The South Downs may have only been given national park status in 2010, but England’s newest national park has long been celebrated for its beauty, history, views, and tranquility. Stretching from Hampshire to East Sussex, and with London to the North and the coast to the South, this is a landscape that boasts rolling hills, pretty villages, grand castles, and towering coastal cliffs.
If you’re looking to explore this quintessentially English stretch of countryside, here are seven of the top beauty spots in the South Downs.
1. Seven Sisters
One of the iconic images of the South Downs is arguably the most beautiful – and surely the most dramatic. The Seven Sisters chalk cliffs are visible for miles off the coast, and these monolithic, rippling white cliffs are so impressive they’ve been featured in several Hollywood films, including Harry Potter, James Bond, Robin Hood, and Atonement.
Formed when ancient rivers carved seven valleys into the chalk, the Seven Sisters are slowly being eroded by the sea – but the highest peak, Haven Brow, stands at a majestic 253 feet, and the views from the top are spectacular. If you enjoy hiking, there are some excellent coastal walks here. One of the most popular is from Beachy Head – which, at 530 feet, is the UK’s highest coastal point.
To get the most out of this beautiful spot, you can park at the Seven Sisters Country Park, where you can choose to explore the park by foot or by bike – or, if you fancy it, by canoe. The Cuckmere River is the perfect setting for canoeing and wildlife spotting. There’s even camping available in the park if you fancy taking more time to discover this stretch of unspoilt coastline and countryside.
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2. Black Down
Another stunning spot in the South Downs that’s also perfect for hiking is the Black Down hills, which have long been lauded for their wild beauty. Tennyson especially loved hiking through these heather-clad hills, and the views here even inspired his poetry: ‘You came and looked and loved the view, long known and loved by me, Green Sussex fading into blue with one grey glimpse of sea.’
Whether you’re looking for poetic inspiration yourself or you just fancy stretching your legs and getting some fresh air, walking through the Black Down hills can provide you with truly breathtaking views. With flower-dotted meadows, quiet woodlands, and purple heathland, a sense of timelessness pervades this spot – and these ancient sunken paths have been walked along for thousands of years by shepherds, traders, and quarrymen.
One of the very best walks in Black Down was also Tennyson’s favourite – the Temple of the Winds walk. Named after a Bronze Age circular bank, the two-mile path takes you through a landscape of pine trees, heathlands, and dew ponds up to a carved stone seat on the top of a hill, where you can enjoy one of the best views of the South Downs National Park, and a wonderful sense of peace.
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3. Arundel Castle and Gardens
If you’re interested in history, you can’t miss Arundel Castle – which, aside from being fascinating from a historic point of view, is also an incredibly beautiful place to spend the day. Nestled in the Arun valley and set high up on a hill, Arundel Castle is instantly impressive, and the views from the top, across the South Downs and River Arun, are spectacular.
Here you can step back in time to the Norman Conquest as you explore nearly 1,000 years of history. Arundel Castle was first established in 1067, and while much of the castle has been modernised and rebuilt, there are many original features, including the Norman keep, the medieval gatehouse, and the barbican. You can wander through the castle and admire the finely preserved interior, which is packed with unique furniture, tapestries, and paintings.
Outside, you can enjoy some fresh air as you explore the award-winning manicured gardens: there’s a Rose Garden, a White Garden, Tropical & English Gardens, and a quirky Stumpery. The town of Arundel itself is also a lovely place to visit. You can relax in its characterful pubs, go for a dip in the heated lido, or just enjoy wandering through these historic streets and browsing in antique shops.
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4. Kingley Vale
If you’re a wildlife enthusiast who loves being amongst nature, then it’s hard to think of a more perfect place in the South Downs than Kingley Vale. This nature reserve is a biological Site of Special Scientific Interest, and though it’s just north of Chichester, visiting Kingley Vale will transport you to a whole new world – one that’s full of magic, mystery, and thousands of years of history.
Kingley Vale is home to one of the best yew forests in Europe, and these twisted, ancient-looking trees are among the oldest living things in the UK. As you walk through these gnarled groves, you might think you’ve somehow stepped onto a set for Lord of the Rings. But don’t let your awe keep you from spotting wildlife that includes green woodpeckers, red kites, buzzards, and (during the warmer months) many beautiful and colourful butterflies.
If you fancy a hike, you might want to walk the Kingley Vale trail, which takes you through yew woodlands and lowland chalk grassland – just don’t forget to bring your camera to capture those views! This area is also one of the most important archaeological sites in the south, with 14 ancient monuments including the Iron Age Devil’s Humps (two Bronze Age barrows) and Goosehill Camp.
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5. Butser Hill
Another nature reserve in the South Downs that’s also a Site of Special Scientific Interest is Butser Hill, a mighty mound that’s popular with hang gliders and paragliders as well as hikers. Reaching the summit can be tough, especially on a hot day, but the views to the North, across Hampshire, are sensational – and if you’re in need of some refreshment, there’s a kiosk at the top where you can buy drinks, ice cream, and snacks.
Though Butser Hill is lovely on a summer’s day when you can hear skylarks singing and spot butterflies and moths like the Chalkhill Blue and Silver-Spotted Skipper, it’s especially magical at night. The South Downs is an International Dark Skies Reserve, and as the highest observing point in Hampshire, Butser Hill is a wonderful spot for stargazing – and on a clear night, you can marvel at 360-degree views of the glittering Milky Way.
Plus, just ten minutes from Butser Hill is Butser Ancient Farm, a unique archaeology site where you can travel back in time to Ancient Britain. Step inside incredible reconstructions of ancient buildings from the Stone Age, Iron Age, Roman Britain, and the Anglo-Saxon times, and experience history with all your senses. You can smell the aroma of wood smoke, taste bread cooked over an open fire, and listen to talks about what it was like to live in the South Downs thousands of years ago.
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6. The South Downs Way
Running the length of the National Park, the South Downs Way can’t technically be called a beauty spot, but this long-distance footpath connects some of the most beautiful sites and attractions in the area. Plus, if you’re interested in doing some hiking on your holiday, there’s so much to see and do on this trek – from admiring views that will take your breath away to exploring charming and historic market towns.
This undulating 100-mile trail runs from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, and though it’s undeniably a long trek, the walk can be easily split into short sections, and is clearly signposted. The path is popular with cyclists as well as walkers, so if you prefer cycling to walking, then you might want to think about bringing your bike.
The trail follows old routes over the hills and cliffs of the South Downs, allowing you to feel as though you’ve got away from it all – though in reality, you’re never too far away from pretty villages or interesting coastal towns… as well as some as the finest pubs on the South coast. The trail winds its way through the lively and historic town of Lewes, past famous beauty spots like Ditchling Beacon and Devil’s Dyke, and along the peaceful River Adur.
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7. Cissbury Ring
As you’ll probably have gathered, the South Downs certainly isn’t short of hills (or views) – but the most historic is Cissbury Ring, which is considered one of the jewels in the crown of the South Downs National Park. As the second-largest hill fort in England, Cissbury Ring has a fascinating history that stretches back for more than five thousand years. There have been human settlements here since the Neolithic times, though the Iron Age hill fort was built around 400 BC.
Centuries of animals grazing here have produced an ideal habitat for butterflies and wildflowers, as well as rare plants like the round-headed rampion. During the spring and autumn months, you can see dozens of different migratory birds here, as Cissbury Ring is one of the first landing spots for birds flying over the channel – and from the top, you can enjoy marvellous views in all directions. On a clear day, you can even see the Isle of Wight!
The village of Findon sits just beneath Cissbury Ring, and there’s a lovely walk from Findon that connects Cissbury to Chanctonbury Ring, another Iron Age hill fort with an iconic crown of beech trees at the top. The perfect place for a picnic with a view – or a bracing hike – Cissbury Ring is an incredibly scenic location that will have you feeling as though you’re on top of the world.
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Just an hour’s drive from the hustle and bustle of London, the quiet, rolling hills of the South Downs are sometimes called ‘the lungs of south-east England’ – and this gorgeous region is the epitome of the rural idyll.
Boasting dramatic white cliffs, wild heathland, ancient woodlands, historic towns, and sensational sea views, the South Downs National Park is mysterious, beautiful and inspiring.
Whether you head here just for the day or for a summer staycation, and whether you want to enjoy some rest and relaxation or an active and exhilarating break, the South Downs has something for everyone.
Are you planning to visit the South Downs this year? Or do you have any of your own South Downs suggestions you’d like to share with our readers? We’d love to hear about your holiday plans! Leave us a comment below, or join the conversation on the Rest Less community forum.