This wonderful hiking route is actually part of a considerably longer, international walk known as the Pilgrim’s Trail. The full route extends from Winchester to Mont Saint-Michel in Normandy and is 155 miles (250 km) long. This Collection covers the UK section of the hike, which is somewhat shorter at 30 miles (48 km) and otherwise known as the Hampshire Millennium Pilgrim’s Trail.
The route begins at Winchester Cathedral, where pilgrims would come to pray at the shrine of St. Swithun. Born around 800 AD, Swithun served as the Bishop of Winchester from 852 AD but he found fame long after his death when numerous miracles were attributed to his doing from beyond the grave. Miraculous occurrences aside, the cathedral is one of the biggest in Europe and is astounding to behold.
The trail leads you south east across the edge of the South Downs National Park through rolling farmland. Plantations, ancient forests and pretty streams punctuate the patchwork field systems and villages that time forgot seem to be around every corner.
Churches dating back hundreds of years are abundant and the ruins of castles, from the Bishop’s Waltham Palace to the Victorian Fort Widley, remind you of a harsher past. Nature reserves and ponds are scattered inland whilst the sea views from the Portsdown Hill chalk escarpment offer dramatic variation.
I’ve split the route into three stages, each ending in a town where you can find food and accommodation, although I recommend booking ahead. The hikes are undulating but there’s nothing strenuous and hikers of every ability should be quite happy on the terrain. Underfoot, it’s mostly footpaths, gravel trails, farm tracks and quiet lanes. I’ve planned this hike to run north to south, but there’s nothing to stop you from doing it in the opposite direction.
You can hike this fantastic trail throughout the year although late spring to early autumn will bring out the best of the greenery, birdsong and sunshine. The south is fairly mild during winter and even if you hike in February, the worst you’ll see is rain, heavy frost and perhaps ice.
In some places, I’ve added short detours to see interesting things. I’ve mentioned each one in the route descriptions, so you can skip them if you like. The trail finishes at the Portsmouth International Port, which is useful if you want to get on a ferry but, I recommend continuing on to Portsmouth’s historic dockyard not far to the south. There, you’ll find HMS Victory, the Mary Rose Museum and all manner of extraordinary sights.
To get to the beginning in Winchester, you can arrive by train. Winchester is a mainline station and has direct connections to London Waterloo. Portsmouth has several stations all on the same line as each other, so you can catch a train from the nearest and change at Southampton to return to Winchester or wherever you need to go. As it’s easy to get back to Winchester by train, you can also drive there. Both Winchester and Portsmouth are thriving cities packed with restaurants, shops and accommodation options.
This first stage leads you away from Winchester and through the western edge of the South Downs National Park. Rolling green hills and footpaths lead you from farm to farm …
The middle stage heads through rural landscapes before plunging into the wonderful, ancient Forest of Bere. Walk through this historic woodland before heading back into farmland, with copses, old farmhouses …
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The final stage of the hike leads you south to the chalk escarpment of Ports Down. This impressive ridge is the backdrop to Portsmouth and its steep south side means …