each foot where my old boots are rubbing my toes and heels, and blisters are forming.
I am tired. I want to find a nice patch of grass beneath the shade of an oak, pull off my boots and take a nap. But my mind can’t settle. I feel like I’m behind schedule. Which I know is silly because I don’t have a schedule. There’s nowhere specific that I need to be at the end of the day.
And here’s the thing: there’s nowhere specific that I need to be for the next 11 days. I’ve told myself that I want to accomplish this in four days but there is absolutely no need to do such a thing. I’m not trying to cram it into a small vacation window; I have loads of time. I do not need to be pushing myself in this way and I know that I do not need to be pushing myself this way. Yet I feel a panicked urgency, an anxiety about… something. So, I heave my pack onto my shoulders, wincing as its weight digs in, and start trudging north.
Ten and half miles from its eastern trailhead, the SDW passes right through the village of Alfriston. In planning this trip I promised myself that I would stop and have a pint at the George Inn, a quintessentially English pub that has been operating since 1397. That’s not a typo; it’s been in business for 624 years.
But standing at its door I suddenly feel dumb. I feel self-conscious and embarrassed – about what, though, I cannot really tell you. That I’m running behind on my made-up “schedule?” That my gear is old and doesn’t look cool? I don’t know. I honestly do not know why I’m having a little freakout right now. Whatever I’m feeling makes no sense.
Some part of me knows that I would be OK if I would just stop and assess my situation. Just stop and have a pint. But I don’t. The more I think about it the more I feel the white-hot brain fuzz of anxiety and embarrassment; I just want to get out of the village, out of the sight of people.
The time I didn’t go to the top of the Eiffel Tower, the time I didn’t dance the polka with Miss El Cajon, the time I didn’t stop for Black Forest cake when riding the Schwarzwaldhochstraße… add the time I didn’t stop for a pint at the George Inn to the list of my life’s regrets.
Beyond Alfriston the SDW largely sticks to chalky gravel tracks or grassy footpaths that run through ridgeway farmland. I eventually fall into a rhythm and manage to start actually enjoying the fact that I’m out doing this. I’m walking the South Downs Way, man. I’m thru-hiking. I’m doing the thing I said I wanted to do.
I’m still not stopping. Over the next few hours I’ll pass numerous spots that would make good places to camp for the night.
“Look, just stop here, cook your dinner and hang out with your boots off until sunset,” I’ll think.
But I press on.
Paragliders and hang gliders soar overhead, sometimes swooping close enough that I can see the pilots’ faces. As the afternoon wears on I start spotting other hikers and bikepackers staking out their spots for the night – sitting several meters from the trail, gear spread out but tent not yet erected lest someone come and tell them to move along.
In one case I stop and chat with an older bikepacking couple who are drinking wine whilst stretched out on a blanket. They identify a little tuft of trees about 50 meters away where I could set up my tent, but I press on.
At the Firle Beacon trailhead (mile 15) there are more than half a dozen campervans parked up and very obviously not going anywhere for the night; folks are grilling their evening meals on outdoor barbecues. Very obviously, I could find a quiet place near here, because if no one’s going to move them along they’re definitely not going to bother me.
But I press on.
I am to the point of limping in pain when I drop down to Southease (mile 18.3). I refill my water at a tap tucked behind the village church, then promise myself I will stop at the first place where wild camping seems viable.
Three miles later it is not so much that I find a good spot but that I get to the point of just not caring. On an open stretch of hill, within plain view of the village of Kingston – less than half a kilometer away but down a steep hill – I throw my bag to the ground and set up my tent in the dying light. I am too tired to cook dinner, so I inhale the large piece of flapjack (oats and raisins baked into a kind of breakfast bar) I had planned to eat tomorrow morning, then fall into one of the heaviest sleeps of my life.