From the cathedral city of Winchester in the west to the seaside town of Eastbourne in the east, the South Downs National Park is a sprawling 87-mile (140km) stretch of picturesque, protected land at the southern edge of England. It is a mere spring pup compared to Britain’s more established national parks, only gaining its status as recently as 2010. Yet, perhaps due to its proximity to London and Brighton, it is not only one of the most visited of all the parks but also one the most loved. It covers 1,627 stunning square kilometres (628 square miles) of rolling downland, hidden woodlands, internationally-rare lowland heath and lush pastoral clay vales. Spend a week hiking the South Downs Way, mountain biking, horse riding or soaring above the patchwork fields below in a paraglider.
Walking the South Downs Way
The South Downs Way is one of those bucket list adventures which is far more doable than you would imagine. The path runs from Winchester, the ancient capital of England, to the towering white cliffs and seaside town of Eastbourne on the eastern side. It winds over hills, through valleys, past clay vales and climbs to ancient barrows and hill forts. Much of the path follows a ribbon of old drovers’ routes across the spine of the downs, making it easy to imagine ancient traders walking the same path.
Breaking the 100-mile trail into manageable chunks enables most walkers to complete it in seven to nine days. Many choose to tackle the path over a long week off or over a series of weekends, taking a section at a time. Those in good shape try to tackle it in a speedy four days, but with little respite from constant climbs and descents, it's an approach that isn't for everyone.
Our forthcoming Wild Camping Guide to the South Downs offers some ideas for off-grid camping whilst tackling the path, but if this doesn’t appeal, you will find hostels, pubs, campsites and B&Bs providing accommodation for the weary wanderer.
If you want some of those iconic views but only have a weekend to spare, take the section from the South Downs YHA by the River Ouse and head eastwards to Cuckmere Haven and across the Seven Sisters.
For a higher-octane adventure, there are plenty of mountain biking opportunities across the downs. Towards the eastern end, Queen Elizabeth Country Park has trails ranging from family-friendly green routes to a more skilled black run, with everything in between.
For a bikepacking challenge, you can take to the South Downs Way on your gravel or mountain bike. Much of the 100-mile route is over permissive bridleways and suited as much to two wheels as it is to two feet. With total climbs of 3,800m, equivalent to the summit of Mount Elbrus (the tallest mountain on the European continent), it’s best to take your time across the route. Most riders take between 2 to 4 days on average.
Like huge green, rolling, inland waves, paragliders have found the downs to be the perfect shape and size to launch themselves off into rising thermals. Offering a unique perspective of the patchwork fields below, these sports have taken hold across southeast England.
Then when you are ready for lessons, head to Fly Sussex, a paragliding school offering everything from one-day introductions to multi-day courses, with class and field-based lessons and certificates.
Established paragliders can visit the skysurfing club for more details on where and when to fly over the South Downs landscape.
Geology of the Downs
The entire area of the South Downs was once a gigantic chalk, clay and greensand hill, forced upward when tectonic plates collided with each other. These differing sediments eroded at different rates, with the porous chalk holding out longer than the clay. This created the rolling chalk escarpments, including the Seven Sisters that are now characteristic of the South Downs, with clay lowlands or clay vales below. Although the hills are the most striking part of the landscape, the vales are perhaps a more important part of the landscape, as they have provided fertile farmland for thousands of years.
Flora and Fauna
The South Downs is not a truly wild landscape. A woodland of predominantly yew trees, fragments of which are found on Winchester Hill and Kingley Vale, covered the region around 3,000 years ago. But these forests were burnt and felled to provide space for grazing animals, forever changing the region’s ecology. The thin chalk soil continued to be grazed by sheep and later rabbits, which meant the area can only support slow-growing, low-lying herbaceous plants. Although this may seem a devastating thing to happen in ecological terms, the result has been an exceptionally diverse landscape with more than 80 species per square metre.
Through spring and into summer, the grasslands are a tapestry of wildflowers, buzzing with life. You’ll find wispy purple field scabious amongst yellow trefoils, stunning rich blue round-headed rampions, musk mallows, sorrels and sunshine-like ox-eye daisies. Rare orchids also pop up on the grassland, with none more striking than the burnt orchid. This flower comprises countless individual white and red-pink flowers emanating downwards from a darker unfurled tip, giving the flower the look of a benign red-hot poker.
The wildflowers attract rare butterflies and if you are lucky, you may spot the electric blue wings of an Adonis Blue butterfly, a creature which thrives on chalk-rich downland. The Adonis is by no means the only butterfly. You might also catch sight of the self-describing Orange Tip butterfly, the Dark Green Fritillary or the fierce Duke of Burgundy, a butterfly so tough it even chases off dragonflies to protect its patch.
Visit during dusk and you may be lucky enough to spot passing barn owls. They are beautiful yet eerie ghost-like birds who have mastered the art of soundless flight, moving so stealthily that you barely notice them until they are upon you.
Amongst the mammal population you may find water voles and otters in the waterways across the park. Look for footprints, scat and signs of their lunch on the banks. Otters are particularly messy eaters, often leaving bits of their dinner strewn across the edges of rivers.
When to go
The wide-open landscape of the South Downs means it is always at the mercy of the elements. With strong coastal winds and sudden downpours, longer trips (like tackling the South Downs Way), can be more challenging during the winter. However, it is a great place for day trips and often you will find the footpath to yourself.
Things are a little gentler by April and May as the first flush of wildflowers graces the chalk grasslands of the downs. It’s a lovely time to visit and by Easter, many of the campsites are starting to open so you shouldn’t be caught out with somewhere to stay.
By summer the weather is warm, the days are long and it is a real pleasure to wander over the downs. As a dark sky park, the downs are the perfect place to lay back and watch the summer meteor showers in the warm summer nights. On the flip side of this, the summer is also the peak time for tourism. Accommodation is often full, the restaurants and cafes get booked up and the paths can be busy. If you can, visit in early July or mid-September when the schools have gone back and everything calms down.
How to Get There
Southeast England is not always the most relaxing place to drive and the South Downs are no exception. During rush hour, traffic can be at a near standstill so if you do choose to drive, try to plan your journeys to avoid these peak times.
Along the south coast, heading north at Brighton the A27 covers much of the park and again avoiding rush hour is a good way to navigate from west to east when driving. The worst-hit areas for congestion tend to be Worthing and Arundel, so avoid these if you can.
Via train or bus
There are frequent trains from Clapham Junction and London Waterloo or Portsmouth and Southampton on the south coast to stations throughout the park. Liss, Haslemere, Winchester and Alford will all get you to the western edge of the park. Petworth, Amberly and Pulborough are a bit more central whilst Lewis and Southease take you to the eastern edge.
Between Winchester and Petersfield, taking in part of the Meon valley, the South Downs Rambler bus service offers very affordable fares for those who enjoy a relaxing, meandering route through the downs.
Places to Eat
The South Downs National Park is one of the most visited national parks in the UK. It receives a diverse range of visitors from all walks of life. The eating establishments across the park reflect this range and you’ll find everything from fish and chips and wholesome pub grub to Michelin-starred fine dining. Most of these are set up to serve vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free options too, so no matter your dietary restriction, you should find something delicious to eat.
For a good Sunday roast in a historic, traditional English pub, try the 14th Century George Inn at Alfriston, the Royal Oak in Henfield or the Abergavenny Arms in Rodmell. All of these have a warm, cosy atmosphere and really good, traditional pub food with veggie and vegan options.
If you fancy something a bit more high-end then your best bet is to head into the city of Brighton. Here you’ll find Isaac At, a Michelin-starred restaurant serving exquisite food with an emphasis on sustainability and local produce.
Our forthcoming wild camping guide lists five places to pitch up if you want a spot to yourself. Otherwise, there are plenty of places to choose from for every budget.
You’ll find pubs like The White Horse, Chilgrove, a boutique hotel in the heart of the Downs or there’s the Spread-Eagle Hotel and Spa, Midhurst, a historic 16th-century hotel with a luxurious spa and stylish rooms.
For something a bit more grassroots try The YHA South Downs, Southease. Much like any other youth hostel in the UK, it is cheap and cheerful, with the familiar green bedding, honest food and a choice of dorm or private rooms.
If you want to spend a night or two under canvas, try Wild Boar Wood. This is a small, off-grid campsite with just a handful of pitches, each with its own composting toilet. It’s a lovely place to stay. One of the nice touches of the place is that there are no restrictions on collecting firewood from the local woodland: just gather what you like for your own ready-made fire pit.