Keith Foskett is a long distance hiker and writer who has walked famous routes all over the world. Born and raised local to the South Downs, Keith has enjoyed walking its trails for many years and firmly believes that being outdoors is embedded in us, its comforting and its natural, which is why it feels so right. We shared a pot of tea with Keith to discuss his love for the outdoors and the South Downs.
How did you first come to enjoy the outdoors?
My parents instilled a love of the outdoors in me ever since I was little. I have photos from when I couldn’t have been much more than two years old playing in the snow. The yearly holiday was usually spent in Dartmoor or Wales and I still remember exploring both areas.
I believe those values and a passion for certain pastimes are embedded at an early age and my love for our outdoor spaces has stayed with me. I have hiked around 10000 miles in the last few years, I blame it all on my parents!
When did you start walking the South Downs?
Again, when I was young with my parents as I grew up near the South Downs and if the family went for a walk, invariably that was where we ended up.
I first tried to walk its entirety when I was about fifteen years old with a school friend. Our sleeping bags took up most of our packs, leaving just about enough room in mine for Mum’s saucepan, a Camping Gas stove, several cans of baked beans, numerous Mars bars, a couple of T-shirts and a rain jacket. We got caught in a thunderstorm on top of Kithurst Hill in the tent at 3am, started paddling around inside whilst struggling to hold the tent poles up, and eventually emerged very wet and dispirited at sunrise. We gave up and went home and I remember thinking that walking was not a pastime I wished to pursue.
I returned the following year with another friend and we completed the whole thing in glorious weather.
What is it about the South Downs that keeps you coming back?
Mainly because the Downs are my local hills and I can reach them in about twenty minutes. Of course I have local walks around where I live in West Sussex but there is something about the South Downs that always calls.
They have an addictive mix of everything. If I yearn for wide open spaces they can oblige. Quiet, secluded woodland is easy to find, or the western end has a seaside, holiday feel about it.
I love how the Downs roll and ripple, how the sun glances across the creases and folds, how the trails have worn to white chalk that streaks across the landscape. History is abundant as well, with remnants of the Stone Age, the Romans left their mark and castles dot the area.
Basically, it has a great mix, a little of everything.
What is your favourite area of the downs?
Difficult question, I like lots of sections for different reasons. The first ten miles of the South Downs Way from Winchester is wonderfully rural, with few man made distractions, lovely tucked away pubs and nothing more offensive than the occasional B road. Towards the eastern end near Ditchling Beacon, the views are epic and take my breath away every time I visit, it seems like a different country sometimes. I love it when the English Chanel makes an appearance as well, a gentle reminder of our island status.
But the section I visit the most is around Whiteways Café on Bury Hill, west to Bignor Hill and around Eartham Woods. Once away from the café the crowds dwindle, especially during the week. It’s got a great, varied mix of open downland, sea views, woodland and a smattering of history such as Stane Street, the old Roman road linking Chichester and London.
At what point of the year/season do you love the most on the South Downs?
I’d have to say Spring. I’m not a winter sort of person so after spending a few months riding out cold weather with short days, the anticipation of Spring is wonderful. Over the course of a few weeks, when I take regular walks, I love to pick up on the little changes up on the Downs. The gentle warming of my surroundings, birds chattering and the plants I have to come to recognize making an appearance such as wild garlic, primroses and bluebells. It’s a time of rapid change and to be there amongst it all, where I can almost feel the energy around me, is invigorating. A seasonal siren saying come out to play.
Favourite place for a light refreshment on the downs?
I don’t have one favourite and I like my refreshment stops so several places always hit the spot. I can always get a decent cup of tea at Meon Springs near East Meon where a few, crystal clear, spring fed lakes provide a lovely place to relax.
Whiteways Café near Arundel can get busy but it’s more amenable during the week and their expressos are perfect to get the legs pumping at the start of a walk (and after!)
The Riverside Tea Rooms by Houghton Bridge was revamped a few years ago and serves great grub, a good selection of teas and the best cakes anywhere. The Bridge Inn, just over the road has to be my favourite pub.
The winner, however, has to be the Singing Kettle in Alfriston near the eastern end of the South Downs. Alfriston is a beautiful village with a colourful history and although it can get busy at weekends, it somehow manages to retain a sense of calm.
Every year just before Christmas, around fifteen friends and I walk from Falmer to Alfriston. It’s a yearly ritual that’s been taking place for about thirty years and the Singing Kettle always stays open for us if we’re a little late for a sorely needed cup of Earl Grey and a teacake. They also feed us handsomely on Sunday morning as well as we camp nearby.
To read more of Keith’s writing and photography visit his blog www.keithfoskett.com