The South Downs, became the UK's newest national park in 2009. It's made up of England's chalk downs, stretching from the white cliffs near Eastbourne on the South Coast to Winchester. The park follows the 99-mile route of the South Downs Way, a prehistoric footpath across the tops of the Downs. It takes in dozens of historic towns and villages as well as prehistoric formations and tumuli.
A trip to the South Downs, sometimes referred to as England's desert in the sky, makes a good day trip from London, but several days walking in the South Downs can be very rewarding. Here's my personal account of a hike in the South Downs:
"My guide book was probably a giveaway, but I was still surprised when the bus driver who picked us up outside Horsham Station said, South Downs Way? Where would you like to be let off?Friendly bus drivers offering unscheduled stops? We were off to a good start.
"We were heading out for a day’s hard walking along the Downs, tackling a short stretch to see if we had the stamina to take on a bigger chunk of one of Britain’s most accessible long distance paths next time.
"The South Downs Way glides over the downlands, its popularit due to its range of challenges. Serious walkers can cover the entire distance in four to ten days, but good rail, road, local bus and taxi connections make it easy for beginners to join parts of the path for a weekend, a day, an afternoon.
"We’d set out, on the last Sunday in June, to cover the six miles, from the West Sussex villages of Washington to Amberley in the the Arun Valley. Here the path rides the ridge atop an escarpment. From Washington, a village path climbs to join the trail at the top of Barnsfarm Hill. Within minutes of leaving the village center, we were surrounded by a patchwork of grain crops. Red roofed farm buildings floated on seas of blue green barley, feathery rye and summer wheat. Then cultivated fields gave way to pastures and grasslands quivering with poppies. Dozens of varieties of wild flowers thrive -- vetch, clary, scabious, pale flax, eggs and bacon, cinquefoil, scarlet pimpernel, several kinds of thistle and the tiniest white pansies we’d ever seen.
"And we weren’t even looking. We were too busy taking in the dizzying views. The shallow, dry soil can’t support large trees so the view just goes on and on. On clear days, walking the South Downs Way can feel like flying over tiny villages, farm estates and grand country houses. Long barrows, 3,000 year old burial mounds, earthwork circles and the signs of prehistoric agricultural enclosures and cross dykes are visibly carved across the hills.
"An enjoyable illusion of ancient isolation prevails. Yet, drop down out of the hills on a local footpath and chances are you’ll be near a village with a good pub and B&B or a paved road with a regular bus service."