Image: Debbie Wilson
The South Downs
Under two hours from London, The South Downs National Park in Sussex has it all. From rolling green hills, magnificent chalk grassland, shimmering rivers, ancient woodland, wildlife-rich heathland and dark night skies, to lowland pastures, picturesque villages, historic market towns, breathtaking trails and views and the iconic white cliffs of the Heritage Coast.
A “Down” is a southern English term for a low or medium-sized hill. The rolling landscape has peaks which rarely exceed 200 metres in height - the tallest peak in the Park is Blackdown at 190m - and although usually composed of chalk, they can also be sandy.
The upper chalklands provide the ideal environment for wild flowers which in turn provide a precious habitat for butterflies. During the spring and summer months up to 30 different species can be found fluttering around on a sunny day. The lowland heaths provide valuable habitats for our reptile and amphibians and all 12 UK species can be found living in this internationally important landscape. On a June evening, you may be fortunate enough to catch the otherwordly call from a nightjar. Once experienced, never forgotten.
This is the area that inspired both William Blake's poem 'Jerusalem' and Hubert Parry's music which transformed it into the well-loved hymn we know today. Come and be inspired by 'England's mountains green,' whatever your interests, you’re guaranteed to fall in love with the South Downs National Park.
Where is South Downs National Park?
The South Down National Park stretches from Winchester in the West to Eastbourne in the East through the counties of Hampshire, East Sussex and predominantly West Sussex. The South Downs cover over 1,600 square kilometres.
An Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty since 1966, the region was awarded National Park status in 2011, making it the newest of the UK’s national parks.
The South Downs visitor centre is based in the historic market town of Midhurst, the gateway to the National Park, and is where you can pick up a South Downs map, South Downs Way map, other walking and cycling routes, and inspiration for your thrilling visit ahead. The market town of Petworth is also in the SDNP and brimming with antique shops, galleries and independents.
Leisure, lunch, the list goes on…
You could easily be mistaken for thinking that a trip to the South Downs National Park is just about walking and cycling.
While the South Downs does offer some of the very best walking and cycling routes in the UK, including the famous South Downs Way (the only National Trail to lie entirely within a National Park) there are so many other things to do here too.
This is the sunniest part of southern England and the sun along with the chalk provides the perfect growing environment for vines. Try and carve out some time to visit one of the many vineyards to be found in the Park and enjoy a glass of Sussex, or a leisurely lunch or afternoon tea overlooking the vines. There are many gorgeous country pubs to visit as well, serving food from the local area.
From art galleries, theatres, antiques, wildlife tours, Roman ruins, and museums, to gardens and garden centres, light railways, stately homes, planetariums, artisan food, vineyards and breweries, the list goes on. The county capital of Chichester is well worth a visit and lying just south of the Downs is flat and easy to navigate with a wealth of cultural and shopping opportunities.
If you’re looking for something more active, why not try horse-riding, polo lessons, paddle boarding, shooting, rounds of golf, fishing, festivals or undertaking the South Downs Marathon? The choices are endless.
Camping and Glamping
If camping or glamping in the South Downs takes your fancy, you’ll probably be interested to know that the South Downs have been granted International Dark Sky Reserve status, making it one of the best places in the country to view the night sky!
Today, the park is one of only 16 such Reserves in the world.
South Downs Way
Of course, we couldn’t not talk about the South Downs Way – the jewel of our National Park.
The 100 mile (160km) South Downs Way is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales and was the first bridleway National Trail in England.
The route stretches from the ancient cathedral city of Winchester, through to the white chalky cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head at Eastbourne.
Surrounded by some of the most spectacular scenery in the country and with most if it being off-road and a bridleway, this can be used by walkers, horse riders and cyclists alike.
The South Downs Way follows the old routes and droveways along the chalk escarpment and ridges of the South Downs. It's trail that's hard to beat and provides the visitor with the opportunity “to get away from it all” without having to travel too far. The undulating path provides a wonderful trip for long distance riders as well as walkers.
If you can't spare the time to attempt the whole route in one go, it also provides interesting day trips and short breaks; there are entry points all along this National Trail. Simply pick up a map from the South Downs Centre, upload a GPS guide to your bike’s sat nav, download a walking map or details of connecting bus services to your phone, and before you know it you can be out exploring the very best the British countryside has to offer.
Whatever you choose to do on your visit to the South Downs National Park, you’re sure to be astounded.