Cycling from Guildford

Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day


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Route 10A: South Downs Way: Petersfield to Winchester

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Summary The South Downs Way east of the A3 follows the pronounced scarp slope of the South Downs. The South Downs West of the A3, with the exception of Butser Hill, are not so well defined, and the SDW tends to be more a network of interconnected bridleways. It is nevertheless an appealing ride, taking in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Butser Hill, the ancient hill fort on Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill. and finishing in the historic city of Winchester. I describe it from East to West ie starting from Petersfield and finishing in Winchester, both of which are easily reached by train from Guildford.

(NB For an excellent, detailed, cyclists' guide to the whole South Downs Way, with annotated photographs to aid routefinding see http://www.bikedowns.co.uk/.)
Distance/time: Approx 30 miles, about 4 hours riding
Start: Petersfield Station
Finish: Winchester Station
Transport: Take the train from Guildford direct to Petersfield (2 trains per hour, journey time about 30 minutes). Return to Guildford from Winchester by train changing at Woking (or cycle home from Woking). Typically 1 fast train per hour, journey time about 35 minutes.

Trains generally have two or three carriages with bike carriage facilities – usually 2 or 3 bikes per carriage.
Conditions under the tyre: Most of the route is off road, so a mountain bike is preferable. In summer, tracks are firm but may be stony in parts. Expect mud after heavy rain, or early/late season.

Being as it’s the South Downs, its hilly! The climb up Butser Hill on grass slopes is pretty steep.The descent from Old Winchester Hill is steep: dismount!
Reverse route: It should be quite possible to reverse this route by taking the train to Winchester first. This might be preferable if there is a strong westerly wind. Going in this direction, you could also continue along the South Downs Way beyond Buriton, for example combining with my Route 10B to reach Amberly.
Route variations: After Butser Hill, you could probably use the OS Map to avoid all the off road tracks and reach Winchester using mainly quiet roads, though this would defeat the object of cycling the South Downs Way!

The route over Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill via the village of Exton has only been opened for cyclists relatively recently. On the Google map, I also show the old route via Warnford and Wheely Down, although there is not much merit in taking this. However, if you want a short ride, the combination of the new route and the old makes a nice circular ride starting from either of the car parks at Old Winchester Hill or Beacon Hill.

The last part of the SDW descending to the bridge over the M3 is footpath only, so cyclists must take to the road. On the Google map I show a slightly longer but pleasanter alternative on bridleways from Cheesefoot Head, crossing the M3 near St Catherine's Hill and entering Winchester beside the old Itchen Waterway.
Route description:
Exit Petersfield station on the side on which you came in (ie the SE) and make your way via Charles Street and the Spain to the B2070 and head SW out of town. Shortly there is a large parking lay-by on the left and a lane forks left: take this to Buriton.

At the cross roads with Buriton High Street, cross over into Kiln Lane, go on steeply to the summit and turn right through Halls Hill car park to enter the Queen Elizabeth Country Park. The track continues to climb, then summits and whizzes down to the Visitor Centre. Emerge at a roundabout, and take the exit right to pass under the A3. Now bear left onto an obvious track rising over grassy slopes NW to the car park at the top of Butser Hill: this is very steep and only heroes will cycle all the way up.

Head SW out of the car park and follow the road to the junction with Hogs Lodge Lane, where take the road/track right (signed South Downs Way). This becomes a wooded track. Emerging at a road, cross over onto Droxford Road, and after passing the razor-wire enclosed former site of HMS Mercury take the track heading N (right) past the transmitter on Whether Down, then descend to Combe Cross, cross over and ascend Henwood Down, then turn sharp left to descend on a good concrete track. At the road turn right, then left at the fishery (Whitewool Pond).

Carry on past Whitewool Farm and ascend steeply on a rough track to the road. Bear left and follow the path paralleling the road behind a hedge until an opening allows you to cross and pick up the track over Old Winchester Hill. The hill fort is verboten for cyclists, but its worth leaving your bike and walking around the fort, which gives excellent views over the Solent to the Isle of Wight. Back at your bike, the SDW soon descends steeply, and follows field edges to join and follow the disused railway line to a road which leads down to the village of Exton. Then climb reasonably gently on lanes on the slopes of Beacon Hill. Near the summit, a permissive bridleway is signed right which takes you to the (hidden) trig point at the top of Beacon Hill, which gives excellent views back over the way you have come (Old Winchester Hill, the radio masts at Mercury, and Butser Hill). The track descends gently to meet the road at Beaconhill Beeches. Carry on on this road, and where the road bends right, carry straight on on a track to Lomer Farm, and then W to join the road at Wind Farm (this is a real farm, not a turbine park).

At the Milbury Pub (which seems to have a reputation for eccentricity), turn right, and now follow the SDW on tracks past Holden Farm and onward to finally emerge on the A272 at the bowl-like valley of Cheesefoot Head (the wacky white building visible across the M3 is the INTECH centre, a sort of science museum). Cross the A272 with care, and take the bridleway to Little Golders then on the road through Chilcomb. Here I took Kings Lane down to the A31, then followed the (rather overgrown) cyclepath round to the bridge over the M3. (I understand that, although the Explorer OS map shows that it is permissible to cycle down the SDW footpath direct to the bridge from Chilcomb, this is footpath only, and there is a kissing gate at the bottom barring access).

Over the bridge turn right and enter Petersfield Road, then East Hill and cross the B3404 into Wharf Hill. From here you may follow the path beside the Itchen to the High Street Bridge. Head W down the High Street, passing the King Alfred Statue. Push along the pedestrianised section and look around the town: off to the left you will find the impressive Cathedral. At the other end of the High Street, make your way to the station.

Refreshments:
The Master Robert Café and Pub in Buriton is right by the route and has outside tables by the road.

The Queen Elizabeth Park Visitor Centre has a café.

The Meon Springs Fishery has a well placed snack room, which doesn’t seem to mind doing light food and drinks for thirsty cyclists.

There is a pub, the Shoe Inn, at Exton.

Winchester has plenty of eateries.
Points of Interest Queen Elizabeth Country Park is run by Hampshire County Council and includes many acres of woodland and forestry plantation East of the A3, and much of Butser Hill to the West. Butser Hill is at 270m the highest point on the South Downs, and is an excellent panoramic 360 degree viewpoint. It is worth taking time to stroll around the summit plateau, though strictly speaking only the bridleway is open to cycling.

You pass through the site of the former HMS Mercury, now known as Mercury Park. This was the RN Signals School, training naval communicators and navigators, which moved here to Leydene House in 1941. The school moved in the early 1990s, and the site finally ceased operational use in 2001. Bizarrely, the former military site south of the Droxford Road is now occupied by the Sustainability Centre, devoted to all things green, and also including a green burial site. There is a café, though I haven’t tried it. The buildings North of the road seem to be awaiting development of some kind, and some are in a poor state of repair.

Old Winchester Hill is an impressive view point: to the South you can see the Admiralty test facilities on Portsdown Hill, the Isle of Wight over the Solent, the tall chimney of Calshot Power Station and the stacks of Fawley Oil Refinery. The plateau has a number of Bronze Age burial mounds (barrows) dating from 4500-3500 years BP, and earth ramparts constructed some 2500 years BP. The sight is a National Nature Reserve providing a diverse habitat for wild flowers and butterflies.

The Meon Valley Railway was opened in 1903 to provide an alternative route from London to the Portsmouth/Gosport area via Alton. It involved some impressive engineering works, including a viaduct at West Meon and several tunnels. It closed in 1962, and the stretch from West Meon to Wickham is now a cycle path.

On the old route at Warnford there are watercress beds owned by Vitacress, part of the Watercress Alliance. Watercress was an important crop in Hampshire in the nineteenth century, when it was credited (as it is now) with medicinal properties. The railway line from Winchester to London via Alresford and Alton became known as the Watercress Line because it was used to convey the crop to London.

Winchester, is a historic town, being the capital of the ancient Saxon Kingdom of Wessex, hence the statue of King Alfred in the High Street. It has a monumental Cathedral and a famous public school. Jane Austen died here in 1817, at 8 College Street, having come to seek treatment for a kidney disorder. She is buried in the Cathedral.

Finding your way
Once at Halls Hill Car Park above Buriton, you essentially follow the signs for the South Downs Way. After the village of Exton, you follow the road to climb Beacon Hill (see map): the SDW is footpath only.

It could be easy to get lost in Queen Elizabeth Park, but I followed the fairly obvious track and arrived at the park exit OK.

You need Ordnance Survey Landranger 1:50,000 Sheets 197 (Chichester and the South Downs) and 185 (Winchester and Basingstoke).

The first part of the route from Petersfield to Buriton falls awkwardly at the junctions of Explorer 1:25,000 Sheets 120 (Chichester), and 133 (Haslemere and Petersfield); Explorer Sheet 132 (Winchester) covers the rest of the route.