Traveller's Guide To: South Downs

Britain's 15th National Park comes into being this month, stretching from the woods of eastern Hampshire to the Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex. Fiona Sturges reports

What and where is it?

"Blunt, bow-headed, whale-backed," was how Rudyard Kipling described the South Downs in his poem Sussex, words which certainly evoke the drama of the area if not quite its beauty. The Downs were formed, a mere 60 million years ago, from a thick band of chalk deposited during the Cretaceous Period when a shallow sea smothered much of northern Europe, and left behind the skeletons of millions of tiny sea creatures. The resulting chalky landscape was gently folded in late Mesozoic times, forming the ridges, sharp slopes and dramatic valleys.

Since the dawn of National Parks in Britain 61 years ago, the area has been the focus of a campaign to give it the same status as its nearest neighbour, the New Forest. Finally, this wish has been granted. The new South Downs National Park – Britain's 15th – comes into being on 31 March.

The designated area stretches about 70 miles from the ancient pastures and woodland of eastern Hampshire via the West Sussex Weald to the looming Seven Sisters cliffs in East Sussex. The South Downs will be by far the most populated National Park, with about 120,000 residents living within its boundaries. The area attracts 39 million visitors a year, more than any other National Park. Having National Park status will offer protection from over-zealous developers. For more information on the National Park, see

Out and about

Walking is one of the main attractions of the South Downs, not least because of the terrific views of the countryside and the sea. The area contains about 2,000 miles of rights of way, and countless trails for walkers of all ages and energy levels. For the long-distance walker, the South Downs Way National Trail (nationaltrail. runs the length of the Downs, stretching more than 100 miles from Winchester to Eastbourne and, depending on how fit you are, takes about a week to complete. The origins of the trail, which is also used by cyclists and horse-riders, are thought to date back 6,000 years to the Mesolithic Age, when the higher, drier chalk ridge made for smoother travelling than the wooded weald below. Nowadays it's handily peppered with pubs and B&Bs. For the day-tripper Ditchling Beacon, formerly a prehistoric hill fort, offers stunning views across the Sussex Weald in the north and the sea to the south. From there, it's a light amble over to the Jack and Jill windmills (, a pair of 19th-century corn-mills now restored to full working order. They are open 2-5pm on most Sundays from May to September. Admission is free. Wheelchair and pushchair-friendly walks can be found at Devil's Dyke and on the circular Mill Hill trail, both of which provide spectacular views of the sea. Should you prefer to have someone else do the planning, Footprints of Sussex (01903 813 381; offers short breaks along the South Down Way, including accommodation and guided walks, while So Sussex (07739 050816; specialises in family trips taking in fishing, cycling and walking. For information on walking and cycling routes, go to

How about some history?

Whether it's archaeological remains or stately homes you're after, there's no shortage of history here. By far the oldest South Downs resident is the Long Man of Wilmington, the much puzzled-over chalk figure outlined on a hill to the north-west of Eastbourne. While some believe him to be pre-historic, others maintain that he is the work of an 11th century monk from a nearby priory.

The Iron Age fort at Cissbury Ring, three miles north of Worthing, provides evidence of warring Celtic tribes along with the flint mines excavated during the Neolithic period for the production of tools.

Nearby Chanctonbury Ring is another Iron Age fort that was later co-opted by the Romans; the remains of their buildings now lie just few feet beneath the surface.

Above ground, you'll find a wealth of domestic monuments to the South Downs' past. Arundel Castle (01903 882173; is the gloriously imposing seat of the Dukes of Norfolk and their ancestors, set in 40 acres of sweeping grounds and gardens. The castle opens 10am-5pm daily except Monday, from April to October. Admission start at £7.50 for adults and children.

For similarly eye-popping grandeur visit Petworth House (01798 343929; nationaltrust., the vast late-17th century mansion set in a beautiful deer park and landscaped by Capability Brown. The house contains an impressive collection of paintings by the likes of Turner, Van Dyck and Blake as well as carvings by Grinling Gibbons. Open 13 March to 3 November, Monday to Wednesday, Saturday and Sunday, 11am-5pm. Adults £9.90, children £5.

More modestly proportioned, though no less impressive is Anne of Cleves House (01273 486260; in Lewes, a 15th century, timber-framed cottage that was part of Anne's divorce settlement from Henry VIII. Open 1 March-31 October: Tues-Thurs 10am-5pm, Sun, Mon and Bank Holidays 11am-5pm. Adults £4.20, children £2.10

Into the wild?

Centuries of grazing has rendered the Downs the perfect habitat for a huge variety of wild flowers and butterflies. Downland birds include skylarks, lapwings, grey partridge and stonechat, while reed bunting and hen harriers can be found in wetland areas such as Pulborough Brooks (, a nature reserve replete with trails, viewing areas and hides. You can get even closer to nature at the Arundel Wetland Centre (01903 883355; – 60 acres of ponds, lakes and reed beds. These are best explored via the many boardwalks or on electric boats, from which you can see rare swans, geese, ducks, water vole and dragonflies. The centre hosts regular "Pond Explorer" sessions where children can go pond-dipping to collect aquatic creatures and take a V C closer look under a microscope. Open daily: 9.30am-4.30pm in winter, to 5.30pm in summer. Adults £9.70, children £4.85.

I fancy a drink

The South Downs has the same chalky subsoil found in the Champagne region of France, so it's no wonder the area's sparkling wines are developing a reputation for excellence. If you're not convinced, visit the RidgeView Wine Estate (0845 3457292;, whose bubbly comes recommended by everyone from the Hairy Bikers to Oz Clarke. You can visit the vineyards and taste the wine any day except Sunday, 11am-4pm. Group tours of the winery can be pre-booked at £8. Alternatively, Breaky Bottom (01273 476427; is a 36-year-old vineyard about five miles from Lewes. It is family-run and famed for its award-winning wine from the Seyval Blanc and Muller Thurgau grapes. Tastings and tours are free if you call ahead.

And something to eat

South Downs pubs have long prided themselves on catering to the tastes of discerning metropolitan-types looking for something more than a ploughman's lunch. The Jolly Sportsman (01273 890400;, tucked away in the winding lanes around East Chiltington, is celebrated for its native ales and delicious, locally sourced food such as Sussex lobster and Ditchling lamb. The Hungry Monk (01323 482178; near Jevington in the Cuckmere Valley is reputed to have invented the banoffee pie, the calorific pudding that combines banana with toffee and cream, and serves first-class Sunday lunches. Whites Bar & Kitchen (01903 812347; in Steyning is a family-run gastropub where you can choose between a bar menu of cheese and charcuterie-themed "deli-boards", and a restaurant offering such dishes as ale-battered cod with chips and home-made ravioli.

For something more upmarket, try the atmospheric Moonrakers in Alfriston (01323 871199; where the dishes are as splendid as the views, or the restaurant-with-rooms West Stoke House (01243 575226;, now the proud owner of two Michelin stars.

Time for bed

Try a yurt. Safari Britain (01273 474134; provides ultra-comfortable Mongolian-style dwellings in a stunning setting near Firle, complete with mattresses, pillows, cooking facilities and wood-burning stoves, and can organise activities including falconry, bird-watching, natural navigation and foraging. The site caters for group bookings only. If you'd rather not be nose to nose with nature, Ruben's Barn (01243 818187; ) is a pleasant lambing shed-turned-self-catering cottage in East Dean, near Chichester, while the excellent Riverdale House B&B (01323 871038; in the Cuckmere Valley is particularly suited to couples with young children with baby-sitting services and well-stocked playroom. For some medieval luxury, try Amberley Castle (01798 831992;, a fairy tale fortress complete with stone towers and a moat that dates back to the 12th century.

How about some village life?

Best start in Alfriston to the east of the National Park. Once a centre for smuggling in the 18th century, it is now a tranquil village with narrow streets, white washed cottages and a village green. Weird and wonderful shops include the Bat's Wing Apothecary and Much Ado, the much-adored antiquarian bookshop. Nearby Firle is a picture-postcard country village complete with ancient church, cricket pitch, tea shop, pub and stately home while the slightly larger Ditchling is similarly picturesque, and forms a great base from which to go on walks around the Downs. Further to the west, Fulking and Pyecombe are pretty, leafy villages with decent pubs and which offer easy access to the countryside for walkers, cyclists and horse-riders.

Can I see the sea?

The South Downs also has its own stretch of glorious coastline. Here the boundary runs along the coast between Seaford, east of Brighton, and the rippled cliffs of Seven Sisters just west of Eastbourne. The coast and inland area makes up the Seven Sisters Country Park (seven, already a conservation area and home to some of the most dramatic coastline in the country. Take a hair-raising stroll along iconic Beachy Head ( and up towards the Belle Tout lighthouse (soon to open as a hotel), where the 530-feet high cliffs offer unrivalled views of the Downs and the Channel. Birling Gap is a beautiful enclosed pebble beach below the Seven Sisters cliffs, accessible from the village of East Dean. Meanwhile, the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre (01323 423302; is great fun for children. Depending on the time of year, you watch the shearing and help to feed the lambs. Open 2-5pm weekdays, 10am-5pm weekends.

How do I get there?

Road access is poor. The best access is by train. Southern Rail ( operates services from London Victoria to Brighton, Chichester, Eastbourne and Lewes. There are plenty of other services from Southampton, Bristol and Ashford International; call 08457 48 49 40, or see for more information. The new Downlander day ticket (£10 for adults, £2.50 for children) offers access to the South Downs via Southern stations plus unlimited bus travel. Tickets must be bought at least two days in advance, see the website Visitors arriving in Brighton can take the open-top "Breeze" buses (77, 78 and 79) to Devil's Dyke, Stanmer Park and Ditchling Beacon on Saturdays, Sundays and public holidays. For information on how to get around and bus routes across South Downs go to

Fool's paradise: South Downs follies

Nowadays we make do with water features to embellish our lawns, but 18th century noblemen had more highfalutin ideas about what constituted garden decoration, hence the folly. The Petworth Park folly, a Doric temple, is a typically majestic addition to an already grand estate. The extraordinary Nore Folly, pictured, near Slindon, has been likened variously to a railway arch and a medieval citadel, while Tunnel House in Pyecombe is a suitably eccentric Tudor fortress built in 1841 by the London, Brighton and South-Coast Railway Company. Outside the eastern boundary of the National Park, the 18th century landowner "Mad Jack Fuller" had a classical temple built on his Brightling Park estate in East Sussex and pyramid erected in the nearby churchyard where he is now entombed.

Famous faces: Austen and Tennyson

It's probably as much to do with its proximity to London as its distinct beauty that the South Downs has attracted so many starry residents over the years. Laurence Olivier lived fitfully in Sussex and ended his days in Steyning at the foot of the Downs. Jane Austen, pictured, lived on the edge of the Downs in Chawton, Hampshire while Alfred Lord Tennyson had a second home at Blackdown. Best known for their South Downs connections were the members of the Bloomsbury Group, notably Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell, who lived at Charleston (01323 811265;, near Firle, and welcomed guests including EM Forster and Virginia Woolf. The house and gardens are now open to visitors from April to October, Wednesdays to Saturdays 1-6pm, Sundays and Bank Holiday 1-5.30pm. Adults £9, children £5.

Arts and Entertainment
Jeremy Clarkson, left, and Richard Hammond upset the locals in South America
tvReview: Top Gear team flee Patagonia as Christmas special reaches its climax in the style of Butch and Sundance
Ashley Barnes of Burnley scores their second goal
footballMan City vs Burnley match report
Arts and Entertainment
Peter Mayhew as Chewbacca alongside Harrison Ford's Han Solo in 'Star Wars'
Arts and Entertainment
Man of action: Christian Bale stars in Exodus: Gods and Kings
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and Clara have their first real heart to heart since he regenerated in 'Deep Breath'
Life and Style
Apple showed no sign of losing its talent for product launches with the new, slightly larger iPhone 6 making headlines
techSecurity breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
Arts and Entertainment
Jamie Oliver
filmTV chef Jamie Oliver turned down role in The Hobbit
The official police photograph of Dustin Diamond taken after he was arrested in Wisconsin
peopleDownfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
Arts and Entertainment
Tracy Emin's 1998 piece 'My Bed' on display at Christie's
artOne expert claims she did not
Ernesto Che Guevara and Fidel Castro, right, met at Havana Golf Club in 1962 to mock the game
newsFidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
Hackers revealed Oscar-winning actress Lawrence was paid less than her male co-stars in American Hustle
Arts and Entertainment
Clueless? Locked-door mysteries are the ultimate manifestation of the cerebral detective story
booksAs a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
Robin van Persie is blocked by Hugo Lloris
footballTottenham vs Manchester United match report
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Recruitment Genius: Accounts Administrator

    £16000 - £18000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

    Recruitment Genius: Personal Trainer / PT - OTE £30,000 Uncapped

    £25000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: The fastest growing fitness cha...

    Investigo: Finance Analyst

    £240 - £275 per day: Investigo: Support the global business through in-depth a...

    Ashdown Group: Data Manager - £Market Rate

    Negotiable: Ashdown Group: Data Manager - MySQL, Shell Scripts, Java, VB Scrip...

    Day In a Page

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    A timely reminder of the bloody anniversary we all forgot

    Who remembers that this week we enter the 150th anniversary year of the end of the American Civil War, asks Robert Fisk
    Homeless Veterans appeal: Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served

    Homeless Veterans appeal

    Former soldiers pay their respects to a friend who also served
    Downfall of Dustin 'Screech' Diamond, the 'Saved By The Bell' star charged with bar stabbing

    Scarred by the bell

    The downfall of the TV star charged with bar stabbing
    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Why 2014 was a year of technological let-downs

    Security breaches and overhyped start-ups dominated a year in which very little changed (save the size of your phone)
    Cuba's golf revolution: But will the revolutionary nation take 'bourgeois' game to its heart?

    Will revolutionary Cuba take 'bourgeois' golf to its heart?

    Fidel Castro ridiculed the game – but now investment in leisure resort projects is welcome
    The Locked Room Mysteries: As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor Otto Penzler explains the rules of engagement

    The Locked Room Mysteries

    As a new collection of the genre’s best is published, its editor explains the rules of engagement
    Amy Adams on playing painter Margaret Keane in Tim Burton's Big Eyes

    How I made myself Keane

    Amy Adams hadn’t wanted to take the role of artist Margaret Keane, because she’d had enough of playing victims. But then she had a daughter, and saw the painter in a new light
    Ed Richards: Parting view of Ofcom chief. . . we hate jokes on the disabled

    Parting view of Ofcom chief... we hate jokes on the disabled

    Bad language once got TV viewers irate, inciting calls to broadcasting switchboards. But now there is a worse offender, says retiring head of the media watchdog, Ed Richards
    A look back at fashion in 2014: Wear in review

    Wear in review

    A look back at fashion in 2014
    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015. Might just one of them happen?

    Ian Herbert: My 10 hopes for sport in 2015

    Might just one of them happen?
    War with Isis: The West needs more than a White Knight

    The West needs more than a White Knight

    Despite billions spent on weapons, the US has not been able to counter Isis's gruesome tactics, says Patrick Cockburn
    Return to Helmand: Private Davey Graham recalls the day he was shot by the Taliban

    'The day I was shot by the Taliban'

    Private Davey Graham was shot five times during an ambush in 2007 - it was the first, controversial photograph to show the dangers our soldiers faced in Helmand province
    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Revealed: the best and worst airlines for delays

    Many flyers are failing to claim compensation to which they are entitled, a new survey has found
    The stories that defined 2014: From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions

    The stories that defined 2014

    From the Scottish independence referendum to the Ice Bucket Challenge, our writers voice their opinions
    Stoke-on-Trent becomes first British city to be classified as 'disaster resilient' by the United Nations

    Disaster looming? Now you know where to head...

    Which British city has become the first to be awarded special 'resilience' status by the UN?