The South Downs Way is characterised by rolling chalk grassland, deep dry valleys, and extensive views over the Weald to the north and the sea to the south.
The western end of the South Downs Way is at the historic and well preserved city of Winchester, capital of King Alfred the Great. In Hampshire the landscape is a rolling countryside of mixed farming and small woodlands. The Meon Valley is particularly attractive, with the superb Iron Age hill fort of Old Winchester Hill and the Meon Valley villages both well worth a visit.
Further west the South Downs Way follows the scarp across West Sussex, often wooded closer to the Hampshire border but more and more open - classic Downland - as East Sussex nears. The Downs are cut by the major river valleys of the Ouse, Adur, and Arun and there are numerous attractive villages along the foot of the downland slope. This is a landscape full of history, and the Trail follows a route that has been used since the end of the Ice Age.
At the far eastern end of the route the footpath follows the spectacular chalk cliffs of Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, while the Bridleway takes a route above the ancient chalk figure of the Long Man of Willmington. The bridleway offers views out across the Weald and Pevensey Levels, but both routes rejoice in the vast open space of classic Sussex Downland.
The South Downs Way provides one of the best long distance trails in the country, but it can be a thirsty walk in summer and cold and wet when the winter gales blow in from the Channel. Come prepared for some of the best lowland walking in England.
Winchester to Queen Elizabeth Country Park
The route commences at the centre of Winchester and climbs on to the Downs above Chilcombe. As one progresses east along the Downs the escarpments become less prominent and the Downs roll and fold more. This Hampshire section is typified by beech hangers (hillside woods) and mixed farming.
The land is intensively farmed along this section of the route, however the patchwork of arable fields, beech woods and grazing land provide a wonderful backdrop to the trail.
This section of the route passes close to a number of attractive downland villages including those of the 'Meons'. These villages are on the banks of the river Meon which is crossed near Exton. This chalk stream is a haven for trout and watercress.
The Meon Valley is overlooked by two sites used from the New Stone Age, when farming was introduced, through the Bronze and Iron Ages. Old Winchester Hill and Beacon Hill are also National Nature Reserves, well worth a detour.
Please note that there are currently two temporary routes across the Meon Valley, one for walkers and one for cyclists/horse riders. Look out for notices and maps either side of the valley to guide you. We hope to complete the legal processes necessary to finalise the route as soon as possible.
From Old Winchester Hill the route follows tracks to Butser Hill before dropping into the valley where the A3 runs. Queen Elizabeth Country Park, by the A3, has a visitor centre with café and toilet facilities.Back to top
Queen Elizabeth Country Park to Upwaltham
The steep wooded scarp slopes along this section provides extensive views over the Weald. The villages of Buriton, Harting and Cocking at the scarp foot provide attractive detours to visit the village churches and pubs. To the south views of the Channel and the Isle of Wight characterise this part of the South Downs Way.
The National Trust own parts of the route with Harting Down being the most obvious. Here the Trust are using traditional management to encourage the growth of downland plants and animals. The Trust property of Uppark is just south of the Trail at this point. It was destroyed by fire in 1989, but has been faithfully restored to its original grandeur.
Look out for several Bronze Age monuments along this stretch including The Devil's Jumps and a collection of ceremonial mounds and ditches at Heyshott Down, as well as the Iron Age hill fort at Beacon Hill. Even older is the dry valley of Bramshott Bottom between Harting Down and the hill fort. This valley was cut by a river flowing over the frozen chalk during the Ice Age, but now that water can sink into the thawed ground the river has long since disappeared.
The route over Cocking, Graffham, and Heyshott Downs is largely through plantation woodland of beech and conifer. Views of the English Channel, the Isle of Wight, and north across the Weald to Surrey can be seen wherever there is a opening in the trees.
Upwaltham to Upper Beeding
The rolling chalk Downs, deep dry valleys, steep scarp slopes and extensive views over the Weald and the Channel characterise this section of the Way. The route follows the ridge of the open downland over Bignor Hill before dropping into the wide Arun valley. Just to the north on the valley floor are the internationally famous Amberley Wild Brooks. Large numbers of birds can be seen on the winter floods, while in summer the Brooks' network of mediaeval ditches are full of flowers and other water life.
Climbing out of the valley one gains the first glimpses of Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings, two more Iron Age hill forts on even older sites, and the chalk escarpment runs off to the eastern horizon. The countryside is intensively farmed along this section and you will be travelling between arable fields and across pasture grazed by sheep and cattle. There are also areas of encroaching scrub and patches of grassland, full of downland flowers in spring and summer.
The route over the Downs past Chanctonbury Ring starts to bring to mind Kipling's poem on the Downs:
No tender-hearted garden crowns,
No bosomed woods adorn
Our blunt, bow-headed, whale backed Downs
But gnarled and writhen thorn....
Upper Beeding to Rodmell
This section is where the open chalk landscape becomes really impressive. The route travels high above the underhill villages of Fulking and Poynings. If you are willing to drop down the hill these villages offer some excellent pubs that make the climb back up worthwhile.
The Trail passes the Devil's Dyke, a spectacular dry valley carved out by spring meltwaters in the Ice Age. There are views south towards Brighton as the path runs along the crest of the chalk ridge past cornfields and cattle grazed grassland before dropping down to the A23 at Pyecombe.
Just east of the A23 are the two windmills known as Jack and Jill. From here the path follows the scarp, passing Ditchling Beacon. This hillfort was still in military use as late as Elizabethan times, when a beacon was lit to warn of the approaching Spanish Armada. Today it is a popular beauty spot, with an Ice Cream van and a regular summer bus service to Brighton.
A little after Ditchling Beacon the path turns south, crossing the main A27 coast road before rejoining the chalk scarp. The route drops into the Ouse Valley at Rodmell, the home of Virginia Woolf.Back to top
Rodmell to Eastbourne
This section of the Trail at most times of the year can give the feelings of real remoteness, even in the south east of England. In winter the area can be lashed with southwesterly gales and in summer the temperature on the windless tops can reach into the high 20 degree Celsius.
Through East Sussex the route follows the escarpment top, with regular water points and waymarked routes to Wealden and downland villages.
The Trail climbs from Rodmell, with views south to Newhaven and the sea. With the steep chalk scarp to the north, and a mixture of sheep pasture and cornfields to the south, this section is perhaps the most classic Downland landscape along the entire route.
The Trail passes about 1km south of Charleston Farmhouse, home of the "Bloomsbury Set", then winds its way along the chalk ridge to the pretty village of Alfriston on the banks of the Cuckmere river. It is here that the footpath and bridleway routes diverge.
The footpath route heads south to the Seven Sisters Country Park, where there is a visitor centre, toilets, and a fine teashop. The path then heads to the sea, at the mouth of the Cuckmere, and then runs along the cliff edge towards Eastbourne.
En route the footpath passes the pub and steps down to the beach at Birling Gap, and the famous chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, before ending on Eastbourne seafront.
The bridleway route, for cyclists and horse riders, also makes an excellent walk. From Alfriston it runs east along the scarp above the chalk carving of the Long Man of Wilmington. There are spectacular views north to Ashdown Forest and east across Pevensey Levels to Bexhill, Hastings, and even Dungeness, before the path drops down into Eastbourne town near the seafront.Back to top