Tastings School - Walking the South Downs way

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Walking the South Downs way

Daniel Neilson goes in search of rural England and some splendid ales on the south coast.

You may imagine the South Downs Way is all about blisters, stinging nettles and traipsing through amusingly named villages (Cocking, Winding Bottom) and, well, it is.

But it also offers great opportunity to sample a range of local brews across the south coast while resting weary legs in historical taverns.

Meandering 100 miles from the ancient former capital of Winchester to the charming seaside town of Eastbourne, the South Downs Way national trail crosses some of the loveliest Turner-esque countryside in the British Isles and past the kind of pubs that inspired Sir John Betjeman to write: ‘The village inn/the dear old inn/So ancient, clean and free from sin/True centre of our rural life.’ It took a week to complete the hike, and it would leave my wife and I variously soggy, tired, elated and mildly drunk at generally unacceptable times of the day.

Yep, this was the ultimate pub crawl. We would endeavour to take a snaking snapshot of rural life and gauge the health of small breweries across the old counties of Hampshire, West and East Sussex.

There were several beer-related disappointments and despite being the height of summer, it rained an awful lot, but as we trotted (ok, we stumbled) over the white chalk Seven Sisters into Eastbourne we reflected happily on the survival, nay, flourishing of (mostly) excellent beers, the modest landlords and ladies content to retell legends of the ancient pubs in their tenure, and the men and women at the bar who share tall tales and were willing listen to mine.

Our beer journey started by opening a map and reading a few pages torn out of an old copy of the Good Beer Guide in the bizarre and bewitching surroundings of the Black Boy in Winchester the night before we set off. There can not be another pub in the country quite like the Black Boy.

Where else can you sit in a wicker sofa next to a stuffed monkey wearing a kilt?

Even better is its policy of buying only locally brewed ales from the likes of The Itchen Valley, Triple FFF and Hampshire Brewery. Over a pint of a sweet and hoppy Cheriton Pots Ale (3.8%), imported from the The Flower Pots pub and brewery in nearby Cheriton, we discussed the route and what we would need. It was wet, windy and cold outside: the classic British summer.

Waiting for a break in the rain we ran to the famous 18th century coaching inn, the Wykeham Arms by Winchester College Chapel. By candlelight we sampled some well-kept Gales (now brewed by Fuller’s), the bronze-tinted pleasingly bitter Butser (3.4%) was the pick of the malty bunch, but elected mainly because we would be hiking over its 270 metre peak, Butser Hill, in two days time.

By morning the rain hadn’t lifted, and with foreboding spirits we started our first day’s 16 mile hike down a muddy little path and up into the South Downs.

The South Downs have been inhabited for more than 6,000 years as our Stone Age ancestors gradually replaced hunting with agriculture (to produce beer some say) and on our Ordnance Survey Map it is Bronze age tumuli or burial mounds that provide much of our reference points, along with pubs of course.

Our goal today was the Royal Oak Hooksway which promised Hooksways Bitter (3.7%) supplied by the Hampshire Brewery. This 15th century pub is supposedly haunted by an unfortunately, but perhaps accurately, nicknamed sheep rustler called William ‘Shagger’ Shepherd, killed by angry farmers in 1680. With high hopes and rumbling bellies we finally arrived at oue destination to find it closed.

I guess ‘Shagger’ Shepherd had scared off the punters.

Feeling despondent we hiked up hills in driving rain to our first night’s camp at the Sustainability Centre near Petersfield. A beautiful day’s walk followed. After crossing Butser Hill early in the morning, and the slightly less beautiful A3, we traversed Queen Elizabeth Country Park towards West Sussex. It is here we saw one of the highlights of the trip: a wild deer cross our path. A handsome creature, the deer is among a swathe of interesting flora and fauna to be found along the path. Botanists have found up to 50 species of plants, including the wonderfully named Squinancywort and Bastard Toadflax – names I hope to see on a beer pump next time I do the hike. We spent the night camped by the friendly Bluebell in Cocking.

We set off early across rubbly farmland towards Houghton and arrived at the village in time for lunch and one of the most attractive pubs along the route. On 14th October 1651, this flint stone halftimbered house served up a pint to one of history’s more notable characters: the future Charles II. He was fleeing to France after Oliver Cromwell beat the royalists in the Battle of Worcester and brought the English Civil War to a close. Today, the pub retains much of its original character, but, again, no local brews were on offer, only Marston’s and the good golden Jenning’s Cumberland Ale (4%).

Fortified by a large lunch and one too many pints of Cumberland we made the final trek to the Arundel campsite passing two other well regarded pubs: The Black Horse Amberley with original Sussex farming tools hung on the walls and Sportsman’s, worth it alone for its panoramic viewpoint. As night fell we set up tent and headed to the 200-year-old Frankland Arms in the village of Washington, one of the friendliest pubs we encountered.

Nearby Arundel, dominated by the 11th century Norman castle and its large gothic cathedral, is one of the most historically important places along the South Downs Way and where there is war, soldiers and garrisons, there is usually a sizeable brewing culture.

The Arundel Saga, a poem thought to be translated from inscriptions on Celtic drinking vessels states: ‘So take to heart this moral wherever you may be, in city, town or country, or beside the briny sea. The palate that is jaded will find there’s much to choose among the rich enticements of Arundel’s fine brews.’ The award-winning Arundel Brewery is the best known brewer in the area. Founded in 1992, its most famous brew is Sussex Gold (4.2%) a golden ale with a hoppy, citrus finish. Over a pint Stronghold (4.7%), a fruity and full-flavoured mahoganycoloured beer on tap at the Frankland Arms, locals regaled us with stories of the pub. Not only was the original Frankland Nelson’s chaplain, but Jordan (glamour girl aka Katie Price), a resident of the area, reputedly showed the regulars her finest assets not too long ago.

Wrapped up against the winds on the exposed South Downs (it was August for heaven’s sake) we fought against the gusts in an exhausting nine hour trek to Jack and Jill, two famous windmills. We found a campsite next to a very cosy pub, named for obvious reasons, the Jack & Jill Inn. It served fine local food and top-notch beers (Smiles Bristol Blond) under the low ceilings adorned with dried hops.

Under swooping gliders we walked across Devil’s Dyke near Brighton and into Harvey’s country.

Founded in 1790, Harvey’s is a firm favourite of Sussex drinkers. Using mainly locally-sourced ingredients, Harvey’s many ales have won a wealth of awards. The Georgian brewery still dominates the centre of Lewes, home to a vast range of superb pubs. The renowned Snowdrop Inn, a young and fun pub with a passion for beer is a good option.

After a welcome night in a real bed, we veer off the official South Down’s Way and take the old coach road towards the quaint village of Alfriston. Along this route is a wealth of wonderful country pubs.

In Firle, a few miles east of Lewes, is the cosy 16th century The Ram Inn, complete with log fires and excellent food. While the 14th century timbered inn, The George Inn, is the pick of a very good bunch of Ye Olde Pubbes in Alfriston.

From here it is a quick hop along the chalk cliff, known as the Seven Sisters, to Eastbourne. No visit to this area would be complete without visiting the Tiger Inn in East Dean.

It is a three mile jaunt to my adopted home of Eastbourne and after a couple more pints of Harvey’s we walk over Beachy Head and down into the old town of Eastbourne to our favourite haunt, the Lamb Inn. A contender for one of the oldest pubs in Britain, the Lamb dates back to AD 1180. Arriving here, tired, muddy and aching we are greeted by Steve the landlord with a pint of full flavoured Harvey’s Armada Ale (4.5%).

Sat at the bar with a few regulars, we clink our glasses to celebrate the end of our beer journey, and begin to recount our story.

Did we find the Britain we were looking for? We certainly glimpsed a nostalgic simpler, rural age, where there is always time for a pint and a chat. But we needn’t have walked 100 miles to find it. It was under our noses all the time.

Brewery contacts
Unit 3, Old Magpie Works
Station Approach, Four Marks, Alton
GU34 5HN
Tel: +44 (0)1420 561 422
The Flower Pots, Cheriton, Alresford
SO24 0QQ
Tel: +44 (0)1962 771 534
Brewed at Fuller, Smith & Turner PLC,
The Griffin Brewery, Chiswick Lane South
London, W4 2QB
Tel: +44 (0)20 8996 2000
6-8 Romsey Industrial Estate,
Greatbridge Road, Romsey, Hampshire
SO51 0HR
Tel: +44 (0)1794 830 529
Unit C7 , Ford Airfield Estate , Arundel
BN18 0HY
Tel: +44 (0)1903 733 111

Pub contacts
1 Wharf Hill, Winchester, SO23 9NQ
Tel: +44 (0)1962 861 754
75 Kingsgate Street, Winchester, SO23 9PE
Tel: +44 (0)1962 853 834
Exton, SO32 3NT
Tel: +44 (0)1489 877 526
Hooksway, Chichester , PO18 9JZ
Tel: +44 (0)1243 535 257
Bell Lane, Cocking, GU29 0HN
Tel: +44 (0)1730 813 449
High St, Amberley, BN18 9NL
Tel: +44 (0)1798 831 552
London Road, Washington, RH20 4AL
Tel: +44 (0)1903 892 220
Brighton Rd, Clayton, BN6 9PD
Tel: +44 (0)1273 843 595
119 South Street, Lewes , BN7 2BU
Tel: +44 (0)1273 471 018
Firle, Nr Lewes, BN8 6NS
Tel: +44 (0)1273 858 222
High Street, Alfriston, BN26 5SY
Tel: +44 (0)1323 870 319
The Green, East Dean, Eastbourne,
BN20 0DA
Tel: +44 (0)1323 423 209
36 High St, Eastbourne , BN21 1HH
Tel: +44 (0)1323 720 545