This route description is intended to give you a flavour of the trail and is not a comprehensive guide to the route. It has been described here traveling west to east from Winchester to Eastbourne, but it is equally as pleasurable in the other direction. All distances and heights are approximate.
Download the South Downs Way mileage and profile chart here
Winchester City to Beacon Hill national Nature reserve – 11 miles (17.7 Km)
Winchester is a fantastic compact ancient city. Once the seat of King Alfred the Great, considered the first true king of England. There is plenty to see so make some time to explore before you head out into the South Downs. Walking through the city centre from the train station you can explore the Great Hall of Winchester Castle and King Arthur’ legendary Round Table, Winchester Cathedral, Wolvesey Castle the old Bishops of Winchesters Palace, the River Itchen, King Alfred’s statue and the Old City Mill to name a few.
Once out of the city the trail is straight into gently rolling countryside with a mix of large arable fields, hedgerows and pasture. You’ll pass the MoD Chilcomb Ranger where you may hear gun fire and head through the very pretty hamlet of Chilcomb before climbing steadily up towards Cheesefoot Head. This is the first great expansive view looking out towards the Solent and the Isle of Wight. From here on the trail remains on quiet farm tracks or country lanes on high undulating ground with no steep ascents of descents. The Millbury’s Inn is on route and always offers a welcoming fire.
Beacon Hill to Old Winchester Hill – 4.5 miles (7.2 Km)
This short but very dramatic section has lots of interest especially for wildlife enthusiasts. The trail crosses the Meon Valley carrying the beautiful crystal clear waters of the River Meon from one National Nature Reserve to Another. From the ancient Beech trees on the top of Beacon Hill you enter Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve, heading along to the summit, at 201metres high you are rewarded by stunning views across the valley. The steep grass slopes of this hill are a sight to behold in spring and summer, carpeted in wild flowers and alive with clouds of butterflies. Once out of the Reserve the trail descends and quickly splitting into two routes, one for walkers only which heads steeply down across pasture and over a few step stiles to the village of Exton. The route for horse-riders and cyclists follows the narrow lane down to Exton. Exton and Meonstoke are typical small villages of flint and thatched properties. After Exton it is a gradual climb up to Old Winchester Hill National Nature Reserve where you can enjoy views back towards Beacon Hill and taking in one of the finest examples of an Iron Age hill fort.
Old Winchester Hill to Buriton – 12 miles (19.3 Km)
Stunning views and higher hills await. It’s down hill all the way from Old Winchester Hill to Whitewool Farm. Here you may have to give way to the cows as they walk to the milking shed! After Whitewool farm the trail climbs up Salt Hill towards the Sustainability Centre. Once part of the large HMS Mercury site which was the Naval radio and communications training centre during the cold war, now you can enjoy homemade food at the Beeches cafe, learn about sustainability camp, stay in yurts or in the comfortable hostel. From here on the trail follows an almost level ridge with great views down to the village of East Meon and heads east towards Butser Hill. At 270m Butser Hill is the highest point along the South Downs Way and the third National Nature Reserve, designated for its diverse chalk grassland. Butser Hill is also part of Hampshire County Councils Queen Elizabeth Country Park. Near the summit of the hill you’ll find a café and toilets. Then a long grassy descent heads down to the A3 and the QECP visitor centre, café, shop and toilets. The trail then heads through the first large block of forestry towards Buriton. Drop down through Buriton Chalk Pits to visit Buriton Village for accommodation and pubs.
Buriton to Cocking Hill – 10 miles (16.1 Km)
From here on the trail follows the ridge-line nearly continuously to Eastbourne with constant views north over the wooded Weald of Sussex and south to the English Channel. This section passes the National Trust’s Uppark House with its distinctive folly on Tower Hill and on to Harting Down. There are good links here to Harting village with good public transport links to Chichester, shops, accommodation and pubs. Harting Down is a wonderfully unspoilt network of dry chalk valleys where you can feel miles from any civilisation and worth exploring the valleys running off the trail. The South Downs Way contours around Beacon Hill and for those with the energy it is worth climbing straight up to the summit to take in the panoramic views. Carrying on eastwards the trail passes the Devil’s Jumps. These are a line of well preserved large Bronze Age Burial mounts that can be accessed from the Trail. Continuing east on an undulating route the trail passes on of Andrew Goldsworthy’s large chalk ball sculptures before descending to Cocking Hill, from where you can drop down to Cocking for food and accommodation.
Cocking Hill to Amberley – 12 miles (19.3 Km)
This section of the trail is a mix of woodland, pasture and wild flower glades. It is the most wooded section of the trail. From Cocking Hill the trail ascends a long but gradual hill towards Charlton Forest. You can then enjoy a number of connected reserves managed by the Murray Downland Trust and the Graffham Downland Trust. The trail passes some more fine examples of Bronze Age burial mounds and this is a great spot to stop and picnic. After crossing the A285 the route ascends once again to Bignor Hill where you can see a fine example of a surviving Roman road. A short detour down the hill will take you to Bignor Roman Villa which boasts the finest preserved mosaic in the country. A short distance on brings you to stunning views across the Arun Valley from where the trail descends to the River Arun and the village of Amberley. Amberley has a direct train line to London, cafes and pubs. This is also the halfway point! If you have the time visit Amberley Museum; a museum of rural and industrial heritage.
Amberley to the River Adur – 13 miles (20.9 Km)
From here on the trail becomes gradually more and more open through a landscape of mixed farmland. A steep climb starts this section up to Amberley Mount but then levels off before descending to Washington. This section is bounded by almost continuous open access land where you can escape from the trail and enjoy the species rich chalk grassland. A short detour to the south of Kithurst Hill will reward you with the unusual sight of an old WWII Churchill tank. Used by troops for target practice and riddled with bullet holes she remains there as a reminder of the importance of the South Downs as a training area during the Second World War. The trail has 2 routes to cross the A24 at Washington. The safer route uses a bridge after heading north and down Barnsfarm Hill and passed the lovely flint church at Washington. Washington has a good pub and shop (attached to the pub). After Washington the trail ascends steeply up towards Chanctonbury Ring. This ring of Beech trees planted by the Goring Estate is surrounded by myth and legend and planted on an Iron Age Hill fort that also has the remains of a Roman temple within. After rounding the hills above Steyning (Drop down for shops, refreshment and accommodation) the trail descends towards the River Adur.
River Adur to River Ouse – 21 miles (33.8 Km)
This section follows the arc of chalk hills surrounding the top of Brighton and is therefore one of the busiest sections, however the views both to the north and south are breathtaking throughout. The trail passes the iconic Devil’s Dyke, the largest dry chalk valley in the county, and then passes through Saddlescombe Farm, a well-preserved old farmstead now owned and managed by the National Trust. A little further east beyond the A23 the trail passes the delightful Jack & Jill Windmills. Jill Mill is a working mill and opens to the public on Sundays and holidays during the summer. After passing some stunning traditional ‘Dew Ponds’ the trail ascends to Ditchling Beacon. At 248m this is the highest point along the Sussex Downs and is often a good spot for an ice cream from the van at the car park. From here a bus service runs back to Brighton. From here the trail skirts around the ancient market town of Lewes but it is worth descending from Black Cap to the town to enjoy its many pubs and restaurants. There is much to do and see in Lewes where you could easily lose a few days! Continuing on the Trail south east of Lewes you cross the Greenwich Meridian before descending towards the River Ouse and the village of Southease. A new youth hostel and café is now open at Itford farm just beyond the river.
River Ouse to River Cuckmere & Alfriston – 7 miles (11.3 Km)
Before you ascent the long Itford Hill take some time to check the river for visiting seals. This section is the most open of the trail. In fact you wont pass a single tree until you reach Alfriston! This means stunning views back along the scarp slopes of the Downs to the west across the Lewes to the north and out to sea to the south. As you pass Firle Beacon you may have to share the trail with paragliders and hang-gliders at this favoured launch site. This section has numerous options to drop down and visit country pubs or you might also like to visit Charlston House, home to the ‘Bloomsbury Set’ and now a popular museum.
Alfriston to Eastbourne via Seven Sisters -10.5 miles (16.9 Km)
At Alfristion the route splits into two routes that re-join again at Eastbourne. This section via the Seven Sisters is a footpath only. Horse-riders and cyclists must use the alternative section via Jevington. Of course you can walk both sections and return to Alfriston via Jevington once you reach Eastbourne. Being a footpath this section has a much more intimate feel although it can be busy. For the first time along the South Downs Way the route follows the River Cuckmere south rather than just crossing it as with all the other rivers. The route passes though Friston Forest and then into Seven Sisters Country Park before reaching the coast and following the roller coaster route over the Seven Sisters. A word of caution; between Cuckmere Haven and Beachy Head the route either climbs steeply of descends steeply which will test both lungs and legs, however it is worth every bit of effort. The landscape is breath taking as you walk on top of the shear white cliffs. The cliffs are unprotected and in some area are undercut so please do not get too close to the edge!
The trail passed Birling Gap a National Trust property with a recently renovated café and shop. There is good public transport links here and rare access to the beach. East of Birling Gap the route passes Belle Tout lighthouse with was moved back from the cliff edge on rollers a few years ago. There is then stunning views down to the red and white stripped Beachy Head Lighthouse before you start the final climb to the top of Beachy Head, Britain’s highest chalk cliff! It’s then down hill all the way to Eastbourne’s beach front promenade.
Alfriston to Eastbourne via Jevington – 8.5 miles (13.7 Km)
This often over looked section offers some of the most beautiful views to be found along the trail, but is less busy than the iconic Seven Sisters section. From Alfriston the trail head up over Windover Hill. It is worth taking a short detour to contour around the northern escarpment of this hill to see the famous ‘Long Man of Wilmington’, the largest chalk hill figure of a man in Britain. After Windover Hill the route stays high as you feel like you’re floating above the landscape. On clear days you can see through the hills to Hastings and Dungeness beyond to the east and over to Newhaven and Brighton in the west. A steep descent through ancient hazel woodland brings you to the hamlet of Jevington where the famous Banoffee Pie was invented at the Hungry Monk restaurant; a blue plaque marks the spot! It’s then up on last time over Willingdon Hill where great sea views open up as the trail head south for the coast before descending into Eastbourne.