Ups and Downs ... the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Photo: David Tomlinson/Lonely Planet
Spend a day losing yourself in Britain's newest national park and you'll likely find a pub and a place to stay, too, writes Richard Madden.
THE South Downs's heart and soul are as old as the hills that are the reason for its existence. These were created by the same geological cataclysm that forced up the Alps 40 million years ago, when Italy smashed into Europe. The outer ripple of that titanic collision exposed a shallow seabed of fine white sediment - formed at the sedate rate of about 30 centimetres every 30,000 years - and created the chalk downlands that we know as the South Downs.
This series of chalk escarpments rises like a petrified tidal wave over the fields, woods, villages and ancient churches of southern England, while the cat's cradle of footpaths that criss-crosses the Western Weald at its base provides a never-ending source of hidden views, sleepy back lanes and idyllic woodland scenes. Combining a walk along the crest of the Downs with a drink at a favourite pub is one of the joys of South Downs life.
The area encompassed by the new South Downs National Park includes a huge range of outdoor activities, combined with the parks, gardens, architecture, museums and cultural events of historic towns within its borders. To help you make the most of the park in a day or two, here are some suggestions.
The 160-kilometre South Downs Way traverses the rural uplands of south-east England from Winchester in Hampshire to the coast at Eastbourne in East Sussex. The terrain varies from open grassy downland to atmospheric wooded sections of beech and chestnut forest. The ridges are broken by descents into flood plains where rivers meander through valleys often defended by mediaeval castles - as at Lewes and Arundel.
Sections can be explored in a day. Highlights include the coastal Seven Sisters between the Cuckmere Valley and Eastbourne; Chanctonbury Ring above the village of Washington; Devil's Dyke above Brighton and Hove; and an epic inland stretch between Firle and Ditchling Beacon. (visitsouthdowns.com, nationaltrail.co.uk/SouthDowns).
Friston Forest, at the eastern end of the park, has a wonderfully atmospheric network of trails where it's a joy to spend a day losing yourself under the forest canopy before re-emerging on the chalk downlands. Cuckmere Cycle Company (cuckmere-cycle.co.uk) hires out bikes and has direct access to the forest (forestry.gov.uk).
The Goodwood Estate (+44 01243 755 055, goodwood.co.uk), with its famous house, racecourse, motor circuit, aerodrome and golf courses, is the living incarnation of one of the most nostalgic eras of English country life. Even so, don't miss out on one of the more recent attractions in the form of the Cass Sculpture Foundation (sculpture.org.uk), a regularly changing exhibition of more than 80 large-scale works displayed in 10.5 hectares of ancient woodland.
The Weald and Downland Open Air Museum (+44 01243 811 363, wealddown.co.uk), at nearby Singleton, is a collection of almost 50 rebuilt historic buildings dating from the 13th to the 19th century. The museum is on the 2590-hectare West Dean Estate, which includes West Dean Gardens (westdean.org.uk).
Lunch and dinner
There's no shortage of pubs in the park but two stand out.
The Jolly Sportsman (thejollysportsman.com) is tucked away down a lane in the village of East Chiltington near Ditchling in East Sussex; The Fox Goes Free (thefoxgoesfree.com) is a wonderfully atmospheric 17th-century flint-and-brick inn near Singleton in West Sussex.
Memorable restaurants include the Hungry Monk (+44 01323 482 178, hungrymonk.co.uk) at Jevington near Eastbourne - famous as the birthplace of banoffee pie - whose bendy-beamed interior has a delightfully Dickensian feel. Diners can eat in private rooms and combine a meal with a walk to the nearby Long Man of Wilmington.
Describing itself as a "restaurant with rooms" rather than a hotel, West Stoke House, near Goodwood, is a 2009 Michelin-star winner. A huge part of the pleasure of dining here is enjoying the house and grounds. (+44 01243 575 226, weststokehouse.co.uk.)
Just over the road (OK, the busy A27) from Firle Place, Middle Farm (middlefarm.com) is a 253-hectare organic show farm that makes a great day out for children to meet the four-legged locals. Its shop is a treasure-trove of locally sourced organic produce and ciders.
A must for any foodie, Pallant of Arundel (pallantofarundel.co.uk) stocks a vast range of Sussex products, including cheeses, hams, pies, cakes, chutneys, smoked salmon, wines, beers and ciders.
The Seven Sisters Country Park (+44 01323 870 280, sevensisters.org.uk) covers 283 hectares and is a combination of the meandering Cuckmere River valley and the pebbled beach where it reaches the sea, with the coastline to both the east and west. This includes Seaford Head and the rolling chalk grasslands above the Seven Sisters, with Beachy Head.
The Cuckmere Valley is one of the most beautiful regions in the entire park and a lovely place to explore on foot or in a kayak. A few kilometres inland is the historic village of Alfriston, while the hillside at High and Over, where you will often see paragliders being flown, is also famous for the carving of a white horse, completed in Victorian times.
Stane House is an award-winning B&B at the foot of the Downs in the village of Bignor, perfectly located for walkers on the South Downs Way wanting to finish the day with creature comforts. +44 01798 869 454, stanehouse.co.uk.
Riverdale House, in Alfriston, makes an excellent base for families keen to explore the Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters. +44 01323 871 038, riverdalehouse.co.uk.
Chill out in luxury yurts and bell tents with Safari Britain in a fold of the Downs on the Firle Estate near Lewes. Foraging, hunting with falcons and identifying birdsong, butterflies and wild flowers while cooking game are all part of the experience. +44 07780 871 996, safaribritain.com.
Further west near Arundel, self-sufficiency is the name of the game at Billycan Camping, on the banks of the River Arun. +44 01903 882 103, billycancamping.co.uk.
There are a dozen or so public campgrounds in the Downs. ukcampsitesearch.co.uk.