White cliffs and open spaces

Encompassing an area of over 1600 square kilometres of protected countryside in the south of England, the South Downs has recently been designated the country's tenth National Park. Stretching across the Park, following the old drovers' routes, runs the South Downs Way, a 160 kilometre trail shared by walkers, cyclists and riders.

In the west, lies Winchester, ancient capital of Alfred the Great, with its fine Norman cathedral built between 1079 and 1093. This is the largest Gothic cathedral in Europe and was used as a location for the 2005 film The Da Vinci Code; it has some fine Pre-Raphaelite stained glass and is the site of the tomb of Jane Austen. In the heart of the city, alongside the River Itchen, the water meadows are rich with fauna and flora, and just a couple of kilometres from the city centre is St Catherine's Hill, a chalk grassland nature reserve and ancient Iron Age fort.

The South Downs spread east from here, dotted with chocolate box villages; a vast expanse of rolling English countryside, rich in butterflies and plants, it stretches as far as the spectacular white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters in East Sussex. The new National Park encompasses a number of Country Parks and designated Areas of Outstanding Natural Beauty, drawing them together in a single protected area.

The Park includes more than 3,000 kilometres of marked trails for walkers, cyclists and riders, the main one being the South Downs Way, which stretches across this gently rolling high ground where sheep graze peacefully and the wind offers perfect kite flying conditions. In terms of altitude, Butser Hill in Hampshire - where over 30 species of butterfly have been identified - and Ditchling Beacon are the high points along the trail, but there are many interesting places along or near to the trail.

The village of Amberley, for example, around half way along the trail, is home to the Amberley Working Museum, an open air museum and heritage centre set in 36 acres of land and dedicated to the industrial heritage of the south east. Here a variety of craftsmen, including a blacksmith, potter and broom maker, demonstrate traditional skills.

Farther east, less then half an hour from Eastbourne, is the charming village of Alfriston, in the Cuckmere valley. It's a beautiful example of a Medieval village with small speciality shops, and tea rooms and traditional pubs to provide sustenance for the weary walker. The thatched, timbered-framed Clergy House was the very first building to be acquired by the National Trust back in 1896.

Perhaps one of the biggest curiosities in the South Downs Park is the Wilmington Long Man, a giant human silhouette carved into the steep slope of Windover Hill some 20 kilometres from Eastbourne. The figure is almost 70 metres tall and is one of England's two chalk giants, the other being the Cerne Abbas giant north of Dorchester. The Wilmington chalk figure dates from the sixteenth or seventeenth century and depicts an unnaturally tall man holding two spears or sticks. The carving is made such that, from below, the figure appears correctly proportioned. The site is used for a number of Pagan and neo-Pagan celebrations and festivals throughout the year.

Encompassing great open air sports facilities, archaeological sites, fine monuments and magnificent countryside, the South Downs National Park has something to appeal to everyone.

Further information:
South Downs Online