Just a stone’s throw (or two) from the capital city, the South Downs National Park is a haven of natural beauty. From rolling hills to gorgeous heaths and ancient woodland, nature’s finest landscapes abound in this swathe of southern England.
Over 1,600 square kilometres of the great outdoors are waiting to be discovered on your Hampshire cottage holiday in what is one of the UK’s most richly varied national parks. Stephen Finlay from the South Downs National Park Authority comments on this, saying:
“From rolling hills to bustling market towns, the South Downs National Park’s landscapes cover 1,600 square kilometres of breath-taking views and hidden gems. There are more than 3,300 kilometres of rights of way to explore, including the South Downs Way National Trail, which runs the entire length of the National Park from Winchester to Eastbourne.
“There really is something for everyone here. Discover the white cliffs of Seven Sisters, rare chalk grasslands rich with butterflies, ancient woodland and lowland heaths or enjoy our ‘picture perfect’ villages, traditional country pubs and flourishing vineyards.”
So, if you’re planning a visit to South Downs National Park and want to know what the area has to offer, here is our guide on the best things to see and do in South Downs.
Walking the countryside
In such an idyllic rural spot, one of the best ways to explore the park is undoubtedly by walking. Whether you’re looking for a short amble or a longer hike, there are countless beautiful routes to follow through the South Downs countryside.
Ed Terry, a guide at Thistle Trekking, agrees, saying: “With its ocean-formed chalk hillsides, ancient grassland and dramatic views, the South Downs have sustained and inspired many for thousands of years. A visitor here will find something to suit any sense of adventure, from rolling down its slopes in fibre-glass balls to paragliding off its summits.
“However, it is perhaps best enjoyed on foot; trudging through its clay fields and farmland along flint-strewn trails, enclosed by hedgerows and following historic byways. Its landscape switches between undulating sheep-grazed hills, steep-sided woodland and open, majestic ridgelines. There are also a host of local attractions, walking clubs and guided walking options to be found across the national park.
“For the more determined, there is a long-distance trail running the length of the South Downs Way, a fantastic and physically demanding trek encapsulating much of the best scenery, culture and history of the area.”
David Stewart from the website Walkingworld, which gives advice on over 80 walks in the South Downs, all with clear instructions and Ordnance Survey maps, also recommends the area highly for keen ramblers. He says:
“I have fond memories of the South Downs, where we would regularly escape when I was a child, my father invariably hunting down a Saxon church, Roman Road or, best of all, an Iron Age hillfort. The chalk downlands and spectacular white cliffs are familiar to anyone who has visited the area, but there are also places of surprising wildness, especially in the ancient woodlands, and a sense of deep history as you follow well-worn tracks between settlements that have been established for hundreds, thousands even, of years. It's a place I am always delighted to return to.”
Follow South Downs Way
One of the most scenic routes in the region is the South Downs Way. The national trail runs for around 100 miles stretching from Winchester to Eastbourne, and is accessible to walkers, cyclists and horse riders alike. By exploring this route, you will encounter some of the country’s finest wildlife, quaint villages and dramatic landscapes, including the white chalk cliffs at Eastbourne.
Paul from South Downs Discovery, a group that runs walking tours of the area, tells us more about South Downs Way. He says: “The South Downs are a walkers’ and cyclists’ paradise, with countless footpaths and bridleways criss-crossing the national park. The main attraction though is undoubtedly the South Downs Way, a 100-mile long National Trail which starts in historic Winchester and ends in the coastal town of Eastbourne. To walk the whole route takes on average 6-10 days (or less if you’re up for a challenge!) or 2-5 days to cycle.
“It’s a ridgeline trail for much of the way, offering sweeping views inland towards the North Downs and also out to sea from around Amberley eastwards. As well as beautiful countryside, there are also some beautiful and historic towns and villages to explore, some of the highlights being Winchester, Petersfield, Amberley, Arundel, Lewes and Alfriston. You’re also never too far away from a cracking country pub!”
Take in the Chalk Cliffs
Perhaps the most famous natural landmark in the South Downs National Park is the Severn Sisters Chalk Cliffs. This is one of Britain’s most impressive unspoilt landscapes, where luscious green hills plummet into the seas via bright white cliffs at a stunningly sheer angle. 280 hectares of dramatic chalk cliffs, a charming river valley and sweeping grassland combine to make the chalk cliffs a must-visit for anyone venturing to South Downs.
The Severn Sisters Country Park is well worth a visit, not only for taking in and photographing the famous cliffs themselves, but also for seeking out some of Britain’s rare wildlife. From the hardy yellow-horned poppy to stunning Adonis blue butterflies, the chalk grasslands, salt marshes and saline lagoons of the area are a haven for fascinating species.
Meander along the easy-access coastal trail to enjoy the scenery; try a spot of bird watching to see unusual birds such as the Redshank and Shelduck, or try something a little more exhilarating and take in the cliffs by canoe.
In the South Downs area, there are countless charming villages to wander around. One of the most popular is Amberley. Less than a mile from the South Downs Way, Amberley is nestled half-way between Winchester and Eastbourne, and is a picture-postcard village full of narrow lanes and thatched cottages. Terence Allen from The South Downs blog comments:
“I would describe Amberley as the jewel in the crown of the South Downs. Although a midway point along the challenging South Downs Way (the famous hiking route), Amberley is accessible by rail and road. This chocolate box village is tiny yet it boasts some great attractions, in particular the Amberley 'Working Museum'. As well as its vintage collections of cars, on 29th and 30th June it will be hosting a robot workshop which you can join in on, and will also be displaying some of the robots from TV’s Robot Wars.”
He continues, “In nearby Storrington, in the grounds of historic Parham House, you can enjoy the Contemporary Craft Show from the 17th to 18th June, featuring woodworkers, painters, and designers who will be showing off their talents. This is followed by Midsummer Magic on 22nd June, where you can explore the beautiful grounds and enjoy an evening of Jazz.”
Uncover local history
Over 660 sites in the vicinity of South Downs are now protected as being of national historical importance, making for a destination steeped in the cultures of civilisations past. From Bronze Age barrows to World War II pill boxes, thousands of diverse vestiges of history are to be found across South Downs. Sites like Cissbury Ring will show you the remains of a Neolithic mine, one of the first in Britain and among the largest in Europe. A walk around the ring is not only fascinating in its natural history, but is scenic, too.
Many iconic writers of British history also resided in the inspirational land of South Downs. Virginia Woolf, for instance, lived, walked, wrote and died on the South Downs around Rodmell and her sister’s home at Charleston. This home even became a retreat for much of the legendary Bloomsbury writers’ group, being frequented by the likes of EM Forster, John Maynard Keynes and TS Eliot, who found the tranquility of the surroundings enriching for their work.
Visit Charleston Farmhouse to explore the building that housed the pioneers of 20th century art, decorated with paintings in the Italian fresco and Post-Impressionist styles. In the many rooms, you can take in murals, painted furniture, ceramics, and work by Renoir, Picasso, Derain and others. However, the walled gardens are a truly beautiful space to explore.
Sample the local cuisine
After a day spent enjoying the natural beauty of South Downs, don’t miss out on sampling the area’s natural bounty, too. This region is a thriving producer of organic food, and so a meal out in the area is a must during any visit. There are countless renowned pubs around South Downs selling delicious food, along with plenty of cafés and farm shops.
Paula Seager, director at Natural Partnerships CIC, who runs the resource South Downs Food, says: “The South Downs is known for its fantastic range of delicious and innovative locally-produced food and drink, grown, reared, caught, brewed and handmade in its beautiful rolling hills and surrounding weald and coastal waters".
“Visitors to the area shouldn’t miss out on enjoying the full experience by visiting local farm shops, great food pubs and restaurants, booking a vineyard, brewery or cheese tasting tour or going to one of the many great foodie events held across the region, from East Hampshire and across Sussex."
One of the most popular eateries in the region is The George and Dragon in Houghton. Owner of the pub, Carole, tells us that the traditional country pub is an old coaching inn that has been in the area since the 14th century, in one form or another. She explains that The George and Dragon is firmly placed as a “pub that does food – good English food”. So, whether you want to drop in for a local ale or an evening meal, you will find yourself welcome here.
The pub serves food twice a day seven days a week, with evening meals varying from day-to-day with fresh-cooked creations. An example of a prime dish here would be a pan-fried duck breast with honey and thyme jus, roasted new potatoes and fresh vegetables. Everything, even the condiments, are made from scratch with locally-sourced produce, so here you are really getting a taste of the local agricultural environment.
Conveniently situated right on the South Downs Way, the pub is a sanctuary for walkers and cyclists who have been exploring the national trails. Everyone will find something to their taste in this charming country pub – the chefs even bake their own gluten-free bread! With stunning views over the local downs, there could be no better place to kick back and enjoy the sights.
…Or try a local tipple
Alternatively, if you are looking for an immersive experience of the South Downs food and drink scene, why not take a tour of one of the country’s oldest and most beautiful vineyards? Breaky Bottom has been creating fine wines for 43 years, run on a small scale by Peter Hall and his wife. The vineyard features 6 acres of vines and a flock of 40 ewes that graze the surrounding steep banks.
Peter realised that there was a good potential for grape growing and winemaking in the UK, and decided to found Breaky Bottom. In the South Downs area, the climate is very similar to that of the near continent and the free-draining chalk soil finds its equivalent in Champagne. In the early years the vineyard’s reputation was established making elegant Loire-style wines with the variety Seyval Blanc. The 1990 vintage won a Gold Medal in the 1993 International Wine Challenge. Seyval Blanc is still the principal variety but now the vineyard produces 100% sparkling wines following the Méthode Champenoise to achieve a high quality Sparkling Brut. More recently the classic Champagne varieties of Chardonnay, Pinot Noir and Pinot Meunier have also been planted.
The wine is highly regarded by many of the leading wine critics and journalists. Oz Clarke selected Peter as ‘Best Wine-maker in England’ in The Sunday Express and, on BBC’s Countryfile, said “There’s no more beautiful vineyard in Britain than Breaky Bottom.” To experience the magic of Breaky Bottom for yourself, why not consider a visit? By appointment, visitors can go and tour the vineyard, see how the grapes are grown, how the wines are made and sample a few of the delicious varieties along the way.
Image credit: Martin Robson (Flickr) - Cissbury Ring