The South Downs National Park covers an area of 627 square miles, 2/3 of which is in Sussex. From Beachy Head near Eastbourne in the East to Harting Down in the West, the South Downs includes some of the most varied English landscapes in the country. including open chalk grassland, ancient forests and lush river valleys.
View across the South Downs
The South Downs extend about 70 miles (112 km) from west to east, and seven miles (11.2 km) wide, north to south. Both the North and South Downs come together at the Wessex Downs, just inside the Hampshire border at the River Meon valley. The eastern end, where it reaches the coast between Seaford and Beachy Head, produces the spectacular scenery of the Seven Sisters, the undulating cliffs which are the remnants of dry valleys eroded by the sea.
There are four river valleys which cut through the Downs: they are the Rivers Arun, Adur, Ouse and Cuckmere. Chalk acquifers and winterbourne streams supply much of the water required by the surrounding settlements. Dew ponds are a characteristic feature on the hillside: artificial ponds for watering livestock.
The South Downs is a popular area for ramblers with a network of over 2,000 miles (3,200 km) of well-managed, well-signed and easily accessible trails. The principal bridleway, and longest of them, is the South Downs Way. The Monarch's Way, originates in Worcester and crosses the South Downs to end at Shoreham-by-Sea. The South Downs contains around 3,200km of public rights of way, including the 160 km South Downs Way National Trail. In total there are 9,883 hectares of publicly accessible land to explore.
The highest point on the South Downs is Butser Hill, just south of Petersfield, Hampshire. At 270 m (886 ft) high, it qualifies as one of England's Marilyns.
Two South Downs landmarks are the Long Man of Wilmington, a chalk carved figure, and Clayton Windmills. There is also a war memorial, The Chattri, dedicated to Indian soldiers who died in the Brighton area, having been brought there for treatment after being injured fighting on the Western Front in the First World War.
Archaeological evidence has revealed that the Downs have been inhabited and utilised for thousands of years. Neolithic flint mines and settlements; Bronze Age burial mounds; and Iron Age forts are all in evidence. There are 741 Scheduled Ancient Monuments in the South Downs, and people have been travelling the route of the South Downs Way for over 8,000 years, back to the Middle Stone Age.
Rudyard Kipling, who lived at Rottingdean, described the South Downs as "Our blunt, bow-headed whale-backed Downs". Writing in 1920 in his poem The South Country, poet Hilaire Belloc describes the South Downs as "the great hills of the South Country" In On The South Coast, poet Algernon Swinburne describes the South Downs as "the green smooth-swelling unending downs".The naturalist-writer William Henry Hudson wrote that "during the whole 53-three mile length from Beachy Head to Harting the ground never rises above a height of 850 feet, but we feel on top of the world" Poet Francis William Bourdillon also wrote a poem "On the South Downs".The South Downs have been home to several writers including Jane Austen who lived at Chawton on the edge of the Downs in Hampshire. The Bloomsbury Group often visited Monk's House in Rodmell, the home of Virginia Woolf. Alfred, Lord Tennyson had a second home at Aldworth on the edge of the Downs at Blackdown.
The hallmark white chalk layers, the remains of marine creatures living in the Cretaceous Sea that covered southern England over 100 million years ago, can be seen in the famous white cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, near Eastbourne.West across Firle Beacon, the unspoilt South Downs landscapes around Lewes vary from river valleys and chalk cliffs to rolling green hills with panoramic views to the sea, sheltering ancient and picturesque villages. West of Lewes is Ditchling Beacon nature reserve, with stunning views from the top and the Devil’s Dyke, just minutes by bus or bike from the centre of the vibrant seaside city of Brighton. North of Worthing, near the market town of Steyning, is the famous landmark Chanctonbury Ring, a grove of trees planted on the remains of an Iron Age fort. Firmly rooted in the Downs is Arundel, with its imposing castle and Gothic-style cathedral. The countryside between Petworth and Chichester is rich in landscapes and history. On Bignor Hill, the South Downs Way briefly follows the route of the old Roman road Stane Street, and fine mosaics can be seen on the site of Bignor Roman villa. North of Chichester is Kingley Vale, a grove of ancient yew trees, among the oldest living things in Britain. Unspoilt countryside includes the rare chalk grasslands of Levin Down and Harting Down, home to many wildflowers and butterflies.
Further information can be found on the official South Downs National Park website.