The South Downs are a range of chalky downland hills that run from Beachy Head near Eastbourne in East Sussex, right the way across West Sussex and on into Itchen Valley in Hampshire (where they merge with the North Downs). In Sussex, the Downs run roughly parallel to the North Downs with the Weald in between.
What can you expect when you’re exploring the South Downs?
Across the Downs are hundreds of points of interest and along the way, you’ll discover ancient burial mounds, Neolithic flint mines, hill forts, dew ponds, giant chalk figures, memorials, legends and folklore, abandoned villages, poets, monks, windmills, lighthouses, follies, castles, historic houses, smugglers’ trails and vineyards. And always stunning views. Even though the Downs are a popular place for walkers, you’ll also find large stretches of the South Downs are deserted and you can expect tranquility, and wildlife in abundance.
Whether you walk the length and breadth of the Downs, or just choose to explore one particular area, the South Downs are majestic, challenging, charismatic and compelling, and nearly always leave you wanting more! They remain a place where you can lose yourself to nature and you can travel by foot, bike or horse!
A bit about the South Downs
The Downs are about 110 km in length and cover about 670 km2 and they have been an important part of Sussex life for thousands of years. Neolithic man settled here some 5,000 years ago and later, Iron Age man and then the Romans moved in, clearing trees, farming the land and grazing sheep and cattle. From the arrival of the Normans and into the 14th century, the Downs became more and more a place for grazing sheep while in times of war, they offer an important strategic position.
The word ‘downs’ is old English for ‘hill’. There are four river valleys through the Downs, namely of the rivers Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere.
The highest point on the South Downs is Butser Hill (270 m above sea level) in Hampshire. Within the area of the South Downs National Park (and within what was the historic county of Sussex), the highest point is Blackdown in West Sussex (at 280 metres above sea level) although Blackdown is not geologically part of the Downs.
Littleton Down in East Lavington is 255 m above sea level and the highest point in West Sussex whilst in East Sussex, the highest point is Ditchling Beacon at 248 m above sea level. Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain at 162 m.
Life on the Downs
Unsurprisingly, the South Downs have a rich and interesting history. From Roman soldiers and outposts, to smugglers who used to transport contraband inland from the coast and the iconic Sussex shepherds, if you’re looking for history, there is plenty to be found. For an insight into life on the South Downs, you might enjoy: South Downs History: Life in the 1860s
South Downs National Park
On the 1st of April 2011, the South Downs National Park was formed. It covers about 1,627 km2. Within it are a large number of Sites of Special Scientific Interest, and national nature reserves including Kingley Vale near Chichester, Castle Hill between Brighton and Lewes, Lewes Downs (Mount Caburn), Lullington Heath near Seaford and Friston Forest.
The South Downs Way
The South Downs Way is a 161 km long trail from Beachy Head to Winchester. It’s the only National Trail situated entirely within a National Park and it follows the old routes and droveways along the ridges of the South Downs. You can walk or cycle the whole distance or pick up little stretches. If you plan on walking the whole trail, it’s recommended that you aim for about 20 km a day, not least because there are many peaks and troughs, which can make it quite a tough walk.
The Walking the South Downs Way guide (published by Cicerone and written by Kev Reynolds) recommends dividing the Sussex part of the South Downs Way into sections, namely:
- South Harting to Cocking (12 km)
- Cocking to Amberley (19 km)
- Amberley to Washington (9.5 km)
- Washington to Botolphs (11 km)
- Botolphs to Pyecombe (12km)
- Pyecombe to Housedean (13.5 km)
- Housedean to Southease (9.5 km)
- Southease to Alfriston (11 km)
- Alfriston to Eastbourne (via Seven sisters 17 km and via Jevington 12.5 km)
As you might expect, there are dozens if not hundreds of walks that crisscross the South Downs. These include a Heritage Coast Walk, The Centurion Way, The Monarch’s Way, and more. If you want to explore and discover the South Downs, it’s well worth investing in a guidebook or map and there are useful maps and resources at: South Downs National Park
There is an initiative called Miles Without Stiles which includes routes suitable for wheelchair users, pushchairs, dog walkers, and anyone with limited mobility. There are currently six routes with more planned. You can download these routes here: Miles Without Stiles
Towns and villages of interest along the way
There are plenty of towns and villages of interest along the way. As you enter West Sussex along the South Downs Way from the west, one of the first places you come to is the National Trust house of Uppark, and nearby Midhurst is a good place to stay if you’re exploring this section of the South Downs. Here you’ll find the magnificent Cowdray Ruins.
As you head east, you’ll pass the Roman Palace at Bignor, Amberley Castle, Parham House and Arundel Castle which are all worthy of a detour. Carry on east, and you’ll come to the charismatic Chanctonbury Ring, Bramber Castle and Devil’s Dyke. As you head into East Sussex, there are the Jack and Jill windmills at Clayton, the Chattri Memorial, historic Lewes and its castle, Monk House, Glynde Place, Firle Place, and Charleston. On the final leg of the Downs, you’ll pass Clergy House in Alfriston, the Long Man at Wilmington and the two lighthouses as you approach Beachy Head.
In May 2016 the South Downs National Park became the world’s 13th International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR) making it a great place to star gaze. The best places to enjoy the night sky are Harting Down, Iping Common, Bignor Hill, Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon, and Birling Gap. The South Downs National Park also hosts a Dark Skies Festival in February.
You’ll find visitor centres in Midhurst, the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat near Seaford and at Beachy Head.
Places to stay
You’re spoilt for choice when it comes to places to stay but our recommendations are:
- Midhurst: The Spread Eagle Hotel in Midhurst (where they also offer forest bathing in the summer) or Park House Hotel.
- Arundel: The Pig, The Townhouse or The Bakery.
- Steyning or nearby by Ashurst: The Artisan Bakehouse.
- Alfriston: The Star.
- Eastbourne: The Grand.
There are a number of car parks that allow easy access to the South Downs, including:
- Queen Elizabeth Country Park and Buriton (Hants).
- Hating Down (West Sussex) National Trust.
- Cocking, just south of the village (West Sussex).
- Bignor (West Sussex).
- Kithurst Hill (West Sussex). At risk of closure at time of writing.
- Chantry Post (West Sussex).
- Washington (West Sussex).
- Chanctonbury Ring (West Sussex).
- Steyning Bowl (West Sussex).
- Upper Beeding (West Sussex).
- Devil’s Dyke (East Sussex).
- Clayton (East Sussex).
- Ditchling Beacon (East Sussex).
- Firle (East Sussex).
- Bostal Hill, Alciston (East Sussex).
- Alfriston (East Sussex).
- Exceat (East Sussex).
- Crowlink (East Sussex).
- Birling Gap to Beachy Head: there are a number of car parks along this stretch (East Sussex).
- Jevington (East Sussex).
South Downs walks
If you’d like to walk a section of these magnificent hills, you may be interested in some of the walks we’ve done:
South Downs Circular Walk (West Sussex)
West Sussex Walks: Bury Hill & The South Downs Way
South Downs Way Walk and Parham House loop
Explore the Downs with this West Sussex Walk
West Sussex Walk: Bramber 9 km Circular
3 Walks at Chanctonbury Ring (West Sussex)
Bignor Hill walk
West Sussex Circular Walk: Up Harting Down
West Sussex Walks at Black Down
East Sussex Walks: Kingston to Rodmell Circular Walk
East Sussex Walk: The Long Man at Wilmington
Fabulous Seven Sisters Walk, East Sussex
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