Last year the 100-mile South Downs Way celebrated its 50th anniversary, with commemorative plaques attached to fingerposts along the route. When it opened in July 1972, it was the UK’s fifth National Trail and first long-distance bridleway. However, at the time the trail was some distance shorter than that it is today, the village of Buriton on the eastern edge of Hampshire marking its western end – from here it ran to Eastbourne, with most of the route in Sussex. The National Trail was later extended westwards through Hampshire to Winchester, making it the 100-mile distance it is today. The Hampshire extension was amply justified, taking in some beautiful downland, as well as the South Downs’ highest point, Butser Hill, just west of Buriton, on the other side of the A3. And Winchester’s cathedral city provided a fitting finale for those walking east to west.

Great British Life: South Downs Way fingerposts can be seen along the Meon Valley Trail (C) Fiona BarltropSouth Downs Way fingerposts can be seen along the Meon Valley Trail (C) Fiona Barltrop

As well as Butser Hill, two other notable hills, Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill, got included in the trail when it was extended. Straddling the Meon Valley, the two are, in fact, the last real climbs along the South Downs Way, the final miles of the route traversing rolling downland. Despite its name, the former hill is situated quite a distance from Winchester itself, some 11 miles or so south-east of the city. The 198m/648ft high hill is crowned by an impressive Iron Age hill fort within which are a number of Bronze Age barrows. On a clear day the views, which stretch to the Isle of Wight, are superb.

Great British Life: The River Meon at Exton (C) Fiona BarltropThe River Meon at Exton (C) Fiona Barltrop

Like many of the best viewpoints along the South Downs Way – Butser Hill, Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon, Beachy Head to name a few – there is a car park at the top of both Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill. But it’s more satisfying to walk up, and besides, the village of Exton in the Meon Valley is a charming place (its popular pub has a lovely riverside garden) and an ideal base for climbing both. If preferred, each in its own right makes a good short out-and-back walk, following the South Downs Way. This walk combining both also makes use of another long-distance path, the Monarch’s Way, which is based on the route taken by Charles II during his escape after defeat at the Battle of Worcester in 1651.


Great British Life: Hornbeam along Church Lane leading from Exton back to the parking area (C) Fiona BarltropHornbeam along Church Lane leading from Exton back to the parking area (C) Fiona Barltrop

1. (SU617212) Cross the A32 just beyond the parking area and follow the South Downs Way (SDW) path to a footbridge over the river Meon – a lovely spot. 150 yards further on turn left and follow the path beside the ditch (sometimes a watercourse in winter). This leads to the old railway line, now the route of the Meon Valley Trail – steps down from the path and then up to it. Go straight across the track and down steps on the other side and continue down the path, then bear right across a footbridge and left. The track bends right and then turns left, continuing alongside fields on the left, heading steadily uphill.

Great British Life: A trig point and toposcope atop Old Winchester Hill (C) Fiona BarltropA trig point and toposcope atop Old Winchester Hill (C) Fiona Barltrop

2. (SU634206) At the junction where the Monarch’s Way joins from the left, keep ahead along the right-hand side of the hedge, field on the right (the path on the left side of the hedge can also be used but is narrower). At the end of the field by the next fingerpost, turn left through a gap in the hedge and immediately right. Continue up the enclosed path, soon reaching the Old Winchester Hill information panel. Carry on uphill to go through a gate and thence on up the open grassy slopes to the top. Keep ahead to the trig point, the toposcope alongside. If you want to view the hill fort information panel continue across the grass to it, with a bench alongside.

Great British Life: The view from Old Winchester Hill stretches across the Meon Valley (C) Fiona BarltropThe view from Old Winchester Hill stretches across the Meon Valley (C) Fiona Barltrop

3. (SU640205) Retrace your steps back downhill to waypoint 2 and turn right along the Monarch’s Way. This takes you past Peake Farm and along an access drive to the road (Hayden Lane). Turn left down to the A32 and Warnford.

4. (SU625231) Continue along the lane opposite and turn left back to the main road, passing some watercress beds with more on your left as you turn off immediately right. Follow the road up to Wheely Down Farm and turn left then right up a track. Soon go though a gate on the right and turn left to carry on up the bridleway (fence on left) which leads via woodland to a car park.

Great British Life: Sheep enjoying the view atop Beacon Hill (C) Fiona BarltropSheep enjoying the view atop Beacon Hill (C) Fiona Barltrop

5. (SU598228) Turn left and follow the South Downs Way to the trig point on Beacon Hill, then right downhill to the lane. Turn left then leave the lane on the left to follow the South Downs Way back down to Exton, using the footpath/walkers route. Note the Exton Beacon, erected in 2012 for the Diamond Jubilee. Turn left at the lane passing the church. To visit the pub, turn right just after it, otherwise continue ahead back to the car park.



Start/finish: Parking area at the north end of Church Lane, near the junction with the A32 (SU617212)

Map: OS Explorer 119

Distance: 8½ miles (13.5km)

Terrain: Downland paths and tracks; country lanes - use with care. About half the walk follows the South Downs Way and the other half the Monarch’s Way, both waymarked.

Time: 3½ - 4 hours. Shorter options, eg out-and-back walks to either Old Winchester Hill or Beacon Hill, or shorter loop taking in just the former and returning along the Meon Valley Trail

Refreshments: Shoe Inn, Exton, 01489 877526

Public transport: Stagecoach bus 67 between Winchester and Petersfield via West Meon (nearest stop to Exton),