Camping & campsites on the South Downs

There’s plenty to get excited about on the South Downs and one of the best ways to get back to nature is to book into a campsite. Walking trails and cycling routes are often accessible directly from your tent flaps. It’s also possible to stroll into market towns like Lewes in East Sussex or head off in search of history in Hampshire as you discover Portsmouth and Chichester on foot.

No matter what time of year you’re thinking of camping on the South Downs, there’s always something going on – from the Dark Skies Festival in February and fiery foliage in autumn to endless days in summer and bluebells and lambing in springtime. Check out our selection of South Downs campsites to help you carry on camping all year round.

Down on the farm

The crowing of cockerels and bleating of sheep is all that’s required to encourage even the most reticent of early risers from their slumber – although the smell of a freshly cooked breakfast can also work wonders. Camping on a farm, tucked away in the gentle undulating folds of the South Downs, is all about swapping city life for country living. Private tracks lead through farmland and provide perfect opportunities for free range kids to roam on foot or by bike, without worrying about anything other than who can get to the cow field first. Pitch your own tent, unhook the caravan or check into an already erected safari tent – life down on the farm has never been so much fun.

Yurts, tipis & safari tents

Checking into an already erected Mongolian yurt can be an ideal means of bridging the gap between home comforts and going feral. Glamping in the South Downs is a great way to pack up your troubles without actually needing to pack that much at all. You’ll still get all the benefits of outdoor living, including campfires, grassy meadows and a clear night’s sky (fingers crossed), but the vast majority of actual effort has already been done for you. If you really want comfort you can book into a Mongolian yurt village situated right on the South Downs Way. These cosy circular tents are easily large enough to accommodate six occupants and come complete with their own log burning stove and raised beds with mattresses.

Eco-camping experiences

What type of vacation could be kinder to the earth than a stay on an eco-friendly campsite on the South Downs? You will have the use of solar-powered showers, natural compost toilets and an on-site recycling center. There’s also limited vehicle access to encourage less pollution and more peace. Leave no trace has never been a more apt phrase and if you choose to arrive by public transport you’ll be putting even less stress on Mother Nature. Although you might only be camping for a couple of nights, it’s still enough time to realise that how we choose to live has consequences. South Downs National Park is also one of only three recognised Dark Sky Reserves in England, and you will see far more stars when you’re camping, thanks to the lack of light pollution.

Seasonal camping on the South Downs

Camping is an all year round experience on the South Downs. In springtime you can coincide overnight stays with bluebell woods, lambing season and stargazing in the company of park ranger, Dan Oakley, who’s an expert in astrology. Yes, it’s going to be much colder than summer so layers, including hats, scarves and gloves, especially at night, are a must. However, you can check into a converted barn on the National Trust’s Slindon Estate if you really don’t fancy sleeping under canvas and, obviously, a wood burning stove inside a Mongolian yurt will works wonders for keeping the chills at bay in March, April and May.

Summer camping during June, July and August will tick the right boxes for first-timers and more fair weather folk. The school vacations present a perfect opportunity for kids to meet other like-minded foragers, wood whittlers and welly boot wearers; whilst parents get to relax, safe in the knowledge that offspring will eventually return to base when they’re hungry. Bear in mind that prices for camping pitches will rise in the summer and campsites can get a lot busier. However, the campsites in the South Downs that we recommend will have a cap on the amount of people that they can accommodate – so you don’t have to worry about squeezing into an already overcrowded space.
As we work our way into autumn, camping takes on a much more atmospheric perspective. Campsites on the South Downs are absolutely no exception with the leaves of ancient woodlands turning into fiery russet reds and amber oranges to coincide with seasonal fireworks and eerie goings-on over Halloween. Autumn is also a great time of year to go and visit local towns and villages without the crowds associated with summer.

The likes of Lewes, in East Sussex, is an absolute must for anyone camping at Housedean Farm via a shortish (6-8km) walk, and an even shorter cycle path that leads directly over the Downs. And if you want to experience a Fireworks Night like no other, a walk into Lewes on 5 November is an experience that will last a lifetime. The Lewes fireworks display and parade is infamous, so be prepared for huge crowds and plenty of loud bangs!

Winter camping, during November, December and January, is always going to be a tough ask with small kids; however, if you wrap them up and keep your fingers crossed for dry weather you might well get to experience some truly magical moments. Early evenings around the fire after a crisp walk in woodlands can be really lovely, with mugs of soup and hot chocolate always welcome to accompany stargazing on clear nights. Every February there’s a Dark Sky Festival with loads of things to do for families, including Milky Way spotting and learning more about nocturnal creatures, as well as finding out what we can do to help preserve these gorgeous dark nights for future generations.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: © SDNPA/Mischa Haller] [Intro: © SDNPA/Mischa Haller] [Yurts: © Meon Springs] [Seasonal camping: © SDNPA/Mischa Haller]