A guide to the South Downs National Park

Days out, The Great British Outdoors, Destinations

Posted by Kate A on 20th August 2021

South Downs National Park

A haven of rippling velvet hillsides as far as the eye can see, majestic white chalk cliffs lapped by foaming waves and mile upon mile of ethereal ancient woodland; the South Downs National Park is one of Britain’s most precious landscapes.

If you’re wondering ‘where are the South Downs?’, you’re in good company as it’s a quieter, lesser-known national park and a serene destination for discovery. One of our youngest national parks, it stretches across the south of England, from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in Sussex. Covering 995 square miles, there are endless possibilities for outdoor adventures. In fact, with 3,300km of footpaths, bridleways and byways, there are more walking routes here than in any other national park in the UK.

Are you feeling inspired to see it all for yourself? Then read on to uncover everything you need to know about holidays in the South Downs. Or click the button below to browse our full collection of South Downs cottages.

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The best walks in the South Downs National Park

South Downs Way

South Downs Way

Extending for 100 miles, from the cathedral city of Winchester in the west to the ivory cliffs of Eastbourne in the east, the South Downs Way is an incredible long-distance National Trail running the entire length of the South Downs National Park. While the whole trail takes around 7-10 days to complete, you can easily conquer smaller sections, discovering hidden churches, cosy pubs and spectacular views of patchwork fields, wide river valleys and heritage coast.

  • Distance: 100 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy to strenuous, depending on the route you choose.
  • Good to know: Almost all the trail’s length is off-road with very few stiles, plus it is well marked and easy to follow.

Seven Sisters

Seven Sisters

A collection of the best South Downs walks could never be complete without including the Seven Sisters. Topped with a carpet of green grass, the vast chalk cliffs plunge dramatically into the cerulean sea and are regarded by many as even more beautiful than the famous White Cliffs of Dover. The best way to experience their splendour is by walking the 14-mile coastal trail from Seaford to Eastbourne. Along the route, you’ll get to experience mesmerising views out to sea, as well as the Beachy Head Lighthouse and wildlife-rich wetlands.

  • Distance: 14 miles
  • Difficulty: Moderate
  • Good to know: If you’d prefer to tackle a smaller section, park at Birling Gap and follow the 2-mile trail instead.

Meon Valley

Meon Valley

In the heart of the national park, the Meon Valley Trail meanders for 11 miles from West Meon in the north to Wickham in the south, along a disused railway line. Highlights along this picturesque route include the crystal-clear chalk spring known as the source of the River Meon, striking views of Butser Hill, and far-reaching countryside vistas from the top of Hyden Hill.

  • Distance: 11 miles
  • Difficulty: Easy
  • Good to know: Mostly a flat and wide path with no stiles, suitable for pushchairs and mobility scooters.

More South Downs walks


The best things to do in the South Downs National Park

Drusillas Park

Drusillas Park

If you’re looking for things to do in the South Downs with kids, then Drusillas Park should definitely be on your list. At this unique zoo with incredible walk-through animal enclosures, the whole family can get up-close with lemurs, lorikeets and bats, before enjoying an exciting journey on the Safari Express train and going wild in the adventure play areas. Little ones can even sign up to be a zookeeper for the day for even more hands-on experiences!


Arundel Castle and Gardens

Arundel Castle and Gardens

One of the best places to visit in the South Downs for lovers of history is Arundel Castle and Gardens. This mighty fortress is one of the largest and most complete inhabited castles in England, originally built almost 1,000 years ago by Roger de Montgomery, the then Earl of Arundel. Many of the original features such as the Norman Keep, medieval Gatehouse and Barbican still survive, and the gardens are stunning, especially in spring. A packed calendar of events will keep all ages entertained throughout the year, from captivating Norman combat displays to lively jousting tournaments.

  • Cost: Adults £23, Children £10, Family £56
  • Best for: History lovers and those who like to amble around glorious gardens.
  • Stay nearby: East Chenies, Middleton on Sea | Sleeps 8 + 1 dog

Long Man of Wilmington

Long Man of Wilmington

Certainly the most unusual attraction in the South Downs, Sussex, is the Long Man of Wilmington. Cut into the chalk of the South Downs, this mysterious guardian of the national park is 72 metres high, making him the tallest human depiction in Europe. Having baffled archaeologists and historians for hundreds of years, there is much speculation as to his origins: many people are convinced he is a prehistoric fertility symbol, while others believe that he is the work of an artistic monk from the nearby Priory created between the 11th and 15th centuries. If you fancy discovering this iconic resident, you can follow the public footpaths and walk across his form on the side of the Downs.

  • Cost: Free
  • Best for: Walkers, historians, and those who appreciate a good view.
  • Stay nearby: Beekeepers Rest, Seaford | Sleeps 4 + 2 dogs

More Sussex days out


The best beaches near the South Downs National Park

Cuckmere Haven

Cuckmere Haven

One of the quieter beaches in the South Downs, Cuckmere Haven is a fabulous spot to admire the famed Seven Sisters chalk cliffs that tower over this dramatic shoreline. Once used by smugglers, this sweeping pebble beach can be found within the Seven Sisters Country Park at the mouth of the Cuckmere River, part of the Seaford Head Nature Reserve - so there is a treasure trove of wildlife to discover.

  • Lifeguards: No
  • Dog-friendly: Yes, dogs are welcome all year round.
  • Other information: The closest parking is at the Country Park, with roughly a 1.5-mile walk to the beach. There are no facilities.

Birling Gap Beach

Birling Gap Beach

Lying at the foot of Beachy Head, Britain's highest chalk cliff, Birling Gap Beach should certainly be one to consider if you’re wondering what to do in the South Downs on a sunny day. This pebble and sand beach is ideal for seaside picnics, and at low tide, a mass of rock pools is exposed which kids can clamber across in search of curious sea creatures.

  • Lifeguards: No
  • Dog-friendly: Yes, dogs are welcome all year round.
  • Other information: There is a National Trust pay and display car park (members are free). Plus on the clifftop, there is a café, shop, visitor centre and WCs.

West Wittering Beach

West Wittering Beach

Just outside the national park, West Wittering Beach is a broad expanse of golden sand backed by rolling dunes and lush marshland, perfect for bird spotting. It sits within a Site of Special Scientific Interest and is lined with multi-coloured beach huts (available to hire). When the conditions are right, it’s also a great destination for water sports, such as surfing, windsurfing and kite surfing.

  • Lifeguards: Yes, during the summer months.
  • Dog-friendly: Yes, but there are certain restrictions in the Blue Flag bathing zone (between groynes 14a to 18) from May to September – during this time dogs are welcome on the rest of the beach. From October to April, dogs are welcome everywhere.
  • Other information: There is a pay and display car park at the beach, as well as a café, shop, showers and WCs. During the summer months, there is also deck chair hire and surfing lessons available.

The best Sussex beaches


The best pubs in the South Downs National Park

The Eight Bells, JevingtonThe Eight Bells credit: Instagram @eightbellsjevington

 

The Eight Bells, Jevington

A scenic 5-mile walk from Birling Gap, The Eight Bells is a 350-year-old independently owned free house with a rich history, welcoming bar, and dramatic views of the Downs. Nurse a pint of local beer, enjoy a Ploughman’s lunch after a brisk hike, or sit down to an à la carte dining experience for a special occasion.

  • Menu pick: Alongside substantial dishes like beef bourguignon puff pie with creamed potatoes, you can tuck into the likes of Beachy Head steak au poivre or pan-fried Hampshire chalk stream trout with Champagne sauce.
  • Are dogs allowed?: Yes, on the lead.
  • Good to know: The leafy garden overlooks the gentle slopes of Hayward’s Bottom valley and Folkington Hill beyond.

The Welldiggers Arms, PetworthThe Welldiggers Arms credit: Instagram @thewelldiggersarms

 

The Welldiggers Arms, Petworth

With a roaring fire to one side and vast picture windows overlooking the undulating hills of the national park to the other, The Welldiggers Arms is one of the best pubs in the South Downs. And with such bounteous surroundings, it's no surprise that much of the produce for this country pub’s mouth-watering dishes are sourced locally, from the seasonal game to the fresh vegetables and herbs.

  • Menu pick: Choose between classic pub-grub dishes like local steaks and beer-battered fish and chips, not forgetting a side of the delicious truffle mac 'n' cheese fritters.
  • Are dogs allowed?: Yes, in the bar area, and dog beer is available.
  • Good to know: There is a wonderful 6-mile circular walk from the pub which features local stretches of woodland, commons, a pretty church and stunning viewpoints.

The White Horse, ChichesterThe White Horse credit: Instagram @thewhitehorsechilgrove

 

The White Horse, Chichester

From fresh lobster and crab from Selsey fishermen to venison from nearby Goodwood, and the Chilgrove wood pigeons, rabbits and trout plucked from nearby rivers and fields that morning, you can be sure that every dish served at The White Horse has its roots in the South Downs. Sink into a cosy leather chair with a paper, perch with a pint in the timbered bar or sit down to a feast of seasonal delights.

  • Menu pick: After windswept adventures along the coast, nothing beats tucking into a plate of pan-roasted plaice served with brown shrimp butter, samphire and buttered new potatoes.
  • Are dogs allowed?: Yes
  • Good to know: Laminated maps available on the bar will guide you on a 4.5-mile hike over the hills, through the woods and back to this atmospheric pub.

More Sussex places to eat


Map of the South Downs National Park


Stay with us in the South Downs National Park

If you’ve been inspired to visit this extraordinary national park, then have a browse of our holiday cottages in the South Downs. From romantic coastal retreats to historic homes enveloped in peaceful emerald hillsides, find your perfect base for exploring this incredible part of the UK.

South Downs cottages


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Disclaimer: Whilst every effort has been made to ensure the accuracy of the information at the time of writing, please ensure you check carefully before making any decisions based on the contents within this article.