The South Downs Way is a beautiful National Trail running through the South Downs National Park. It is one of the most diverse and breathtaking landscapes in the UK. The trail can be completed on foot, bike or horse – so lots of options to get on the trail and see the beautiful chalky escarpments of the south. It is an ideal beginner long distance trail. However, it is equally accessible to do sections over a day or two.
Start/End points: Winchester, Hampshire to Eastbourne, East Sussex
Distance: 100 miles / 160km
Elevation: 4150m of ascent and descent
Highest Point: Buster Hill, Hampshire, 270m
When to do the South Downs Way
As the trail is along a chalk ridge it drains and dries out quickly, so in essence it is good all year round. However, chalk when wet can be hard going to walk on, with it sticking to your feet incredibly well! Being on the elevated position of the downs can make it extremely windy and there’s not much shade. So, bear these factors in mind, but overall it is definitely a year-round trail.
The trail passes through lots of varied scenery, along with 5 National Nature Reserves and lots of Sites of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). This means you are likely at some point to come across some beautiful wildlife, important chalk rivers and ancient woodland. You will be rewarded with breathtaking panoramic views across rolling countryside, heathland, woods and even across the Channel to the Isle of Wight. Along with all of this, it’s also rich in cultural heritage, with the founding father of ecology, Gilbert White, having had his family home in Selborne.
The chalk grassland developed as a result of farmers felling trees thousands of years ago, with grazing cattle and sheep preventing the trees from returning. The chalk grasslands now contain up to 50 plants in one square metre, which makes them the most diverse, rare and finest habitats in England. During WWII 80% of England’s chalk grasslands were lost through ploughing. The only thing that saved sections of the South Downs Way was that it was too steep for tractors. It is amazing to think that half the chalk grassland in the world is found in southern England!
My experience of the South Downs Way
The South Downs Way should definitely be on your to-do list. Being in the sunnier south, meant I got good weather for most of it. The scenery was fantastic, and it was clearly signposted (bar one little section – read section one!). I would recommend walking the route from Winchester to Eastbourne. Doing it this way means your last section is the awe-inspiring Seven Sisters. The South Downs Way is also well serviced with lots of B&Bs and pubs to stay/eat in. There are also water points dotted along the route – which is a relief when walking in the heat! I walked the trail over weekends in between work. This is very manageable with a bit of planning, and even easier if you have a friend that also drives which enables you to then have a car at both the start and end points!
So, all I can say about it is What’s Not To Hike!!
To watch a short video about the South Downs Way, its history and the wonderful rare wildlife and flowers that grace the grasslands, have a watch of this video: