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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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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