All about the South Downs Way
Situated between Eastbourne and Winchester, the South Downs Way is a designated National Trail which meanders 101 miles through some of Sussex and Hampshire’s most stunning countryside.
I recently wrote the post on 'How to plan a walking route in five easy steps'. It outlined how to choose a route, and what to watch out for. Today, I’d like to share what can happen when you don’t do it properly…
This spring, we had a free Sunday afternoon. My family and I decided to go for a walk out in the New Forest – it was one we had done a bit of before, but wanted to do a longer version to complete the loop.
I found a route from the routes database from OS Maps, and downloaded the route and map to my mobile. And that was it.
What I didn’t do was check the weather report or any local information. This will become relevant soon.
As we only had the afternoon, I chose a route that would take about 2.5 – 3 hours. However, we were starting after lunch with sunset was about 5pm. We had plenty of time if we started at about 1:30 – or so I thought.
Having not checked the weather, I had a waterproof jacket only, while my wife and daughter only had normal jackets. Critically, I planned to rely on the mobile for navigation, and didn’t bring a paper copy of the map or a compass. I didn’t bother bringing my waterproof mobile cover.
I do have a proper GPS, but as this was just a ‘casual’ walk didn’t bother bringing it.
I’m sure by now you can see where this is going…
While the weather was good to start with, about half-way around the loop it started to rain. We carried on as the rain got steadily heavier. At first, this was not really a problem. While we got pretty wet, the weather was unseasonably warm and my phone was safely in the pocket of my waterproofs. I actually like walking in the rain!
However, as the rain got steadily heavier, water started to seep in. Just taking the phone out to check position was getting tricky, and I was worried about it failing altogether. Mobile phone touchscreens are quite sensitive to rain, so it was scrolling randomly, making it increasingly difficult to check our position.
Here is where I should have switched to a paper map and compass. Which were at home.
As we came to a critical junction, we struggled to get the mobile to work. We did identify the correct route, but it was not passable as it was in a low-lying area and now looked very muddy. With only a small mobile screen, it was really difficult to plan an alternative route out. This was compounded by the now driving rain making me very reluctant to have my mobile out of my pocket for more than a few seconds.
We decided to take what looked like the most-used path in approximately the right direction, towards some farm buildings, in the assumption there would be a road.
"Britain has hugely changeable weather, and what starts as a fine day may change rapidly. In hill or mountain areas this could even be life-threatening."
By now our longer route and slowed pace meant it was starting to get dark. This was (supposed to be) a short, easy walk completed well before dark, so we didn’t have a torch with us.
As we passed one stables, we asked for directions. While the route back to the car park and the beckoning pub by road was obvious, it was also about six or seven kilometres. The footpath was much shorter – but back the way we came, and likely to be increasingly difficult to locate.
Fortunately, our saviour paused her equine duties, took pity on three soggy strangers and gave us a lift back. While she declined the offer, we were only too happy to squelch into the pub for hot chocolate and cake to fortify ourselves before heading home.
There was never any real danger – the New Forest is criss-crossed with roads and dotted with farms and villages, so you are never far from civilisation. The weather, while unpleasant was not life-threatening, aided by the New Forest being low-lying.
But taking a too-casual approach did make this a bit more of an ‘adventure’ than planned. In a more remote area my failures could have been far more serious.
I hope that others can learn from my failure so that they can make their walks more successful than mine!