Having lived a large part of my life in Sussex, I thought I knew the South Downs well. However, when a friend took me for a walk from the pretty village of East Meon, just over the border from Sussex into Hampshire, I was taken aback with how beautiful the area was and how different from other parts of the South Downs.
This is a circular 5 mile walk and part from one short sharp climb, it is a fairly easy going walk on well defined paths.
South Downs Way
The South Downs stretch 100 miles from Eastbourne in the East to Winchester in the West and can be split into three distinct types; From Eastbourne to Brighton you have the classic chalk cliffs along the coast line, then through West Sussex the rolling chalk grassland and then into Hampshire more wooded areas and steep escarpments known as Hangers.
The South Downs Way (SDW) is the 100-mile path from Eastbourne to Winchester. The SDW was established in 1973 and fully opened in 1987.
The trail follows the old routes and droveways along the chalk escarpment and ridges of the South Downs. The route can be walked, cycled or ridden by horse.
Established in the 6th Century, East Meon, with the River Meon flowing through it, is a very pretty village that has managed to preserve a lot of its history and character.
It is well worth spending some time wondering around. The village must have been a place of importance as a courthouse was built here in the 14th Century.
The walk takes you past All Saints Church, which was built in the early 12th century and is well worth a visit. It has a black (Tournai) marble font dating back to the 13th century. It is decorated with friezes depicting the creation of Adam and Eve, their temptation and expulsion from the Garden of Eve and finally Adam being shown how to dig.
There is also a fine embroidery depicting the village at the turn of the 21st century made by the villagers themselves.
The village also has a couple of pubs. I can recommend the Ye Olde George Inn – very nice welcome, good food and selection of drinks.
I haven’t tried the Izaak Walton yet, but it too has favourable reviews, so you are spoilt for choice for refreshments after the walk.
Our walk starts in the free car park on Workhouse Lane, which hints at a little more history of East Meon. Walk out of the car park and follow the lane towards the centre of the village, turn left up The Cross, and walk up the path beside the church.
Chose to visit the church now or after the walk. There is a finger post at the top of the path pointing left. Walk along this path and up the hill.
Walk for ca 500 metres across a couple of fields; continue ahead until you reach a house. The path follows the drive to the lane.
Cross the lane and walk up the hill a few metres until you see a finger post. Take this footpath. This path follows the edge of a field and as you near the end of the field, the views start to open up.
Pass through the gates and continue into the next field and you will see the path stretching away in front of you. Enjoy the views, remembering to look behind you and take in the rolling hills and grassland.
Whilst this is a dog friendly walk, some care should be taken in these fields as horses are often grazing.
Eventually you will come to a farm. Keep to the well-marked path and as you come to a lane turn left.
Walk down this lane for ca 300 metres. As the road bends to the left, follow the right hand turn and walk up a short hill. As you pass some houses, you will enter a Beech Wood know as Hen Wood.
Walking up Emmets Down and through Hen Wood you are struck by the tranquillity and the sense of how old these woods are. Each season brings out a different feel – spring is all greens and noise of the birds in the trees, summer brings shade but also lovely ground plants such as the Birds Nest Orchid and narrow-leaved helleborines and fritillaries such as the Silver Washed and Speckled Wood, autumn brings the wonderful colours and fungi, winter brings the clearer skies and better views.
Continue along the track for ca 1.6km (1 mile) until you meet the South Downs Way (SDW). The short section we now follow offers tantalising glimpses of the lovely scenery: to your right is Winchester Hill, to your left Drayton, Middle and Yew Down.
Cross the road at Coombe Cottages and continue along the SDW. This is a short steep section that can be made easier by pausing to admire the views all around you.
To the left Small Down, to right more views of Old Winchester Hill and expansive views back down to Hen Wood and the route you have climbed. You are now on Salt Hill.
As you pass the summit, there will be a sign posted footpath on your left. Take this path and walk across small down and up the other side. Take your time and enjoy the wonderful scenery especially as you walk over Small Down, the views east along the South Downs into Sussex are really quite wonderful.
Late last summer this area was covered in gossamer webs, glistening with dew in the sunshine.
Walk straight forward over this “whale back” hill and you start to see East Meon in the valley and spire of the Church.
At the top of the hill, you pass through a gate and have a choice – straight on or turn right. My recommendation is to keep walking straight along the ridge and descend the hill keeping the wood to your left shoulder.
You can take a right hand path and follow a very steep descent over a challenging style, but this is definitely not recommended in the wet. The right hand route saves about 200 metres in distance to the overall walk length.
If you follow my recommendation, keep walking with the wood to your left shoulder, ignore the gate and footpath in the corner of the field, but walk a further 200 metres to the next gate.
Follow the well-defined path back to East Meon; the final field may have grazing sheep in it. You will emerge onto Coombe Road, take a left and walk ca 100 metres and turn right into Duncombe Rd, walk down the road into The Green and as you pass through The Green, you will see a footpath between some houses.
Follow this path and you emerge onto the green with the car park ca 100 metres in front of you.
Since I first did this walk, I have been back several times, taking different friends with me, as well as leading this as part of the 2021 Petersfield Walking Festival.
Everyone has enjoyed this walk and been left speechless by the views from the top of Salt Hill and Small Down. Even in rain and low cloud, the walk is a rewarding one.
I am gradually increasing the number of walks in this area and have yet to be disappointed in any that take in the Meon Valley. Stay tuned and I will share some more of my discoveries in due course.
Duration: 2 to 3 hours
Length – Circular walk of about 5 miles (8km)
Total Ascent: 178 m
Parking: Free car park on Workhouse Lane, GU32 1PF
Other South Down walks to try: