Nine of us set off from Winchester’s Guildhall at around 1000. Three carloads from Brighton had met at the excellent Eighteen71 café at the Guildhall at 0900; most then had coffee/pastries/second breakfasts while the cars were moved to the end of the walk at Exton. See here for details of car parking and transport arrangements.
The way out of Winchester passes the statue of King Alfred and between the banks the River Itchen and the ancient city walls. It climbs gently up through the suburbs, over the thundering M3. And within a mile of our start we were into open country and beginning the first and only real climb of the day: Cheesefoot Head – an ascent on easy footpaths of barely 400 feet over a distance of 3.4 miles – an average gradient of 3%. It came at the start of the walk while we were fresh and was nothing compared to what lay ahead of us on other stretches.
From the summit, (after crossing the A272) there are fine views NW towards The North Wessex Downs and Highclere (think Downton Abbey). And we were soon searching for somewhere to stop for our picnic lunch.
From here on the way is mostly a gently undulating, broad chalk track which unrolls across Gander Down. It descends to re-cross the A272 near Cheriton and passes by the enticing Milburys pub at Beauworth which sadly for us had just closed after lunch.
Fortunately one of our number had driven to meet us at The Milburys with flasks of hot water for reviving afternoon tea and biscuits. Having covered over 8 miles by this point we were ready for it.
From here the combination of lanes and broad flinty paths rise gently to the summit of Beacon Hill and we got our first views south towards the New Forest, Southampton Water and the Isle of Wight. We also gazed across the Meon Valley in which Exton lies, towards Old Winchester Hill, our opening challenge for Day 2.
From Beacon Hill the Way for walkers becomes more of a path and takes a more or less direct line to Exton across several fields (and their hedges). This means there are about seven stiles to negotiate which – with almost 12 miles behind us – were not appreciated by creaking legs. In retrospect, the alternative route for cyclists and riders, which takes the narrow metalled lane down into Exton might have been a better idea.
After reaching our cars parked at Exton, it was short drive to Wetherdown Lodge hostel where we spent the night, ready for Walk 2 the next day.
Read Walk 2 here