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Best Walks in the South Downs National Park

By Dave Roberts   

on February 23, 2023    No ratings yet.

Posted as a walk in – England, Europe, South Downs National Park

Best Walks in the South Downs National Park

The South Downs National Park  is England’s newest National Park, having been designated on March 31, 2010. The South Downs is the nearest national park to London and many of the walks can be reached quite conveniently by train from the capital.

Some of the best walking in the South Downs National Park can be found on the eponymous chalk hills that run the length of the park. The hills on the South Downs aren’t the highest, between 200-280m in height, with the highest hills in the South Downs National Park being Black Down (280m), Butser Hill (270m) and Littleton Down (254.9m). The South Downs Way traverses the main chalk spine of the South Downs and walking that in sections is the best way to walk these hills, but there are also a few outliers such as, ironically the highest of them all; Black Down. For those looking to walk the sections by public transport, the South Downs National Park has published a leaflet which can be found at this link.

The South Downs National Park has a coastal section known as the South Downs Heritage Coast which boasts some excellent walking.  This section between Brighton and Eastbourne includes a number of urban areas, but also some spectacular coastal scenery. Sections such as the chalk cliffs at Seven Sisters and Beachy Head are iconic, and any visit to this section of English coast should include them. The section will soon form part of the England Coast Path, and most of the coastline can also be walked by following the South Downs Way. They’re so good, the deserve their own article – Best Coastal Walks in the South Downs National Park.

This includes a mix of low level and hill walks, and of course, by hill walking we’re not talking high level and serious fell walking like you’d get in Snowdonia or the Lake District. These are hills between 200-280m in height, with the highest hills in the South Downs National Park being Black Down (280m), Butser Hill (270m) and Littleton Down (254.9m). Even so, they can rise steeply from the surrounding countryside and the weather conditions at nearly 300m compared to sea level will be colder and windier.

For those who want more information, we’ll be putting together a list of the highest 25 summits in the South Down National Park.

Best Walks in the South Downs National Park

Walk up Ditchling Beacon

Distance – 7 km, Time –2 hours 

The summit of Ditchling Beacon marks the highest point in East Sussex at 248 metres above sea level. It provides an impressive view over the Weald, South Downs and out towards the sea and comes as no surprise that it’s popular with tourists and locals alike. The National Trust car park gets busy, and it’s recommended that you catch the Breeze up to the Downs bus service from Brighton at peak periods. This walk crosses the summit of Ditchling Beacon via the South Downs Way, and after a detour south of the hill, returns for a second visit to finish the walk off perfectly.

Devils’ Dyke Circular Walk

Distance – 4 km, Time –1-2 hours 

The Devil’s Dyke is another popular walk, taking in the deepest and widest dry valley in the UK. According to legend was formed by the devil who wanted to dig a channel so that the sea could come in and drown the parishioners of the Weald  The Devil’s Dyke was once so popular that it had it’s own railway station at Devil’s Dyke Farm as well as a funicular railway and cable car. The summit used to have a fairground, observatory, camera obscura and a bandstand; now there’s the Devil’s Dyke Pub and Restaurant.

Butser Hill and East Meon

Distance – 13km, Time –4 hours 

Walk up Butser Hill and East Meon Route Map
Download file for GPS

Butser Hill is the highest point of the actual South Downs and is located in the Queen Elizabeth Country Park between Petersfield and Horndean. It is often walked from the country park, or as an even easier walk from the nearby Cross Dyke car park. This s a longer walk, exploring the countryside around East Meon before taking a detour to the top of Butser Hill along the South Downs Way.

Beacon Hill Walk

Distance – 6 km, Time –2 hours 

Beacon Hill Walk Route Map
Download file for GPS

This walk takes in all three hills on Harting Down – including Harting Down, Round Down and Beacon Hill. As it starts from the National Trust Harting Down car park, you’re already at a height of 200m, with most of the climbing found at the end of the walk to return up to the car park. The South Downs Way is followed over the hills, making the going easy and navigation easy before returning via the valleys at Bramshott Bottom and Whitcombe Bottom.

Blackdown and the Temple of the Winds Walk

Distance – 3 km, Time –1 hours 

Blackdown and the Temple of the Winds Walk Route Map
Download file for GPS

Blackdown is the highest point of the South Downs National Park, though not of the South Downs themselves. Situated in the Western Weald, Black Down is a sandstone hill as opposed to the chalk of the South Downs themselves. Even if this may be the highest point, this is probably one of the easiest walks to a hill in the South Downs National Park. Setting off from the Black Down National Trust car park on Tennyson’s Lane, the walk contours around the hill towards the viewpoint at the Temple of the Winds. This is an excellent viewpoint to observe the South Downs and the Weald. The hill has numerous literary connections to Tennyson, who had two houses on the flanks of the hill (Aldworth and Foxhole) which he used in order to escape the admirers who flocked to his Isle of Wight home.


Walk to Firle Beacon and the Ouse Valley

Distance – 15 km, Time –5 hours 

Walk to Firle Beacon and the Ouse Valley Route Map
Download file for GPS

A linear walk from Bishopstone station over Firle Beacon and down to Southease station that makes use of the railway to return back to the start. You could easily walk it as a circular by following the bridleway from Beddingham Hill to rejoin the outward leg at Poverty Bottom. Starting off near sea level, the route follows old tracks and bridleways before joining the South Downs Way over the hills.

Glynde and Mount Caburn Walk

Distance – 10 km, Time –3 hours 

Glynde and Mount Caburn Walk Route Map
Download file for GPS

This walk from the village of Glynde’s main target is the hill fort of Mount Caburn, and the walk can be cut down to around 3 km if you don’t want to descend down to Lewes and return via the golf course and Cliffe Hill. The hill fort of Mount Caburn is one of the most excavated site in Britain and is thought to date from around 400 BC. It was originally thought to be a defensive fort, but more recent excavations point to it being a ceremonial site. Either way, it’s still an impressive location with stunning views as you can see below.

Walk up Chanctonbury Ring from Finden

Distance – 13 km, Time –3-4 hours 

This walk takes in a section of the South Downs Way as well as  a visit to two hill forts, Cissbury Ring and Chanctonbury Ring. Cissbury Ring is the largest hill fort in Sussex, and the second largest in England and worth making sure you’ve enough time to explore it on your walk.  Chanctonbury Ring can be found near Chanctonbury Hill at around 240m on the South Downs Way, and it is thought to have been a spiritual centre owing to it’s spectacular positioning.

Arundel Castle and the River Arun

Distance – 6-11 km, Time –2-3.5 hours 

Arundel Castle and River Arun Route Map
Download file for GPS

This comprises of a number of walks from Arundel station that can be chained together to form a longer loop to include Arundel Castle, the Monarch’s Way, Arundel Park, South Stoke and the River Arun. Ideally paired up with a visit to the historic town and mediaeval castle for a full day out.

Centurion Way

Distance – 9 km, Time – 2 hours 

Centurion Way Route Map
Download file for GPS

The Centurion Way follows the route of the former Chichester to Midhurst Railway between Chichester, Lavant and West Dean. It’s a multi-use track and provides easy walking over its entire distance. It is hoped that the Centurion Way will be extended to meet up with the South Downs Way and eventually on to Midhurst. As this is a linear walk, you’ll need to factor in the return walk, or you can use the local bus services between Chichester and West Dean.

Farmland in the valley of the River Lavant
Seen from the foot and cycleway that follows the former railway line to Midhurst

Meon Valley Trail

Distance – 14 km, Time –4 hours 

Meon Valley Trail Route Map
Download file for GPS

The Meon Valley Trail is another former railway line that’s been reused recently as a recreational trail. The Meon Valley Railway was one of the last main-line standard railways to be opened in the UK in 1903, but was closed to passengers after only 53 years in 1956. It now provides a good section of cycling or walking between the villages of West Meon in the north to Wickham in the south.

Meon Valley Trail, looking south-west
The former railway line from Alton to Fareham.

Best Walks in the South Downs  – Longer Distance Routes

You can hardly find a walk in the South Downs that doesn’t include one section of long distance trail. There’s a comprehensive list of trails that are either in or cross parts of the South Downs. These include the Monarch’s Way, Vanguard Way, England Coast PathSerpent Trail, Sussex Border Path, Shipwrights Way, Hangers Way, Sussex Ouse Valley Way, St Swithun’s Way, Pilgrims’ Trail, Wealdway, The West Sussex Literary Trail and the Staunton Way. That’s a whole article in itself , but the jewel of the South Downs National Park is the South Downs Way.

The South Downs Way

Distance – 161 km, Time –7-8 days or so 

If you can’t decide which of our best walks to take, then take them all! The South Downs Way National Trail crosses most of the walks outlined above and really does take in the absolute best that the national park has to offer. It was designated as a National Trail back in….. which is well before the national park which wasn’t designated until 2010.

The South Downs Way starts at Winchester and passes a number of hills and landmarks on the way to the finishing line at Eastbourne , including Old Winchester Hill, Butser Hill, Devil’s Dyke, Beacon Hill and Ditchling Beacon as well as a stretch on the Sussex Heritage Coast via the Seven Sisters to Beachy Head.

Featured Image Credit:   © Copyright Ian Cunliffe and licensed for reuse under this Creative Commons Licence

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Dave Roberts

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