Discover National Parks Fortnight: 10 amazing facts about the South Downs Way
Many people have an epic tale to tell about the South Downs Way.
Whether you’ve walked the whole 100-mile length, or just a section of the route, its breathtaking views of coast and countryside are truly inspiring, uplifting for the soul and can’t fail to stir the imagination.
The hilltop route has been trodden by people for millennia, but such was its national importance for walkers that it was approved to become a new National Trail in March 1963.
In July 1972 it was officially opened as the South Downs Way National Trail, making it the UK’s fifth national trail to be established and its first long-distance bridleway.
Since then tens of thousands of people have walked, cycled or ridden the trail from Eastbourne to Winchester (or visa versa!) – each with their own unique story to tell.
The route, with its highest point at Butser Hill at 271m, provides people with the opportunity “to get away from it all” without having to travel too far in this busy part of England.
So, as we mark its 50th birthday for Discover National Parks Fortnight, here’s 10 fascinating facts about this amazing meandering passage along the chalk escarpment of the South Downs.
Have you got a story to share about the South Downs Way, or, if you’ve never been before, why not start your adventure today!?
The National Trail wasn’t always 100 miles. Initially it ran almost entirely in Sussex, from Buriton, on the Hampshire–Sussex border, to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne. In 1987 it was decided to extend the route westwards through Hampshire to Winchester.
The recommended time to walk the South Downs Way is 8 days, with an average of 12.5miles/20km a day.
If you fancied a crack at the world record for completing the South Downs Way on foot, you could try and beat Mark Perkins time of 14 hours, 3 minutes and 54 seconds, set in 2014 at the Centurion Running SWD 100 event.
The fastest South Downs Way single cycle ride is Ian Leitch at 7 hrs 3 mins, while Ian also holds the record for the fastest double cycle ride at 15 hrs 35 mins.
The route has stood the test of time. Humans have been using the tracks that have been linked to form the South Downs Way for around 8,000 years as its elevation made it a safer and drier route than the wetter lowlands.
The fastest non-motorised wheelchair user to complete the route is Swasie Turner in 9 days.
In 2021 Neil Laughton and Tom Clowes took on the South Downs Way – riding on a penny farthing and a unicycle.
Ditchling Beacon is one of the most famous hills on the trail and was used to warn Queen Elizabeth I of the Spanish Armada that could be seen sailing up the English Channel.
Just off the chalk path is a biodiversity oasis. Chalk grassland is known as “Europe’s rainforest in miniature” and can have up to 40 different wildflowers and over 20 different butterfly – and that’s just within one square metre!
It’s very accessible by train or bus! Step off the train at Southease, Amberley or Winchester and you can be on the South Downs Way within minutes! Check out our useful guide on accessing the South Downs Way by public transport.
Andy Gattiker, National Trails & Rights of Way Lead, said: “2022 is a really special year for the South Downs Way and it’s amazing to think that the trail opened half a century ago.
“The beauty of the trail is that it offers something for everyone, whether it’s an interesting day-trip, short break or a week-long ramble.
“We couldn’t maintain the route without the help of dedicated volunteers, who get involved in surveying, practical work, helping at public events and administration, so a big thank you to them as we celebrate this birthday.
“Here’s to another 50 years of enjoying this iconic journey through some of the most captivating countryside Britain has to offer!”
There is a dedicated team at the South Downs National Park Authority looking after the South Downs Way day to day. This team is funded and guided by the South Downs Way Trail Partnership made up of the South Downs National Park Authority, Natural England, Hampshire County Council, West Sussex County Council and East Sussex County Council.
For more information about the South Downs Way and to plan your visit see www.southdownsway.org