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I used to live in the south of England - an impoverished place for an avid hill walker. From my old home town, the only places that I had access to with any resemblance to mountains lay within the South Downs. It came as a pleasant surprise, then, in March 2009, when it was officially declared that the South Downs was to become the newest of England's National Parks.
What and where?
The South Downs National Park is a region of chalk down land stretching from Eastbourne to Winchester, through the counties of East and West Sussex and Hampshire. At its eastern end it lies adjacent to the sea, tracking over dizzily high white-chalk cliffs, before turning inland and gaining height, before tapering away into rolling farmland in Hampshire's Meon Valley. The landscape of the national park varies from high chalk grassland to thick woodland to tidy farms, meaning that despite not having the grandeur of such parks as the Lake District, it offers a wealth of experiences to any visitor.
The underlying chalky rocks of the South Downs lead to a very specific type of ecology, and one that rewards an interested observer with a huge amount of variety. Firstly, down land contains a greater diversity of wild flowers than almost any other area of the country, and with these flowers come the accompanying legions of bees, hoverflies and particularly butterflies (peacock, red admiral, marbled whites and some of the rarer blue species, to name a few that I saw this Summer). There are also plenty of birds (farmland birds such as yellowhammers along with raptors like kestrels), mammals and, if you are lucky, several species of reptile including slow worms and adders. Generally a wildlife spotter will have the most joy on sunny days, which bring out the widest range of species, but cold winters brings migrant birds grazing the upland stubble and are also a joy.
The largest towns in the National Park lie at its opposite ends, Eastbourne and Winchester, although its southern boundary is also accessible from such south coast hubs as Brighton. Within the park, towns are generally quite small - I cannot think of any that are larger than Amberley or Lewes, although if you live in the area I am happy to be corrected! However, even though these towns are quite small, they are also frequent - you will not find the same loneliness in the South Downs as you would in Northumberland, Snowdonia or the Eastern Lakes.
There are far too many notable attractions in this area to include all of them, so I've just picked out a few favourites that I've visited recently.
- Ditchling Beacon/Jack and Jill - Ditchling Beacon is one of the highest points on the South Downs at 248m (only a baby really!), and is accessible either from the car park only a short climb from its summit or by inclusion in a longer walk. This is a lovely little hill with fabulous views and picnic places. Along and down the ridge from Ditchling lie two twin windmills, known as Jack and Jill, which are a fun sight for anyone during a walk and also have an accompanying car park.
- Devil's Dyke - Devil's Dyke is v-shaped valley in the section of the downs near Brighton, and gained its name from an old story that it was dug by the Devil to led the sea flood the churches in the flat Sussex Weald beyond. The tale goes that the Devil was scared away by a crowing rooster, thinking it was the coming of dawn. The Dyke is worth a visit just because it is an impressive geographical feature, by also for its iron age history and the very friendly pub sitting on top of the hill.
- Queen Elizabeth Country Park - This country park lies in the Hampshire section of the downs near Buriton, and is a fantastic day out for any family or walker. There are car parks dotted all over the site so visitors can make the best use of the day, and a great visitor centre and tea room by the main car park. You can also access Butser hill, which is the highest point on the South Downs.
Chanctonbury and Sissbury Rings - these are ancient hill forts balanced on the tops of the Downs. Sissbury is the largest iron age hill fort in Sussex: Chanctonbury is surrounded by rings of ancient trees. Both have the eerie, ancient charm found in so many of our historical remnants, and are great targets for a Sunday walk.
Activities on the Downs
Activities-wise the South Downs offers the normal triad of hiking, biking and horse riding - access is good, particularly in Sussex, where the Society of Sussex Downsmen works hard to keep routes open to all. If these pass times are not for you, then there are also plenty of alternatives: whether you want a family picnic, a quiet drive around country roads, or a drink in a quiet country pub. I can also vouch for the top of Devil's Dyke being a prime place for kite flying, if your inner child is feeling restless!
South Downs Way
Although I've been pottering around the South Downs for years, I got to know it a lot better four years ago when we walked the South Downs Way. This is a path stretching the length of the National Park, a grand total of 102 tough up-and-down miles, and not something to be taken lightly. We found out to our cost that just because something is called a Down, this does not prevent it from being lung bustingly steep . If you are a very keen walker looking for a long distance route, this is definitely one worth considering, but bear in mind that the paths are chalk and flint, which makes them difficult walking, and much of the terrain is very similar. However, if you can cope with the hills, the views are absolutely fantastic.
The South Downs National Park has many good points - the wildlife and the views being key as far as I am concerned. It is also one of the quieter national parks, despite being one of the most accessible. It is easy to plan a trip here, as the roads are good and most of the towns offer some form of accommodation, shop and pub.
Perhaps also due to its new status, the South Downs also has a fair few bad points. It is criss crossed by busy roads, which can be heard for much of its length and which must often be traversed during long walks. Hampshire section access is poor, with far too much barbed wire for my liking, and once the main curve of the Downs has flattened out the Hampshire walking becomes quite dull and repetitive if you do not plan your route carefully. The up and down, almost wave like topography of this region also means that if you want a long walk then you are unlikely to find one without considerable loss or gain of height.
It is hard to give a recommendation for such a massive area, but overall I would definitely suggest visiting the South Downs National Park. It may not be such a show stopper as some of our other NPs, but then it is far younger than they are, and now that its quality has been officialised its future is looking far brighter. Know what you want from your day: do your research before you go: and there is no reason why you should not have a wonderful time here. Just be prepared for a bit of climbing!