The best things to do in the South Downs National Park derive from natural attractions and charming communities to offer enjoyment for all types of travelers. Whether you are looking for a leisurely visit to experience pure natural beauty or for a stroll from gift shop to local pub, be sure to visit the iconic region of South Downs.
This article contains affiliate links and/or references to our advertisers. We may receive compensation when you click on or make a purchase using these links.
Table of Contents
What is there to say about England that hasn’t been mentioned before? It’s a country steeped in centuries of grand empires resulting in rich literature, historic buildings, and revolutionary inventions. A vibrant destination that is steeped in culture and chockfull of ancient monuments, it’s a dream for history buffs. Its historical and cultural significance is compounded by the stunning natural beauty of its landscape: the hills, countryside, and beaches that make visiting England a priority on travel enthusiasts’ bucket lists.
England’s diverse and beautiful landscapes range from rolling lush fields to wild coastlines with crashing waves, making an exhilarating visit with all kinds of outdoor activities for true nature lovers. If you plan to visit England, plan for a trip to one of its 10 exceptional national parks which are each unique tourist attractions in their offerings and experiences.
England’s many famous national parks include the Lake District, an ideal destination for water sports and hiking as well as Northumberland for stargazing at Kielder Observatory to marvel at some of the darkest skies that are on offer in Western Europe. But if long-distance hiking through diverse stunning views is more your cup of tea, then get yourself over to the South Downs. With so much to see and do, let’s explore some of the best things to do in the South Downs to make your trip a memorable experience.
The South Downs National Park
The South Downs National Park spans an area of 1627 square kilometers, spread over the counties of Hampshire, East Sussex, and West Sussex, along with Eastbourne and Winchester. It is England’s newest National Park and came into being as a result of prolonged lobbying to preserve the area’s beautiful landscape and distinct environmental features.
What sets this park apart from the rest is the presence of chalk downland, a unique topographic characteristic where chalk deposits are exposed on the green hills. It is also home to a rich variety of rare and important species that reside in the lowland heaths and unspoiled landscapes that are truly breathtaking. The lowlands are considered essential habitats for the conservation of biodiversity since the South Downs now have only 1% of the heathlands left.
Even though the park is located in one of the busiest parts of the South of England, it provides the perfect escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life; allowing you to step back from the chaos of everyday life and recharge your batteries. Due to its proximity to London, it is very accessible by all sorts of transport. If you decide to use public transport, regular trains depart from London’s Victoria train station to South Down, getting you there within an hour or so.
Once inside, you have multiple options of things to do in the South Downs National Park, including hiking, cycling or using the excellent bus services. If you choose the bus service to explore the entirety of the park in comfort, then the Discovery Day Pass is the answer. The ticket allows for unlimited travel around the park and it is a great option for young families or people with limited mobility to enjoy breathtaking landscapes without exerting themselves too much.
It is important to plan out your trip to this tranquil reserve as there are so many choices. You can either choose to do a day trip to the many areas that are within the park or you can also stay in the many gorgeous little inns that dot the landscape. For the more adventurous explorers, the natural reserve also has many camping sites where you can rest in order to continue your trek.
South Downs Way
The South Downs Way is a 160 km long trail that traverses the South Downs border and is the only one in England to be inside a National Park. It starts from Winchester and goes all the way to Eastbourne, a seaside resort. The path is versatile as it allows various ways of traversing it, such as walking, cycling and even horse-riding. Along the South Downs Way, you encounter many attractions and beautiful places, such as the market towns of Petersfield or Devil’s Dyke, a 10,000-year-old dry valley.
The trail is marked at regular intervals to show your progress and if you need to refuel, you can take a break at the many cozy country pubs that are dotted along the trail, including the Wildflour Café where you can get breakfast, lunch, and everything in between.
Halfway through your journey down the South Downs path, you can visit the picturesque town village of Amberley, which is home to the gorgeous Amberley Castle and 11th-century St. Michael’s Amberley Church. If you want to learn more about the industrial era of England, then you can check out Amberley Working Museum which is located nearby on Houghton Bridge. If all that exploring makes you yearn for a hit of caffeine head over to grab your choice of coffee in a quaint setting at the Amberley Village Tea Rooms, one of the many places where you can stop to refuel.
South Downs is home to many postcard-perfect towns that are a treasure trove of rich history in a quaint, tranquil atmosphere. Once you are done with a visit to Amberley, a 5-minute train ride will get you to another great spot to visit when you are in South Downs; the storybook-perfect town of Arundel. It is a must-visit as it is home to a cathedral and a magnificent historic site, Arundel Castle. Perched atop a hill in West Sussex, this stunning castle allows for the best views of River Arun and South Downs. A small fee allows you to explore the interiors of the castle and learn more about the history of the area and the palace.
The tiny side streets in Arundel are home to the cutest little shops which make for the perfect place to pick up an antique or collectible. To know more about Arundel and things to do in West Sussex, then check out our post on West Sussex Village life.
Old Winchester Hill
A popular natural viewing point, Old Winchester Hill has been a favorite for nature lovers since the Victorian era. Consisting of 150 acres of what is designated as a National Nature Reserve, the Hill offers views of rolling hills across the valley, and on clear days, even of the sea. The hill offers many winding routes for a stroll and a circular path offers explorers the chance to wander its steep slopes and the woods around it. Keen nature lovers can explore various types of flora and fauna in the area, including the chance to see interesting birds such as a Red Kite or the occasional Buzzard.
The area also offers the opportunity to explore archaeological sites, such as the Iron Age hill forts and numerous burial mounds. A walking track on the southern side of the Nature Reserve leads toward the fort and is a great way to explore the history of the Hill.
If you take this route, then another point of interest for stargazers would be Butser Hill. As the highest point in Hampshire that is deemed a Dark Sky Discovery Site, you can choose to camp overnight here in order to gaze at the celestial bodies that shine bright on the darkest of nights. If you don’t want to spend the night then it’s a great vantage point that provides 360-degree views of the surrounding slopes and the sea.
Seven Sisters Country Park
The Seven Sisters Country Park is a unique park located in East Sussex and easily reached by public transport from Victoria or Brighton. Named after the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs, it is a natural reserve that is popular with both local and international tourists and was also seen in the movie Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
The landscape ranges from chalky cliffs to salt marshes and the beach which fronts the English Channel. A number of rivers cut across the park and have created river valleys over time, which have become a habitat for various species, resulting in a rich ecological hotspot. There are myriad trails that are available to explore the park, which is made up of four areas: the Beachy Head, Birling Gap, the Seven Sisters Coastal Park, and Cuckmere Haven Beach. A visit to England would be considered incomplete if one doesn’t visit the country’s south coast and the magnificence of one of its newest national parks.
If you are driving, you can park in either of the two car parks near the site or you could also visit by bus which regularly leaves Brighton or Seaford. Once at Seven Sisters Park, you can kick off your trek by going to the visitor center so you can get a map and also learn about the rich history of the area.
Beachy Head is easily one of the best places to visit in Southern England, due to its dramatic natural beauty and picturesque landscapes. Located in the Seven Sisters Country Park, the unique feature of this landscape is the highest chalk sea cliff in the UK, which allows for the best vantage point to view the dramatic chalk walls that make up the Seven Sisters.
Although it is accessible all year round, the best time to visit is during the summer months, as the weather is gorgeous and allows for longer days to explore. While visiting the Beachy Head, it is important to explore with caution, especially near the cliffs as there is significant coastal erosion. It is vital to heed the warning signs that are placed around the area to ensure a safe visit, especially since places like the highest point of the cliffs are completely unprotected.
As you make your way on the kilometers of footpaths and admire the natural beauty, you will also chance on some lighthouses, which make for a stark contrast with the man-made structures against the dramatic craggy coastlines.
Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve
Another great place to visit with a different feel when you are in South Downs is the Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve, a 10-minute drive from the city of Chichester. The nature reserve is home to the finest yew forests that are over 500 years old. The nature trail through the mysterious ancient woodland is marked periodically and is a good place for an almost-spooky walk, with the gnarly tree branches and the legends that the ancient forests inspire. These magnificent knotted tree trunks also sustain a diverse ecosystem as they are home to green woodpeckers, butterflies and red kits.
If you are done with Kingley Vale’s circular walk, another spot that you can explore is the Devil’s Humps, a historical site rumored to have been a burial spot for Vikings. These circular mound shapes are said to be over 6000 years old and provide panoramic views of the surrounding areas.
Queen Elizabeth Country Park
A visit to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park is a great idea for a family day trip to explore the ancient woodlands and downland in this part of Hampshire. The park is home to Butser Hill, the highest point in South Downs from where you can enjoy views of Hampshire’s counties all the way to the Isle of Wight.
The park is home to many cycling routes, catering to beginners up to the most experienced of cyclists. If walking is your cup of tea, then you explore the 2000 acres of woodland on foot and enjoy the marvelous scenery in all seasons. There is also a play area for the kids to enjoy and when hunger strikes, you can head to the nearby café to enjoy some delicious homemade food made with local produce.
South Downs: Natural Attractions and Charming Communities
The English countryside has been featured in innumerable literary works over the past centuries, with its mystery, beauty and allure being extolled as second to none. The region of South Downs has countless natural attractions to offer to travelers with all preferences. Whether you are looking for a leisurely visit to experience pure natural beauty or for a visit to one of the region’s historic communities, be sure to visit the iconic region of South Downs.
Be warned that visiting one of the most beautiful places in the UK will leave you mesmerized and the memories etched in your mind forever. In the words of the famous author Virginia Wolfe, the Downs were ‘enough to float a whole population in happiness, if only they would look’. Truer words have never been said.