South Downs National Park guide

For anyone who lives in the towns and cities of South East England, the South Downs National Park is a priceless rural refuge. There’s a timeless appeal to its gentle landscapes; it reminds us of an era when cars and mobile phones were less important and the days felt longer and lazier. The grassy-topped wave of hills which gives the park its name are magnificent, but there’s far more to the South Downs National Park than the South Downs.
Like a soft carpet of green spread across Hampshire and Sussex, the South Downs National Park invites you to step out and explore.
The park also includes the woodlands, hedgerows and lowland pastures of the western Weald, several glossy rivers and a short but glorious band of white cliffs, the Sussex Heritage Coast. Around a quarter of the park is covered in trees, making this the most thickly wooded national park in Britain. This dynamic, diverse region is a place to connect with the countryside, striding up hillsides or along leafy lanes, visiting low-beamed pubs, paddling on pebbly beaches and feeling the salt on the breeze. Keep reading our South Downs travel guide to find out more.

The South Downs National Park is...

a beautiful swathe of English hills, woods, farmland and coast.

The South Downs National Park isn't...

an untamed wilderness – it's been shaped by its inhabitants for centuries.

What we rate & what we don't

Underrated

English wine

Joining the ranks of established wine producers like Ridgeview, the arrival of newer vineyards like Rathfinny, just outside Alfriston, has boosted the park’s reputation as a winemaking region to be reckoned with. Hampshire and Sussex already produce some great small-batch vintages with distinctive orchard and elderflower flavours.

Foraging & crafts

Reskilling in ancient country lore may still be niche, but it’s catching on fast. Experts are on hand to teach you how to plan a route using a map, compass and observation skills, throw a pot or expand your foraging know-how beyond blackberry picking. The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum is a good place to start, with craft skills, rural trades and Tudor cooking demonstrations.

Parham House

Somewhat overshadowed by its grand near-neighbour, Petworth, just 10 miles away, Parham is a charming manor house set in a deer park, with beautiful walled gardens tended by passionate horticulturalists. Fresh flowers from the cutting beds fill the elegant public rooms with colour.

Bloomsbury in Sussex

The beautiful countryside between Lewes and Alfriston was a great source of inspiration for Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, Virginia Woolf and their Bloomsbury Group associates. Their creative legacy lives on at Charleston Farmhouse in Firle, St Michael and All Angels Church in Berwick, The Monk’s House in Rodmell and in the region’s many artistic and literary festivals.
Rated

South Downs Way

You’ll feel on top of the world on this magnificent National Trail – the only such trail entirely within a national park. Around 160km long, the South Downs Way is easy to break into chunks. It follows the spine of the Downs from Winchester to Eastbourne, with an extra loop at the Sussex Heritage Coast. It was England’s first bridleway National Trail; walkers, cyclists and horse riders can all enjoy it.

Country pubs

Diving into a quaint little pub to get cosy after a winter walk, or chilling out in a flower-filled beer garden on a warm, sunny day – these are quintessential South Downs National Park experiences. The park doesn’t do chain pubs plugging alcopops. Expect low beams, inglenook fireplaces, real ale, tasty food, woodsmoke, muddy boots and dogs.

Woodland walks

Ancient woodlands nestle on the chalk hills and lowlands, golden in autumn and ringing with birdsong in spring, when bluebells carpet the ground. Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve is a particularly Tolkienesque experience of gnarled and twisted trees, or try the evocatively named Serpent Trail on the Black Down, whose hills and heathers have inspired poets and dreamers, including Alfred Lord Tennyson.

Petworth House

Set in a 280-hectare park, Petworth is rightly famous for its grand scale and outstanding collection of paintings, sculptures and decorative features. These include works by JMW Turner, which form part of what the National Trust describes as its finest collection of pictures. It also gives you a glimpse into the mechanics of 18th and 19th century life below stairs (or, in this case, across the courtyard).
Overrated

Driving

You really don’t need to bring your car to the South Downs National Park, let alone use it to get around. With a little planning and patience, you can have a brilliant time getting around by train, bike or on foot. Bus services are decent, particularly in the east of the park. Staff at local accommodation options are usually clued up about routes and can offer advice.

Wandering off the paths

Visitors who don’t keep to designated rights of way can cause erosion and disturb wildlife and livestock. The same applies to any drivers who practice illegal off-roading. With so many outdoor activities on offer here, why choose one that’s noisy and polluting? To enjoy the national park without having to follow any trail, look for the Open Access Land signs or the orange areas on OS Explorer maps.

Four-legged freedoms

The South Downs may be a wonderful place for dog walkers – but in order to keep it so, owners should be responsible and respectful. This includes keeping dogs under control or on lead around livestock (especially at lambing time), picking up after the dog and not disturbing wildlife such as ground-nesting birds.

Rural raves

A small minority think it’s cool to off-road into the park and blow the tranquility to bits with loud music and litter. We don’t. Thankfully, antisocial gatherings are rare, but those that have taken place have damaged the environment and raised hackles in the community. The 2014 illegal rave at Devil’s Dyke, for example, will take the rare chalk grassland up to a decade to recover from.

Our top South Downs Vacation

South Downs Way walking holiday, England

South Downs Way walking vacation, England

Walk The South Downs Way in Southern England.

From £980 to £1420 11 days ex flights
Tailor made:
This vacation can be booked from the 1st March to 31st October each year.
Travel Team
If you'd like to chat about South Downs or need help finding a vacation to suit you we're very happy to help.

Food, shopping & people

Eating & drinking

The vogue for craft beer is in full swing here – dozens of microbreweries are dotted around. The National Collection of Cider and Perry is a barn where you can taste or buy up to 100 varieties fresh from the keg.

Practically every town has a farmers’ market. Hampshire has a particularly active network and Winchester’s twice-monthly gathering is one of Britain’s biggest. South Downs venison and game are products that have shaped the landscape you see today. Local lamb is particularly succulent.
South Downs sparkling wine is so impressive, it sometimes beats French Champagne in blind tastings

People & language

Hampshire and Sussex dialects have more or less died out, but memorable phrases linger on, such as the old Sussex motto “we wunt be druv” meaning “don’t push us around”.

Many local place-names are based on Anglo Saxon words or fragments of dialect. Here are some common ones:
bourne = river
croft = smallholding
dean, den, dene = valley
dun, don = down or hill
hurst = wood
mere = lake, pool or marsh
ton, tun = homestead
weald = forest
wick = village
worth = farm

Gifts & shopping

Distinctly local gifts include trugs (baskets made from slats of willow on a chestnut frame) and produce such as High Weald Dairy cheese, Harveys ale, Lurgashall mead or wine from the Breaky Bottom, Stopham or Ridgeview estates.

Look out for art and craft trails and open studio events where you can buy direct from the makers, such as Art in Ditchling (May), the Arundel Festival Gallery Trail (August) and Artwave in Lewes, Seaford and Newhaven (August-September).

Several cities, towns and villages in and around the national park belong to the Fairtrade network. These include Arundel, Brighton and Hove, Chichester, Eastbourne, Lewes, Petersfield, Pulborough, Seaford and Winchester.
The park is a rural region where landscapes and lives are closely intertwined, but it’s close enough to a clutch of cities to feel sophisticated and connected

How much does it cost?

100g round of Sussex Slipcote organic sheep’s cheese: £3.25

Cream tea in a village café: £4.50

Pint of real ale in a country pub: £3.80

All day Discovery ticket for local bus services: £8.50 (adult), £7 (child), £16 (family, up to five)

Off-peak DaySave train ticket: £20.50 (adult),
£2 (accompanied child), £41 (group, up to four)

A brief history of the South Downs

The creation of the South Downs National Park was a conservation initiative that took a century to gel. The seeds were planted in the early 20th century, when appreciation of the great outdoors began to grow and artists, writers and thinkers such as the Bloomsbury Group escaped London to seek peace and inspiration in the rural landscapes of southern England.Read more
Written by Emma Gregg
Photo credits: [Page banner: GlennD] [Is / Isn't: © Sam Knight] [Underrated: © Rathfinny Wine Estate] [Rated: © Sam Knight] [Overrated: © SDNPA] [Eating & Drinking: © SDNPA] [People & Language: © SDNPA] [How much does it cost?: Dan Barrett]