Our 11 best things to do in the South Downs National Park

by Jan

The South Downs National Park in southern England has a diverse landscape which stretches for 87 miles (140 km) from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex.  Just a short drive from London, the South Downs is a beautiful area of stunning English countryside that reaches as far as the South Coast.  Here’s our pick of 11 best things to do in the South Downs National Park:-

Walk the South Downs Way

Two boys walking on path through corn field on the the South Downs way

With its rolling valleys and gorgeous unspoilt scenery, you’ll have plenty of choice when it comes to walking in the South Downs National Park.

The South Downs has several long-distance trails.  These include the Serpent Trail which snakes for 64 miles from Haslemere to Petersfield and Wayfarers Walk, which follows for 71 miles from Walbury Hill to Emsworth.

However, the longest of the trails is the South Downs Way, which is one of England’s 15 National Trails.  The South Downs Way stretches from Winchester to Eastbourne and is the only National Trail that is fully within a national park.

We were keen to give it a go but are not quite ready for the full 100 miles.  As a compromise, we completed the first stretch from the historic city of Winchester, which is the official gateway to the South Downs Way.

Click here for more details of our walk.

Visit the historic city of Winchester

looking up at Winchester Cathedral stain glass windows

Although the South Downs is the newest of the UK’s 15 national parks, it has a rich heritage, which is evident in its historic towns and villages.  One of the most famous of these is Winchester, the ancient capital of England.

Winchester in Hampshire is a small, historic city on the outskirts of the South Downs National park.  As well as its magnificent, medieval cathedral, Winchester has several other historic monuments, including the Old City Mill, the City Cross and the ruins of Wolvesey Castle.

In addition to the South Downs Way, there are many other options for walking from Winchester.  Some of the most popular are along the River Itchen or up St Catherine’s Hill.

If you are visiting with kids, head out of town to Winchester’s Science Centre.  The children loved this learning space as it is completely hands-on and interactive.  And even better, it has its own planetarium.

Visit the ancient forest at Alice Holt

large wooden kids play structure at Alice Holt Forest, Surrey

Another of the highlights for families in the South Downs National Park is a visit to Alice Holt Forest, near Farnham.

Originally the royal hunting ground of William the Conqueror, Alice Holt Forest is now an exciting outdoor space which everyone can enjoy.  Our kids love the walking trails which follow through the woods.  Don’t expect to walk too fast.  You’ll have to stop every 10 minutes for the wooden play structures and Gruffalo sculptures.

In addition to the woodland play areas, Alice Holt Forest has a great adventure playground, with a wooden ship, play houses and tractors.  It’s a great place for a family day out or a meet up with friends.

If you’re feeling more energetic, Alice Holt also has a couple of bike trails, which lead through the forest.  Alternatively, you could take to the trees for a Go Ape adventure.

Explore the pretty village of Amberley

Houghton Bridge at Amberley, South Downs, Sussex, UK

The South Downs National Park is abundant with quintessential English villages, all with their own traditional pubs.  One of our favourites is Amberley at the foot of the South Downs in West Sussex.  Located in an idyllic location on the River Arun, Amberley has half-timbered houses and charming thatched cottages.  It is chocolate-box pretty and even has its own medieval castle.

Unfortunately, we didn’t get to stay in a castle, but had a good time glamiping by the Houghton Bridge.  On a positive note we were in walking distance to the Bridge Inn, where we enjoyed a genuinely tasty dinner.

For breakfast we headed across the road to the Riverside Restaurant.  This riverside diner is also a great location if you want to hire a boat for a trip up the River Arun.  You can also pick up mountain bikes at Chalkpit Trails, a local cycle hire company based here.  Amberley is  half-way along the South Downs Way and is a great starting point for walking or cycling.

Other picturesque south downs villages to visit include Alfriston, Droxford and Buriton.

Step back in time at Arundel

Looking up at imposing Arundel Castle from sweeping driveway

Another of the best places to visit in West Sussex is the historic town of Arundel.  One of its best-known attractions is the magnificent Arundel Castle, which overlooks the town from the hill.  It’s worth paying a visit inside the castle, especially to its unique gardens.

The beautiful town of Arundel has retained its old-world charm and has plenty of traditional tea houses and curiosity shops.  There’s also fudge shops and ice cream.

Enjoy the wildlife at the Wetland Centre

Arundel-Wetlands, WWT Arundel, Sussex

Just out of Arundel’s town centre is the WWT Arundel Wetland Centre. This is a large nature reserve; whose aim is to conserve wetland wildlife and nature.

The highlight of our visit was a boat safari which took us on a tour through the maze of waterways.  We had a great guide who told us where to look and what to listen out for.

We then continued by foot through different zones, each representing different habitats.  Even if you’re not a bird enthusiast, you can enjoy a waterside walk and the wildlife.

Cycle the Meon Valley Trail

This family bike route follows a disused railway from West Meon in the north to Wickham in the south.  It’s 11 miles in total, but as it’s an out and back route, you can return whenever you want.  This route links with the longer Wayfarers Walk and South Downs Way.

There is a car park off Station Road in West Meon (GU32 1JJ), but it does have height restrictions.  From here the trail will lead you on a flat, safe route through pretty South Downs countryside.  It’s easy cycling and there is a lovely pub, The King’s Head,  near the Wickham end.

Click here for map of the Meon Valley Trail.

Admire the art at Petworth House

Art collection Petworth House with impressive King Henry VIII at center, Sussex

Even if you are not an art enthusiast, you can enjoy a visit to Petworth House, one of the finest historic houses in the South Downs.  This impressive 17th Century stately home in West Sussex houses one of the most exquisite art collections in England.  However, it also has very pretty “pleasure grounds” designed by Capability Brown.

Behind Petworth House is a vast deer park, with over 700 fallow deer.  This 700-acre parkland has 2 serpentine lakes, several follies and is great for walks.  You can walk in the deer park without visiting Petworth House.

Petworth itself is a picturesque market town with cobbled streets, galleries and antique shops.

Escape to the Queen Elizabeth Country Park

If you’re looking for somewhere to explore outdoors with the kids the Queen Elizabeth Park is an ideal choice.  The park is near Petersfield in Hampshire and lies on the South Downs Way.  With over 2000 acres of woodland and downland, you’ll find a choice of good walks and cycle routes for all abilities.

If you’re feeling energetic climb to the top of Butser Hill, the highest point on the South Downs Way.  From here, you will have you sweeping views of the South Downs countryside.  Though for me, it just brings back memories of my annual pilgrimage here with the brownies.

As well as beautiful countryside, the park has assault courses and several natural playgrounds.  There’s even an activity course for your dog.

Go stargazing at night

Wooden fence in front of view of milky way stargazing, source pixabay

As well as being a great place to explore during daylight hours, the South Downs is a great place for a night adventure.  In 2016 the national park became the world’s newest International Dark Sky Reserve (IDSR).  In practice, this means that the region has less light pollution, the skies are very dark and it’s a fantastic place for stargazing.

Take a hike in the Seven Sisters' Country Park

View of the white cliffs of Seven sisters from cuckmere, sussex

The white chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters’ Country Park are one of the most iconic sights of the South Downs National Park.  Take a walk along the coastal path to look down on the unspoilt coastline and see the Seven Sisters’ Cliffs.

One of the best routes is from Seaford to Eastbourne.  This path leads to Birling Gap and passes Beachy Head lighthouse, before reaching the Victorian seaside town of Eastbourne.

The Seven Sisters’ Country Park covers 280 hectares and offers some of the best walking trails in South England.

Getting to the South Downs National Park

It’s easy to get by train from London to the South Downs.  Direct trains leave regularly from London Waterloo and London Victoria.  They take about 60-90 minutes, depending on where you are going.

You’ll find train stations at Winchester, Petersfield, Eastbourne, Lewes, Amberley and Southease.

Click here for train timetables.

A map of things to do in the South Downs National Park

Below is a map of our 11 best things to do in the South Downs National Park.

Save the map to use when you are there by clicking on the star to the right of the title.

You can later find the map by going to your Google Maps app and selecting the saved icon.

What are you best things to do in the South Downs National Park?   We’d love to hear your thoughts below:-

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7 comments

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7 comments

Avatar for Jan
Vyki from Museum Mum 4th March 2021 - 5:24 pm

So many fantastic ideas for families! We had a child-free break to Arundel a few winters back but the castle was closed unfortunately. I remember fondly a visit there from my own childhood so am very keen to take the kids. Amberley Museum is great for families too. The Seven Sisters walk is beautiful too. Alice Holt Forest and Petworth definitely on the must visit list. Thanks for joining in with #CulturedKids.

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Louise (Little Hearts, Big Love) 26th February 2021 - 5:29 pm

These are some great ideas of things to do in the South Downs National Park. I grew up in Petersfield and so your post brought back some happy memories of places that I visited in my childhood. I didn’t realise that the South Downs National Park is now a Dark Sky Reserve, although I was always struck by how many more stars I could see when I visited my family in the South Downs area while I was living in London. I’ve never visited Arundel Castle though and it does look magnificent. One to add to the list in the future. Thank you for sharing with #CountryKids

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Stefan (BerkeleySqB) 26th February 2021 - 2:54 pm

Great post, Jan. Having lived in London for the past 15 years, we’ve done most of the things on your list, but were still able to add a couple new ones, like visiting Winchester, which for some bad reason had always fallen below our radar.

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Keri | Ladies What Travel 25th February 2021 - 12:41 pm

Great guide, the UK has so much to offer, doesnt it?! #CulturedKids

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Jan 25th February 2021 - 9:12 pm

Yes, we are lucky to have so many options

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Holidays from Hels 18th February 2021 - 11:36 pm

So much history here. Would love to see Arundel Castle (I’m sure we learned about it at school). Seven Sisters Country Park looks like it has incredible views. I experienced white cliffs for the first time quite recently at Durdle Door, Dorset and was blown away at just how magnificent the are in real life.
I think we need to explore the South Downs! #CountryKids

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Jan 19th February 2021 - 8:22 am

Yes, Arundel Castle is lovely, especially the gardens.

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