Where to go in the South Downs

On a chalk grassland and escarpment near Friston Forest in East Sussex, park rangers recruit ponies to graze on the grass, providing the ideal natural habitat for butterfly colonies to flourish. The Adonis blue butterfly, for instance, loves the chalky grasslands of the South Downs and has become a recognised symbol of a healthy natural environment – a great example of how biodiversity is cultivated in the South Downs. Conserving the natural habitat of bats is also of great concern for park rangers, particularly barbastelle bats that use the heaths and river woodlands as a protective curtain. Placing bat boxes in secret locations ensures this rare species has the best chance of survival.

The best places to visit on the South Downs are these areas where park rangers – a great source of knowledge – are constantly working with land management groups, conservation teams and volunteer organisations to help protect the park and enhance biodiversity. Rangers like Dan Oakley were instrumental in ensuring the South Downs National Park become a Dark Sky Reserve in 2016. It’s now one of only only four international Dark Sky Reserves in the UK.

South Downs National Park is split up into four regions: Western Downs, Wealdon Heath, Eastern Downs and the Central Downs. Each of these areas is protected by the South Downs National Park Authority in partnership with land management groups such as the Woodland Trust, Landmark Trust and National Trust. Across the whole national park (1,627km²) there are around 40 park rangers who are tasked with bridging the gap between the natural environment, local communities and visitors to the park.

Where can I go to escape the crowds in the South Downs?

When you’re looking for places to visit in the South Downs it’s a balance between picking a spot that’s well regarded and choosing somewhere not so well known. Many of the smaller car parks managed by the National Trust simply can’t accommodate lots of weekend visitors.

Kat Beer is responsible for sustainable tourism in South Downs National Park: “Conservation issues such as overgrazing are always of concern to park rangers, but none more so than the huge increase in traffic close to well-known areas like Birling Gap and Seven Sisters Country Park. Overcrowded car parks, overflowing litter bins and cars parked dangerously along roadside verges all add to a negative impact on the environment. Visitors not keeping to designated footpaths is also an issue as it can lead to erosion and can damage the natural habitats of mini beasts and insects.”

Alternatives are to visit the park by public transport or park your car a fair distance from a popular location. If you can get into the park on a weekday rather than a weekend and visit early in the morning rather than busy lunchtime periods, this will also help to ease the stress on car parks.
It’s a far better idea to visit the South Downs National Park either on foot or by bike, if you’re able – for example, there’s a solid 14km circular walk from Friston Forest that takes you through Seven Sisters Country Park on foot. This is a great way to visit the area without adding to overcrowding at the weekends.

In the Hampshire countryside, park rangers and conservation groups are helping to reintroduce water voles and otters to the chalk stream banks of the River Meon. This project provides yet another example of how humans are helping to create a healthy natural environment for animals. Hampshire also has some excellent areas to explore in autumn and winter. Stansted Forest, for example, is set in 4,856 hectares of ancient woodland. Well-maintained footpaths and bridleways run through traditionally coppiced chestnut trees which are sustainably managed to improve biodiversity and create natural habitats for wildlife such as bats, birds, insects and a variety of fungi and plants. Although Stansted Forest is very close to Portsmouth, not many people even know it exists. It’s never that busy, even in the summer.

Where can I visit for great views in the South Downs?

Chanctonbury Ring in West Sussex is a lovely spot that’s not very well-known to visitors from outside the county. It’s basically a huge hill topped with a copse of beech trees that was once a prehistoric hill fort. Panoramic views are magnificent and it’s a great place for a picnic once you’ve completed the hour-long uphill climb from the car park.

If you’re up for even more walking, another lesser-known ancient hill fort called Cissbury Ring can be found around 6km south of Chanctonbury Ring. Although views aren’t 360° they’re equally as impressive and you’ll also find lots of space to park without having to impact on grass verges.

Finally, Butser Hill, within Queen Elizabeth Country Park in Hampshire, is the highest point on the South Downs Way and the second highest in the whole of the South Downs National Park. Although there’s a fair-sized car park close to Butser Hill, you can also walk from the free car park in the village of Buriton. It’s a good 12.5km circular route from Buriton to Butser Hill and back, with buses from Petersfield allowing you to visit with even less of a footprint.

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Which areas of the South Downs are accessible?

The Meon Valley Trail in Hampshire follows a disused railway track for 16km from West Meon to Wickham. The route can be accessed via numerous Hampshire villages, such as Warnford, Exton, Meonstoke and Droxford, all of which are on bus service routes from Fareham in the south or Petersfield in the north. As there are zero stiles and the gradient’s very flat, it’s also an accessible trail for wheelchair users.

The Centurion Way in West Sussex is another accessible route that runs for 9km from Chichester in the south to West Dean in the north, via Lavant. There’s a regular bus service (60) that can take you back to where you started, so there’s no need to drive unless you absolutely have to. The trail itself is half tarmac and half compacted stone and, although it is well used by pushchairs, cyclists, and mobility scooters, there’s plenty of space to go round and lots of places to pause for a peaceful picnic along the way.

How you can help park rangers

Kat Beer explains how it’s not just cars that are of concern to park rangers: “Dog walkers, too, need to know how to behave when visiting the South Downs. Letting dogs off the lead around sheep and cattle, especially when it’s lambing or calving season, is of real concern. And let’s not get started on dog walkers who don’t pick up their dog’s mess or, worse still, pick it up in a bag and then proceed to throw it into a bush or leave it by the side of the path for someone else to deal with. We’ve produced lots of information for dog walkers and a ‘take the lead’ animation aimed at helping people find out more about the dos and don’ts.”

Park rangers can only do so much to ensure the park is protected. We all need to do our bit and take responsibility for the park’s upkeep by not adding to already overcrowded areas.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: GlennD] [Adonis butterfly: © Neil Hulme] [Friston Forest walk: © Sam Moore] [Chanctonbury Ring: © Jeff Travis] [Dog walkers: © SDNPA]