The hills of Britain’s newest national park act as an oasis for outdoor activities in the busy south east
Established a national park as recently as 2010, the South Downs attracts more visitors than any other of Britain’s national parks by a huge margin. Topping the table with 39 million visitor days a year, the South Downs attracts almost twice as many visitors as its nearest rival, the Lake District, which boasts 24 million visitor days per year. Within easy reach of London and the home counties, location naturally helps the South Downs to top spot, but it’s the 1,624 square kilometres of wonderful rolling landscape and iconic coastline, and the opportunity these hold for outdoor activities, that keep people coming back for more. From the chalk cliffs and sea views at Seven Sisters to the undulating escarpment of the Downs, the national park is a fabulous place for cyclists, mountain bikers, runners and walkers, with a kaleidoscope of DIY challenges and organised events taking place within the park’s perimeter.
Mountain bike here
The South Downs Way (SDW) is the only national trail that’s completely passable by bike, and its 100-mile (160km) route between Winchester and the white cliffs of Eastbourne make it a Herculean weekend adventure. Super-fit bikers may fancy it as a one-day adventure, on the long days of summer but beware, it’s not simply the distance with which to contend with, but also 3,800m (12,600ft) of ascent. If you fancy riding it with a bit of support, the British Heart Foundation is organising an end-to-end ride on 16th July, with entry costing £35 (bhf.org.uk). For a circular route, try the 40-mile Wiggle South Downs Epic, which starts and finishes at Fontwell Racecourse on 19th June (£35, ukcyclingevents.co.uk). Or simply create your own route by linking the 1,200km of car-free bridleways in the national park.
Once again, the South Downs Way is the jewel in the crown of the national park, and most people will need at least a week to hike the 100 miles. On the plus side, it’s a chalk ridge, so the path drains well all year round, and the views are wonderful, with highlights including Ditchling Beacon’s panorama over the Sussex Weald, and the towering chalk cliffs at Seven Sisters. On the down side, if you’re planning to hop between hostels or B&Bs, be warned that most of the accommodation is at the foot of hills so you’ll have to walk down in the evening and up in the morning. Expect similar diversions if you’re planning to camp. For the serious endurance fiend, “Since 1664” is a non-stop yomp along the SDW, with a little added to take the total distance up to 166.4km. It’s a fund-raising event for the Royal Marines Charitable Trust Fund, and completers can expect to be on their feet for 36 hours (28th-29th May, since1664.com). For a magnificent and more achievable day walk, plot an 8-mile trail that starts at Birling Gap and climbs to Friston Forest before returning via the rollercoaster path over the Seven Sisters. The view over the white cliffs and Channel is spectacular (see nationaltrail.co.uk/south-downs-way).
The same 2,000 miles (3,200km) of public rights of way create wonderful off-road running opportunities in the national park, whether you’re hitting the trails for the fun of it or as part of an organised race. As an alternative to the all-conquering SDW, the Weald Challenge Trail Races follow the long distance paths of the Wealdway and the Vanguard Way. There’s a half marathon and 50km ultra option, with rolling hills and ancient woodland on the agenda (29th May, trailrunningsussex.co.uk).
Late in the summer, the High Weald Challenge Trail races follow different routes in a similar area (25th September, trailrunningsussex.co.uk). For true ultra running fans, the South Downs Way 100 hits the iconic 100-mile threshold, and the course record is an astonishing 14 hours 3 minutes (11th June, centurionrunning.com).
Road cycle here
Lung-busting climbs and speedy descents make the South Downs a thrilling place to ride, with miles of quiet roads through Hampshire and East and West Sussex. In the height of summer, the Evans Cycles Brighton Road Sportive heads up and over Ditchling Beacon before heading into the Downs (21st August, evanscycles.com), while a month later, the Southern Sportive repeatedly crosses the Downs ridge to accumulate 2,860m of ascent in the 192km part of The Gauntlet distance, or 2,260m of climbing in the more manageable “Full Route” (11th September, southernsportive.com). Butser Hill is the classic ascent, with the gradient peaking at 21%! The climb is a feature of the Wiggle South Downs 100, an end-of-season century ride that packs in 1,638m of ascent (2nd October, ukcyclingevents.co.uk).