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 southdowns.gov.uk.
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. co.uk/southdowns) 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 (jillwindmill.org.uk), 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; footprintsofsussex.co.uk) offers short breaks along the South Down Way, including accommodation and guided walks, while So Sussex (07739 050816; sosussex.co.uk) specialises in family trips taking in fishing, cycling and walking. For information on walking and cycling routes, go to visitsouthdowns.com.
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; arundelcastle.org) 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. org.uk), 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; sussexpast.co.uk) 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 (rspb.org.uk/reserves), a nature reserve replete with trails, viewing areas and hides. You can get even closer to nature at the Arundel Wetland Centre (01903 883355; wwt.org.uk/visit-us/arundel) – 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; ridgeview.co.uk), 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; breakybottom.co.uk) 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; thejollysportsman.com), 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; hungrymonk.co.uk) 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; whitesbarkitchen.co.uk) 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; moonrakersrestaurant.co.uk) where the dishes are as splendid as the views, or the restaurant-with-rooms West Stoke House (01243 575226; weststokehouse.co.uk), now the proud owner of two Michelin stars.
Time for bed
Try a yurt. Safari Britain (01273 474134; safaribritain.com) 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; rubensbarn.co.uk ) is a pleasant lambing shed-turned-self-catering cottage in East Dean, near Chichester, while the excellent Riverdale House B&B (01323 871038; riverdalehouse.co.uk) 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; amberleycastle.co.uk), 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 sisters.org.uk), 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 (beachyhead.org) 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; sheepcentre.co.uk) 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 (southernrailway.com) 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 nationalrail.co.uk 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 southernrailway.com/downlander. 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 visitsouthdowns.com.
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; charleston.org.uk), 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.
Join our new commenting forum
Join thought-provoking conversations, follow other Independent readers and see their replies