There’s no doubt that the South Downs provide a stunning space for those who love the great outdoors and getting off the beaten track. But have you considered exploring the Downs from a different perspective? At night, in the dark? With a bit of Sussex night walking?
Why night walk?
I love night walking but I often get met with perplexed looks when I invite someone to join me. Yet the landscape is so compelling at night. Especially the South Downs. Looking down far and wide across the rest of the world (well Sussex at least) twinkling in the silence below brings with it that sense of context. Of what a small dot you are in comparison to the vast skies above and landscape below.
And as you watch your footing on the flint and chalk paths you are acutely reminded that you are walking in the footsteps of men and women who have travelled this way for thousands of years: Iron Age man, Romans, invading Normans, escaping kings, smugglers. In short, a long line of folk making their way (often in the darkness) across what must have felt like a wild and intimidating barrier to the north.
It is hopelessly romantic and add to that the hoot of an owl, the looming outline of a tree in the darkness and the silence, and it becomes magical. The Downs at night look nothing like they look in daylight and that brings with it its own sense of adventure and awe.
Dark skies and stargazing
February sees the annual South Downs Dark Skies Festival. This is in part due to the South Downs’ status as an International Dark Sky Reserve, one of only 21 in the world and of only seven in the UK.
In order to qualify as such, land must possess “an exceptional or distinguished quality of starry nights and nocturnal environment that is specifically protected for its scientific, natural, educational, cultural, heritage and/or public enjoyment.” There is a strict criterion which includes meeting certain standards for sky quality and natural darkness.
But what this really means for you and I is that if you happen to be lucky enough to be on the South Downs on a clear night, the skies above have the wow factor and you’ll see more stars than you’d ever be able to see from your back garden or even from a rural area elsewhere in Sussex. In particular, as you walk away from the north or south slopes into the centre of the Downs, our guide on a recent night walk was able to take us to real “pockets” of darkness and as our eyes adjusted to the night, we were able to see deeper and deeper into the universe.
I hate to be a killjoy, but you have got to be safe if you are going night walking on the South Downs. The terrain is uneven, can be slippery, with hidden rabbit holes and roots that are ripe for tripping over. Unsurprisingly, it’s also cold up there, and very easy to get lost. You must make sure you have the right equipment or join a properly organised group.
A group walk brings with it all sorts of benefits. I joined a Pied a Terre Adventures guided walk recently and our guide was well-informed and able to point out landmarks and stars, and explain flora and geology. But it’s also a chance to meet new people – albeit you will never know what they look like because it’s so dark.
My group was lovely, with two amateur astrologists and a historian who were able to add depth to an already well-informed walk. We covered a decent 5 km and as we emerged from a wooded area we even found ourselves sharing ghost stories and folklore as a cold, descending mist enveloped us and a strange creature of the night screeched. How fabulous is that!
If you really cannot face walking at night, then the next best thing is to watch the sun rise or set from the South Downs and there are quite a few spots where you can do that from the comfort of your own car. Try car parks at Bury, Kithurst and Chantry, Ditchling or Beachy Head. But whatever your preferences for morning, evening or dead of night, Sussex night walking offers up a whole new perspective and experience.
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