Stretching from Winchester in Hampshire all the way along to the Seven Sisters Cliffs near Pevensey in East Sussex, the South Downs is one of the UK’s most beautiful national parks. Formed over 60 million years ago from a band of chalk deposited during the Cretaceous period, it later formed over Mesozoic times resulting in the chalky luscious landscape that we know and love today.
One of the UK’s more recent national parks, established in 2010, its 670km2 of dramatic valleys and rolling slopes leading down to the sea attracts more visitors than any other national park. It’s also one of the most populated, with over 100,000 residents living across its three counties.
So, what is it about the South Downs that makes it one of the most popular areas across the UK?
Amazing walking opportunities in the South Downs
Like all national parks, one of the most popular activities across the South Downs is walking. Over 2,000 rights of way, trails and paths are up for grabs for walkers and hikers of all levels, though if you want to discover the whole length of the park, you can commit to the South Downs Way National Trail which runs from west to east. At approximately 100 miles in length, it’s not one for the faint-hearted.
Most people take between 7-10 days to complete it, sometimes stopping off for a night or two to have a mosey around the local area. If you need somewhere to stay en-route, our selection of properties across the South Downs will welcome you with open arms - just click the button below which will take you to our South Downs collection.
The trail is quite a famous one, thought to date back around 6,000 years. Walk it, cycle it or take an equine friend along - just be aware that if you do the latter, you’ll need to find horse-friendly accommodation or grazing to stable your faithful friend at night. Of course, you don’t have to do the full trail to enjoy the delights that the Downs has to offer. You can pretty much park up anywhere in the countryside and find somewhere stunning to walk.
This is no landlocked national park, however. One of the most stunning aspects of the South Downs is its spectacular stretch of coastline. From iconic Beachy Head near Eastbourne, rising 535 feet above sea level, past the magnificent Seven Sisters cliffs (a much-loved screensaver on many a computer across the land) to the grasslands of Cuckmere Haven, there’s a huge stretch of coastal path and beach to walk with amazing sea views. The Seven Sisters cliffs also lead inland to make up the Seven Sisters Country Park so that you can enjoy the best of both coast and country without having to get in the car.
Slightly further west, and about 6 miles northwest of Brighton, the area around Devil’s Dyke is great walking country - the National Trust have dedicated trails with beautiful views to enjoy. Try the 3-mile Chasm Explorer Walk which takes you along to the alleged burial place of the devil or follow the ancient landscape along the downland walk of Saddlescombe Farm and Newtimber. There’s also a great archaeology walk which follows the contours of the glorious Downs between Weald and sea.
While dogs will love pretty much all of the South Downs, one of the most popular is the Circular Mill Hill Trail. Under half a mile in length and fully accessible for wheelchairs and pushchairs too, this short wildlife walk is one of the best. Just remember to keep Fido under control around wildlife.
As with all National Parks, the land across the South Downs is the perfect habitat for a wonderful variety of different types of wildlife. Birds such as grey partridge, hen harriers and skylarks thrive across both downland and wetland and can be spotted from viewing areas and bird hides all over the Downs including Pulborough Brooks and the Arundel Wetland Centre. The latter also offers the opportunity to view the masses of wildlife including geese, ducks and swans from an electric boat.
Rural places of interest in the South Downs
Ditchling Beacon and Devil’s Dyke
Climb to the top of the world (or so it seems) at Ditchling Beacon, set high above the South Downs. The third highest point on the Downs and once one of the chain of fires lit across the area to warn of impending invasion, it offers amazing panoramic views over the Weald and out to sea. Walk to Devil’s Dyke, passing a delightful pair of Jack and Jill windmills, which lie above the village of Clayton. If it's snowy, join the hordes of children who sledge down the hills under the mills – a fun, traditional winter event.
Long Man of Wilmington
This permanent giant chalk-figured resident of the Downs is perhaps one of the most popular visitor spots although there is some speculation as to his origins. While many say that he is strictly pre-historic, the other popular viewpoint is that a monk from a local priory carved him out and that he represented a pilgrim. The 72m tall ‘Guardian of the South Downs’ is best viewed from afar but there are some lovely walks on the downlands above it.
Cissbury Ring Iron Age Fort
If your interest is Celtic, head to Cissbury Ring near Worthing and uncover evidence of Celtic tribal war and early flint mines that were used to make tools during the Neolithic period. Uncover the 6,000-year history of this iconic hill, looked after by the National Trust and designated both a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a Scheduled Monument before you go. Check out their website and find out about the discoveries, assumptions and mistakes of Victorian archaeologists at the site through 20 years of investigations.
Another Iron Age fort whose building remains lie underneath the ground. Set atop Chanctonbury Hill near Washington in West Sussex, this is a popular walking spot with fabulous views. It forms part of an ensemble of associated historical features created over a span of more than 2,000 years and is thought to date to the Late Bronze Age or early Iron Age. Historians think that it may have been a defence, a cattle enclosure or even a religious shrine.
Famous historic buildings in the South Downs
A famous sight for all those driving into Arundel, the imposing Arundel Castle, set in 40 acres of grounds and towering above the town, is open to the public from April until October. This restored medieval fortress was established by Roger de Montgomery on Christmas day of 1067 - the first man to hold the earldom of Arundel by the graces of William the Conqueror. Many of the original features such as the Norman keep, the medieval gatehouse and barbican survive to this day.
Take the children and learn about the castle’s sieges with interactive exhibits, games and costumes and take a guided tour to see the castle’s finely preserved interior with magnificent furniture, tapestries and a rare collection of paintings by Van Dyck, Gainsborough and Canaletto. The castle also hosts a renowned tulip festival every year which attracts lovers of this delightful bloom from all over the world.
If you are looking for grandeur, then come no further, as Petworth House is one of the best. Looked after by the National Trust, this beautiful 17th-century mansion has landscaped gardens by Capability Brown as well as its very own deer park! The house was inspired by the Baroque palaces of Europe and is known for its important collection of paintings by the likes of Van Dyck and Turner, said to be the finest art collection in the care of the trust.
Make sure you also view the Molyneux Globe in the North Gallery while you are there – made in 1592, it was thought to be the earliest English terrestrial globe in existence. The estate has a coffee shop and restaurant serving seasonal homemade food as well as a shop to browse and pleasure garden to stroll around at your leisure.
Anne of Cleves House
Not as grand but equally as beautiful, in the county town of Lewes you’ll find Anne of Cleves House. The 15th-century timber-framed Wealden hall house was given to her as part of her divorce settlement from King Henry VIII in 1541. Apparently, Anne never actually visited the property and museum, but the authentically furnished rooms and traditional Tudor planted garden still make a wonderful afternoon out regardless!
There’s also a café and Tudor tea garden to treat yourself afterwards, before heading out to see what else is on offer across the town. Check out Lewes Castle, the National Trust’s Monk House and Barbican House. If you want a little Sussex culture, drive a few miles out to Glynde, where you will find the famous opera house of Glyndebourne, or to Goodwood just outside Chichester to take part in Glorious Goodwood or the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
Picture-postcard villages in the South Downs
A sprinkling of picturesque villages dot the landscape of the South Downs. One of the most popular and much visited is Alfriston with its hilly narrow streets and country village wholesomeness. Home to the National Trust’s first building - the 14th-century Wealden hall-house - the village was also known as a hotbed of smuggling activity back in the 18th century. Now known as one of the prettiest places to visit in the South East, it has a selection of quirky shops and pubs as well as one of England’s most popular antique bookshops, Much Ado Books, tucked away in a charming converted barn.
If you are looking for another picturesque and typically English village, then you’ll want to spend an afternoon in Firle. Making a great starting point for a variety of walks across the Downs and down to the sea, it has a lovely ancient church, cricket pitch and village pub with great food and excellent local ales.
The village is also home to Firle Place, which boasts a fascinating history and collection of painting and objets d’art. Open to the public between June and September, it’s an excellent place to stop for a cream tea and a wander around the gardens. If you come in May, the annual Charleston Festival which welcomes speakers from a diverse range of creative disciplines makes an interesting afternoon out, or for a bit of soul, come in early July for the Love Supreme Festival at nearby Glynde Place.
We’ve already mentioned Ditchling Beacon as a place of interest to visit, but the little village is also worth a wander. A quiet corner of Sussex hidden under the shadow of the rolling South Downs, Ditchling has an arty vibe and is home to many artists and writers. Welcoming and warm, it also boasts a couple of busy pubs and quaint cafés, just the place to stop off for something lovely after a long walk.
If you have been inspired to visit this grand dame of the south, find somewhere gorgeous to stay in our collection below:
South Downs cottages