Ancient woodlands home to gnarled yew trees. The iconic Seven Sisters cliffs. The homes of some of our finest artists and writers, including Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf. For anyone looking for iconic England, it’s here to be discovered.
As well as the South Downs Way that forms the backbone of the National Park, several other long paths reveal its secrets. The Shipwrights Way cuts north-south between Alice Holt forest and Portsmouth and 20 sculptures serve as waymarkers and inspiration points along its route. Many portray treasured local wildlife and farm animals – a natterjack toad, a Silver-washed Fritillary, a native Hampshire Downs sheep. Others reveal more literary associations, such as the one in the hamlet of Steep featuring books with the names of three famous former residents on their spines – poet Edward Thomas, novelist John Wyndham, and actor Alec Guinness. Just a few metres away stands the Harrow Arms. Regularly voted the best preserved pub in England by Camra, it was Guinness’ favourite haunt. In all there are 3,300 km of rights of way to explore.
Hidden gems like these can be found all across the National Park. The National Trust run Saddlescombe Farmstead dates back to the Domesday Book, was once home to the Knights Templar, and still has a 17th century donkey wheel. At West Dean, there’s a foundation to Edward James, who collaborated with Salvador Dali on the famous Mae West Lips sofa, and one of just four versions of this iconic object is found here. While not open to the general public it is used for events, courses, weddings and has B&B facilities. In Selborne there’s the house of Gilbert White, the ‘parson-naturalist’ considered the father of ecology and said by David Attenborough to be ‘a man in total harmony with nature’. It is now home not only to a museum to White’s life and work, but also one to the legendary explorer Captain Oates, who walked out of Scott’s tent in the Antarctic with the words “I’m just going outside, I may be some time”.
From some of our best known views to secrets waiting to be shared, the South Downs is a living, breathing museum of life in England over thousands of years. With so much richness of culture and nature contained within, there really is something for everyone to explore.