The South Downs
As a little girl I spent many a happy hour flying a box kite at Beachy Head, going on family walks to Cuckmere Haven, with its distinctive oxbow lakes, and exploring the dramatic rollercoaster cliffs of the Seven Sisters – tired legs spurred on by the promise of an ice cream at the end. These days I tend to take the easier option, helping friends exercise their horses on the Downs and through woodland in the surrounding countryside.
However you choose to travel, it’s a captivating area – and I’m not just saying that because I’m biased. Celebrated author Bill Bryson described the landscape as “some of England’s finest” and, in April, a large part of it was embraced by the South Downs National Park, the country’s 10th and newest national park.
Covering 628 square miles and stretching 87 miles from Eastbourne in the east to Winchester in the west, it runs through East Sussex, West Sussex and Hampshire.
While the name conjures up rolling green downland ending at sheer, chalky white cliffs, the landscape and scenery is diverse, taking in gentle clay hills and vales, undulating farmland and steep woodland as you travel towards the eastern corner.
In my particular neck of the woods, the picturesque village of Alfriston is a justifiable magnet for visitors. A gentle one-mile walk away is Berwick Church, its spire visible above the trees. No ordinary village church, it is covered with murals painted by Bloomsbury Group artists Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell, who lived at nearby Charleston.
Sussex soil, high in chalk and lime, is very similar to the Champagne region. So much so, many English sparkling wines produced here are beating their famous French counterparts in international competitions. The English Wine Centre (www.englishwine.co.uk), on the corner of the A27 turn-off to Alfriston, is an interesting place to stop for lunch and browse around the shop, which stocks wines from throughout the region.
Down the road, in the neighbouring village of Jevington, is the local culinary institution, the Hungry Monk (www.hungrymonk.co.uk), selfproclaimed birthplace of the Banoffi Pie (look out for the blue plaque on the wall!).
Moving west, seaside towns such as cosmopolitan Brighton, Littlehampton, nestling in the mouth of the River Arun, and family-friendly Bognor Regis, home to one of Billy Butlin’s first holiday camps which opened in the 1960s and is now one of the remodelled resorts
(www.butlins.com), make good bases to explore the South Downs.
Another gateway town I’d recommend is the elegant cathedral city of Chichester in West Sussex, situated at the halfway point on the national park’s southern side. Take a leisurely one-hour stroll around the Roman walls before visiting the cathedral, with its 15th-century belfry, England’s only remaining detached bell tower.
The South Downs is rich in literary and artistic culture; for instance Charles Kingsley was a regular visitor to Hampshire’s Itchen Abbas, the village and river inspiring the setting of his novel, The Water Babies.
Energetic types can head for the hills along sections of, or indeed the whole of, the South Downs Way, the only National Trail lying wholly within a national park. The 100-mile trail, a haven for walkers, cyclists and horse riders alike, runs through and around villages and towns, so food and a bed for the night are never too far away.
I particularly like the ancient Hampshire market town of Petersfield, where the tradition continues with weekly markets every Wednesday and Saturday and an excellent farmers’ market on the first Sunday of each month.
From Petersfield, discover a unique feature of the local landscape – the steep-sided hanging woods, also called hangers. The town is part of Hangers Way, a 21- mile countryside path from Alton to Queen Elizabeth Country Park. The latter is home to Butser Hill, 890ft above sea level and the South Downs’ highest point.
Walkers can continue 22 miles along the South Downs Way to Winchester, ancient capital of England, while transport users take the low road along the A3 and A272.
Each part of the South Downs has its own beauty. I know the places that I love; take time out to find your personal high spot.
south down facts
Services by Southern Railway (www.southernrailway.com) go from London to East and West Sussex and Hampshire. By car, the M25 leads to the main eastern access roads, the A27 and A22, and the M3 for Winchester.
From £10 a day, the Downlander Ticket (www.southernrailway.com), is valid for Southern trains and some bus services. The Breeze up the Downs (www.brighton-hove.gov.uk) bus network links Brighton with popular places in the park.
The National Trails website (www.nationaltrail.co.uk) lists a wide range of accommodation such as camp sites, self-catering, pubs, hotels, dog-friendly accommodation and lodging with bike storage.
The Angel Hotel, Midhurst: www.theangelmidhurst.co.uk
Findon Manor Hotel, Findon: www.findonmanor.com
Russell Hotel, Bognor Regis: www.visionhotels.co.uk
The Star, Alfriston: www.thestaralfriston.co.uk
Deans Place Country Hotel, Alfriston: www.deansplacehotel.co.uk
George Bell House Hotel, Chichester: www.chichestercathedral.org.uk
Hotel du Vin, Winchester: www.hotelduvin.com
Amberley Castle, Arundel: www.amberleycastle.co.uk
South Downs National Park Authority: www.southdowns.gov.uk
Tourism South East: www.visitsoutheastengland.com
All prices and details were correct when published in tlm - the travel & leisure magazine, please check before you visit the south downs.