Five Faces of the South Downs

The South Down's Seven Sisters cliffs at sunset

The South Downs National Park – Britain’s newest – protects an area of chalk downland which stretches from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east. The park goes through three different counties – Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. While the chalk downland is certainly a highlight, there is so much more to this diverse area to discover on a guided walking holiday. Here we take a look at five different aspects of the national park and its surrounds – all reachable from Abingworth Hall – our country house located just outside the park boundary in the eastern end of the park.

Skip down to discover each side of the South Downs

1. Iconic Coast  2. Picturesque Villages  3. River Valley Routes
4. Industrial Heritage  5. Up on the Downs 

1. Iconic Coast

Between Seaford and Eastbourne, the ‘Seven Sisters’ tower over the sea. This dramatic section of chalk cliff features seven distinct hilltops along its route creating a hilly ‘rollercoaster’ walk with wonderful views throughout. The South Downs Way National Trail passes over the Seven Sisters, making them accessible to walkers and mountain bikers. At Cuckmere Haven near Seaford, there is a small row of cottages – the Coastguard Cottages – which are featured in many a photo and have also been used as a filming location. Fans of BBC TV series ‘Luther’ will recognise them as the place he stayed at the beginning of series four.

At Cuckmere Haven the meandering waters of the River Cuckmere reach the sea. At low tide it is possible to cross the river here. Those not wishing to get their feet wet or who are visiting when the tide is in, must take a detour up the river valley to reach the nearest bridge and then back down towards the sea; this adds about two miles to the walk.

Now east of the river, the first of the ‘Sisters’ – Haven Brow – must be climbed, so beginning a proper leg-stretching walk full of steep ups and downs. The physical effort is well rewarded with stunning views of the gleaming white cliffs stretching into the distance and views over the Cuckmere Valley.

With Short Brow, Rough Brow, Flagstaff Brow, Flat Hill, Bailey’s Hill and Went Hill all traversed, the Seven Sisters end at Birling Gap. This small hamlet showcases what coastal erosion can do. In 1878, a row of eight cottages were built on the cliffs, perpendicular to the coast. However, the ravages of the sea ate away at the cliffs and in 1973 the first cottage had to be demolished. Over the years, three more cottages succumbed to the erosion. The cliffs continue to lose around 3ft of ground each year so the future of the remaining four cottages is in jeopardy.

The South Downs Way continues from Birling Gap to Eastbourne – its end (or start!) point. Along the way the route crosses Beachy Head – the highest chalk sea cliff in the UK. This mighty headland gives magnificent views along the cliffs and over Eastbourne. The red and white striped Beachy Head Lighthouse provides a colourful focal point for photographs.

2. Picturesque villages

The British Isles are blessed with a large number of charming and historic villages and the South Downs National Park has its fair share. Many walking routes pass through these rural idylls, providing a great opportunity to have rest and refreshment at the local pub or tea shop. One of our favourite villages is Amberley, which can be reached on foot directly from Abingworth Hall on a 7 ½ mile walk. It can also serve as a start point for walks up on to the Downs to Rackham Hill and beyond.

Sitting between the steep slopes of the South Downs and the wide valley of the River Arun, this sleepy village is a front runner for a ‘chocolate box’ classification. Its narrow winding streets are lined with delightful, traditional thatched cottages, many of which are bordered by classic cottage gardens. Hollyhocks thrive here and their blooms seem to burst out from every verge and garden in the summer months.

Amberley has a beautiful Grade 1 listed Norman church, a tearoom, pub and small pottery. There is also a castle, now a luxury hotel. A potter around the village, camera in hand, can be followed by a visit to Amberley Working Museum, about a mile away. Set in a 36-acre site which used to be a quarry, the museum transports visitors back in time with its 40 exhibit areas. There is a narrow-gauge railway, historic buses and displays of rural crafts to engage and inform.

Our second nomination for picturesque South Downs villages is Bosham, just outside Chichester – a 45-minute drive from Abingworth. The village sits at the top of Bosham Channel – one of the tidal reaches which feed into Chichester Harbour. The quayside is bordered by tumbles of historic cottages overlooked by the village’s church spire. At low tide, the wide expanse of mudflat in front of the village provides a feeding ground for wading birds and some great photo opportunities.

From Bosham it is possible to walk across the fields on a hill-free walk to reach Fishbourne Roman Palace or Chichester. The towering spire of Chichester Cathedral can be seen from miles around. In spring and summer, the spire provides a nesting site for a pair of peregrine falcons; sit outside and watch them flying to and fro as they feed their chicks.

Fishbourne Roman Palace is the largest residential Roman building found in Britain. The remains of its North Wing contain over twenty mosaics which depict a range of subjects including a cupid and a dolphin. Visitors can view the mosaics, the remains of the under-floor heating system and a range of Roman artefacts and take a stroll in the palace’s gardens.

3. River Valley Routes

One of the striking features of the South Downs National Park is the Arun Valley. As the River Arun nears the sea, the flowing water has carved a meandering path through the landscape creating some valuable wetland wildlife habitats. There are a range of routes which allow walkers to enjoy views of the river and the wildlife that it supports. Running north to south, the Wey South Path crosses Amberley Wild Brooks and runs alongside the reed-bordered river in places; there are unhindered views of the valley to be enjoyed and the chance of spotting wildfowl.

Leaving this path there are also routes which traverses part of the Pulborough Brooks Nature Reserve – a haven for freshwater birds of all kinds. Walkers can pass through the area on the public paths for free but to access the RSPB’s bird hides which sit in prime bird viewing spots, an entry fee is payable. The public path passes the tiny and isolated Wiggonholt Parish Church, a Grade 1 listed building.

Head east from Amberley on the West Sussex Literary Trail to walk across the Arun Valley and then out through a stretch of woodland before crossing Parham Park. This large deer park surrounds Parham House and is home to around 350 fallow deer which have been bred for generations to have dark coats rather than the more usual pale ones. The path through the park gives lovely views of the house and the large dovecote and eventually leads to the village of Cootham.

Of course, no visit to the Arun Valley would be complete without including Arundel. One option is to climb up Rackham Hill from just outside Amberley to enjoy views of the Arun Valley and Parham Park spread out below, before heading south across the Downs towards Arundel. There are any number of walking paths to choose from with glorious views across Eastbourne and to the sea to enjoy. A detour to the small village of Burpham is recommended for a refreshment stop at the pub there. From here, walking on the Monarch’s Way gives the first glimpses of Arundel’s stunning castle, set above the river. The final section of path is next to the River Arun with ever-closer castle views, before leading into the town itself. The castle and its grounds are well worth a visit as is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust’s Wetland Centre.

4. Industrial Heritage

Britain’s recent history includes the time of the Industrial Revolution when steam power, canals and factories changed the British economy forever. However, the invention of the petrol engine and the expansion and improvement of the road network changed the face of industry again. Canals fell into disrepair and many rail lines were mothballed by Dr Beeching in the 1960s.

Today, industry’s loss is walkers’ gain as many canals towpaths and disused railway lines have been turned into footpaths. Just outside the South Downs National Park, the Chichester Canal and Wey & Arun Canal are now wildlife havens for water birds, fish, dragonflies and wild plants while the Hayling Billy Line takes you right across Hayling Island. If you don’t like hills, these routes are perfect; flatter terrain is hard to imagine!

The Chichester Canal used to be connected to London but today it starts in the heart of the city, not far from the cathedral. The first section of the canal is still used for boat trips but later, the water is no longer navigable. Unusually for a canal, there is a right-angle bend at the village of Hunston. From here, the canal leads to the Chichester Channel which in turn leads to the sea; goods from Portsmouth could therefore be transported all the way to London. Where the canal joins the tidal river is Salterns Sea Lock which enabled the control of water level.

The Wey & Arun Canal is perhaps a more classic canal in that it features a series of locks and takes walkers right out into the countryside. The route also passes the modern Drungewick Aqueduct. The towpath walk is relatively short but there are plenty of other paths in the area which cross farmland and woodland with regular glimpses of water which once used to be part of the canal. The best way of ending a canalside walk is with a drink or two at a canalside pub; the Onslow Arms has a lovely beer garden overlooking the water.

On the railway side of things, the route of the old Hayling Billy Line is a nice walk right from one end of Hayling Island to the other. In the mid-19th century this line was vital for bringing heavy goods on to the island (the road bridge being too weak) and for taking produce such as milk and oysters off the island to market. The steam trains using the line were locally known as ‘Puffing Billies’, hence the name of the line. Today, the only signs of the old railway are the remains of its old bridge, a restored railway signal and a place where the path widens at the site of a long-gone platform.

The path runs next to Langstone Harbour and the West Hayling Nature Reserve. Langstone Harbour is an important sanctuary for several species of sea bird including the rare Little Tern. The path passes an area where both Mediterranean Gulls and Common Terns breed in some numbers using natural islands and man-made floating platforms. In autumn and through winter, the area attracts large numbers of migratory geese, ducks and waders.

5. Up on the Downs

A visit to the South Downs National Park wouldn’t be complete without setting foot on the tops of the Downs at least once and perhaps ticking off a section of the South Downs Way. There are many options available but those with an interest in Britain’s ancient history might like to try a walk which takes in the ancient hill forts of Cissbury Ring and Chanctonbury Ring. Cissbury is the second largest Iron Age hill fort in Britain with steep sides surrounded by many ditches. The views from the top are worth the climb; over Worthing and to the sea on one side and the rolling downs looking inland.

A choice of well-trodden paths take walkers across arable land up to the South Downs Way. One option provides sweeping views over the Steyning Bowl – a natural depression in the landscape – and out over Steyning town. A long, gradual climb leads to Chanctonbury Ring – the second Iron Age hill fort of the route. This one is covered in a copse of beech trees and is perhaps less obviously a fort than Cissbury. It is located at the highest point for miles around with far-reaching views in all directions. A choice of paths lead to Washington village; the Frankland Arms is a great place to grab some refreshments.

Further east, another notable high point on the downs is St Roche’s Hill, north-east of Chichester. A short but steep climb takes walkers to an elevated point which overlooks Goodwood Race Course. A little further round the hill and the views are of open land and over Chichester with the coast beyond. Taking the West Sussex Literary Trail, the path passes through arable land and to the village of East Lavant. It’s possible to keep going right into the centre of Chichester from here too.

About half an hours’ drive from Abingworth is Ditchling Beacon – the highest point in East Sussex. A walk from here along the South Downs Way gives wonderful, elevated views over Brighton and Hove and out to sea as well as across the Weald. Heading west on a gently undulating walk is highly recommended. A small detour off the South Downs Way leads to the famous Grade II listed Jack and Jill windmills. Returning to the main path, an exhilarating walk with wonderful views leads to Devil’s Dyke – the longest, deepest and widest ‘dry valley’ in the UK.

South Downs Walking Holiday Options 

All of these areas can be explored on our Self-Guided holidays staying in our own accommodation - Abingworth Hall in the picturesque village of Abingworth. You may also be able to visit some of them on our Guided Walking or Guided Walking and Sightseeing holidays too. 

Self-Guided Walking
 the South Downs
Guided Walking Holidays
the South Downs
Walking with Sightseeing Holidays
the South Downs