I left the cathedral and soon passed by the statue of King Alfred, carried on by the cake shop, and gently eased myself up Highcliffe. Crossing over the M3 motorway, suddenly I was in the fields. A vibrant red and pink sunrise, fused with thousands of clouds, heralded the new day and I settled down to warm up.
The first half of this route, covering the western end of the Downs, is less populated than the last fifty miles. The track bisects the occasional road, a country pub lies here and there and hamlets dot the landscape but overall, it is wonderfully rural. It coaxed me in, wound me down from the day job and I relaxed. Three days is short compared to some trails I have hiked but I feel this route heralds the start of the season. I walk it every year in spring – it’s become a tradition.
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‘Welcome back, Fozzie,’ it whispered.
Early mornings up on the Downs are quiet. You may catch the occasional dog walker but it’s mostly deserted; I could have been the only person on the face of the planet for all I cared, and I revelled in the solitude. Away from distractions, the mundane events of everyday life, I always feel I have returned home.
Pink skies faded away to blue, the occasional cloud drifted past and I reached Exton around the twelve-mile mark – a few houses centred on the crystal-clear River Meon. I bemoaned my early start as the Shoe Inn and beautiful gardens were closed. I watched the river glide by and nodded a greeting to an early fisherman, but felt no need to rest so moved on.
Cyclists appeared with rucksacks and sleeping mats strapped to their backs, doubtless out to conquer the route in a day or more likely two.