As spring finally arrives and the weather begins to grow warmer, we can expect our walks to be enlivened by many more species of wildlife going about their business alongside the country paths.
A visit to the Meon Valley in Hampshire, where the South Downs Way crosses Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve, is the perfect spot for doing some butterfly-spotting – as well as taking in some magnificent views and enjoying a good stroll.
On my recent visit, spring had yet to arrive – in fact, the river Meon had burst its banks and many of Exton’s lanes were flooded and impassable, by car at least. Definitely a day for waders.
But come the warmer months, this route across open farmland to Hampshire’s famous chalk hill is an ideal place to immerse yourself in the natural world.
Begin in the pretty village of Exton, in the South Downs National Park. Exton lies on the west bank of the River Meon, and its name first appeared in 940 as East Seaxnatune, meaning farmstead of the East Saxons. The small parking area, just off the A32, can fill up quickly in good weather, as it makes such a handy spot to join the South Downs Way.
Start by walking into the village, keeping the River Meon on your left. Follow the lane as it bends sharply to the right, taking you past the parish church. Keep an eye out on your right for a sign pointing to the South Downs Way, and follow this. You will soon be met with a view across open farmland, looking straight towards Beacon Hill.
Follow the path ahead until you reach Beacon Hill. Along the way, the track will climb more steeply. As you gain in height there are views across the Meon Valley. On a clear day you can see the distant Solent and the Isle of Wight.
The nature reserve
Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve is a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), a prominent chalk hill
at the western end of the South Downs, around 40 hectares in size. There are two options when you reach
the hill. The first is just to take your time and explore the area around Beacon Hill, taking in the wonderful views, wandering along the paths, picnicking or looking for wildlife (see map overleaf).
The second option is to take a circular route of about six miles in all. Head northwest down the ridge from the top of Beacon Hill to another car park. From there the well-signed Monarch’s Way leads northeast through woodland and towards the village of Warnford. From Warnford you can follow the old railway trackbed until you meet up with the South Downs Way once again, and return to the start point in Exton.
If you prefer to visit the nature reserve without the walk from Exton, the small car park mentioned above lies at the entrance to the reserve. From there, you can walk on a flat track for half a mile to the downs.
On the downland, the going can be uneven and steep, but this is an excellent place for spotting butterflies such as the chalk hill blue and the silver spotted skipper, as well as the brown argus and grizzled skipper (both a lot prettier than they sound). A wide range of chalk grassland plants can be found throughout spring and summer. These include wild thyme, squinancywort, clustered bellflower, common rock rose, horseshoe vetch and restharrow.
This area is also a great place to see farmland birds such as linnets and yellowhammers, as well as red kites, buzzards and kestrels. There are also many sightings of summer migrants such as whitethroats, willow warblers and blackcaps.
When you’re ready to wander back to the village, head along the South Downs Way to Exton, where The Shoe pub awaits. This impressive village inn has a warm, cosy atmosphere and serves delicious food, with a comprehensive menu including plenty of vegetarian fare. The staff are friendly and the interior is welcoming, with log fires in the winter, interesting paraphernalia from the railways, leather armchairs and at least one enormous shoe, seemingly from a giant, displayed next to the bar.
It’s ideal for families, walkers, and locals – who, when we were there, good-humouredly grumbled about trying to watch some waterlogged shooting
while it was “tonking it down” with rain.
Image © Copyright Paul Gillett and licensed for reuse under Creative Commons
HOW TO GET THERE
The reserve is two miles west of the A32. This route starts in Exton, in a car park off the A32. Take the northernmost of the two lanes leading to the village, and the parking area is on your left. The nearest railway stations are Winchester and Petersfield. Buses run between Winchester and Petersfield, stopping at West Meon, about three miles from the reserve.
FIND OUT MORE
Beacon Hill National
0300 060 6000
The South Downs Way
Explore 100 miles of glorious footpath stretching from Winchester, Hampshire, to Eastbourne, Sussex.
Shoe Lane, Exton. SO32 3NT
Cosy, characterful pub serving delicious home-cooked food.
The George & Falcon
Warnford, SO32 3LB
Traditional country inn with en suite rooms and a large outdoor area overlooking the River Meon.
OS Explorer 119 – Meon Valley