South Downs Way

South Downs Way

South Downs Way, looking towards Chanctonbury Ring
Length 161 km (100 mi)
Location South Eastern England, United Kingdom
Designation UK National Trail
Trailheads Winchester Hampshire
51°03′47″N 1°18′25″W / 51.063°N 1.307°W / 51.063; -1.307
Eastbourne, East Sussex
50°45′04″N 0°16′08″E / 50.751°N 0.269°E / 50.751; 0.269
Use Hiking, Cycling
Elevation change 4,150 m (13,620 ft)
Highest point Butser Hill, 270 m (890 ft)[1]
Hiking details
Trail difficulty Easy
Season All year
Sights Long Man of Wilmington, Chanctonbury Ring

The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath and bridleway running along the South Downs in southern England. It is one of 15 National Trails in England and Wales. The trail runs for 160 km (100 mi) from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, with about 4,150 m (13,620 ft) of ascent and descent.[2]


People have been using the paths and tracks that have been linked to form the South Downs Way for approximately 8000 years. They were a safer and dryer alternative to those in the wetter lowlands throughout the mesolithic era. Early occupation in the area began 2000 years after that in the neolithic era.[3] Early inhabitants built tumuli in places on the hills and hill forts later, once tribal fighting became more common. Old Winchester Hill is an example of one of these hill forts along the path.[4] The trail was probably used by the Romans, despite the fact that they built one of their roads across the path at Stane Street (Chichester), this use possibly evidenced by the existence of Bignor Roman Villa[5] near Bury, nearby the path.

Of medieval historical interest, the village of Lomer, now only visible as a few small bumps in the ground,[6] was most likely abandoned during the plague in the 14th century.[7] The flat plain to the north of the South Downs Way, where it passes Lewes, is the site of the famous Battle of Lewes fought by Simon de Montfort, 6th Earl of Leicester and Henry III during the Second Barons' War.

Ditchling Beacon probably due to its height, had for centuries been used to warn local inhabitants of pending invasion. Again during the Tudor period the beacon was utilized to warn Queen Elizabeth I of the Spanish Armada which could be seen coming up the channel.[8]

One particular oddity, The Long Man of Wilmington, can be found only a few metres off the path and down the hill as the path nears one end in Eastbourne. Recent study has shown that it was most likely created in the sixteenth or seventeenth century AD possibly posing more questions than it answers regarding its meaning.[9] Yet still it attracts its fair share of Neo-Druidism and other pagan interest with rituals and festival held there commonly.[10]

During the Second World War much of the south coast of England was fortified with pillboxes, tank obstacles and machine gun posts in anticipation of a Nazi invasion, the plan for which was known to the Nazis as Operation Sealion. These objects can be seen closer to the sea and require a diversion. The closest and probably best site is Newhaven Fort, a 5-mile diversion from the path, which is an attraction that houses many World War II artefacts and documents with impressive examples of the huge cannons used in coastal defence.[11]


The undulating path begins in Winchester Hampshire, and passes Cheesefoot Head, the towns of Petersfield and Arundel, the villages of Storrington and Steyning, Devil's Dyke viewpoint near Brighton, followed by Ditchling Beacon and miles of chalk downland across to Beachy Head, and finally ending in Eastbourne, East Sussex. Some through walkers walk the trail west to east, and some choose to walk it east to west. The trail is popular with a wide array of walkers, including day walkers, overnighters, and through hikers.

Several youth hostels are along the route to accommodate walkers. It also passes Birling Gap, a beach area with hotel and restaurant.

Most of the route is on bridleways, permitting access for walkers, cyclists and horse riders. Occasional short sections are on roads or byways, and these are the only parts on which motor vehicles are permitted. Some sections are on footpath, and in these places an alternative signed route via road or bridleway is provided for cyclists. The footpath sections are mostly short, but between Alfriston and Eastbourne there is an extended footpath section including the Seven Sisters cliffs, for which the bridleway alternative is several miles inland.


The South Downs Way lies within the South Downs National Park, mostly on high chalk downland of the Hampshire Downs and the South Downs. The easternmost section is on the high chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, Sussex. Apart from at the end points, the way keeps to relatively isolated rural areas and some villages, although it passes within a few miles of Brighton and Lewes.

Endurance events

Various running and cycling events are held along the route; including the British Heart Foundation's annual Randonee. Part or all of the 100 miles is cycled to raise funds for heart disease, the fastest times are sub 8 hours with most riders taking under 14 hours.

Part of the South Downs Way is used for Oxfam's Trailwalker, the UK's 'toughest team charity challenge'. It is a non-stop 100 km endurance event along the South Downs Way to raise money for Oxfam and the Gurkha Welfare Trust.[12]

See also

Notes and references

Wikivoyage has a travel guide for South Downs Way.
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