> Hillwalk Tours Blog > Hiking in England > Hiking the South Downs Way: Overview & Tips
POSTED BY January 8, 2021

The South Downs Way is the perfect hiking trail if you want to discover the idyllic English countryside. This long-distance hiking trail is ideal for beginners. It meanders between flower meadows and rolling hills until it ends at the gleaming white cliffs of Beachy Head.

The starting point of the trail, which is not far from London, is easy to get to. It also offers the opportunity to supplement your hiking holiday with a visit to the metropolis. Read everything you need to know about this lovely hiking trail here.

The South Downs Way: Fact File

Total length: 160km

Difficulty level: easy to moderate

Duration: 8 to 10 days

Start and finish: Winchester and Eastbourne

Geographical location: In the south-west of England. The South Downs Way is only about an hour from London and is easily accessible by public transport.

Total ascent: 4,150 meters

Highest point: Butser Hill at 270m

Seven Sisters Country Park in Sussex, UK

What is special about the South Downs Way?

The South Downs Way is characterized above all else by its location, its good infrastructure and its easy to moderate level of difficulty. The proximity to London and the good public transport connections ensure a pleasant journey to and from the trail. The fact that this long-distance footpath is located in the south-west of Great Britain is also an advantage. This means that the prospect of good weather is higher than, for example, in the north in Scotland or on the west coast.

You are not far out in the wilderness on the South Downs Way. But anyone who appreciates the beauty of gently rolling hills and picturesque villages will thoroughly enjoy this hiking trail. It is important to note that this trail runs along a ridge in South Downs National Park. However, the accommodations are often in the towns below the ridge. This means that often at the beginning of each stage, you will need to climb up to the ridge and walk down again in the evening. Another special feature is that you start this route inland and end by the sea. So you can relax on the beach at the well-deserved end of your hike.

Who can hike the South Downs Way?

One could rightly call the South Downs Way a perfect hike for all levels. Compared to some other long-distance hiking trails in Great Britain, it is relatively short, well signposted and never far from accommodation and places to eat. The ground can be hard in places and hiking boots that are well worn in are essential pieces of equipment. Of course, you can combine the breaking in of your shoes with training for the multi-day hike.

A pathway alongside farmland on the South Downs Way in Sussex, on a sunny summers day

Tips for planning your hike on the South Downs Way

When is the best time to travel?

Theoretically, it is possible to walk the picturesque hiking trail at any time of the year. But more hours of sunshine, higher temperatures and mild evenings make the months from May to September the best time to travel. It is also wise to keep in mind when planning, that the UK school holidays start in mid-July. From then on there is a much larger demand for accommodation, so you should book well in advance for this time of year. It can also be busier in the summer months at some of the more popular attractions on the trail and at major sights such as the chalk sea cliffs.

Which way should I walk on the South Downs Way?

Although you can walk the South Downs Way either way, it is recommended that you start the walk in Winchester and walk towards the sea. This is not only supported by the fact that you can look forward to one of the most impressive stages and sea views all the way at the end of your walk but you will also have the wind behind you when you walk from west to east.

How can I get to the South Downs Way from Europe?

From Germany, Austria and Switzerland all roads lead via London to the starting point of the South Downs Way in Winchester. You can get to the British metropolis by plane, Eurostar or even long-distance buses. From there you can either take the train or bus. Travel time between London and Winchester is between 60 and 90 minutes.
Those traveling from France can also consider taking the ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven, or from Le Havre to Portsmouth. Further information and links can be found on our main Travel Info tab.

What types of accommodation are there on the South Downs Way?

There is no shortage of accommodation for various travel budgets on the South Downs Way. From campsites to youth hostels, B&Bs and hotels, you will find a wide range of accommodation in the pretty towns along the way. B&Bs are particularly popular with hikers because they offer an excellent mix of comfort, contact with locals and good value for money. After a long hike, possibly with mixed weather, there is nothing better than the prospect of a hot shower and a comfortable bed.

How can I get food on my hike?

There are shops as well as cozy pubs and restaurants near the South Down Way . Breakfast is traditionally included in the price of B&Bs and is usually quite generous. A cozy after-work beer in the pub around the corner is often one of the highlights of a hike in Great Britain or Ireland and there is usually food too. Some pubs also offer packed lunches to take away should you worry about lunch the next day.

What equipment should I pack?

Due to the stony ground, good footwear and hiking socks are essential as part of your equipment on the South Downs Way. Hiking sticks can also make a massive contribution to relieving the strain on the knees when climbing up and down every day. Rainwear and sun protection are also a must in hiking luggage. If you pack a daypack, it is always worth taking energy bars and snacks as well as clothes changes (especially socks) with you. There are also water stations on the South Downs Way where you can refill your water bottle. A lightweight reusable bottle is therefore certainly an advantage.

According to the management of the trail, cell phone reception is good over most of the South Down Way. But remember to take the appropriate adapter with you, if travelling from abroad, so that you can charge your mobile phone on the go. Check out our Essential Hiking Equipment post for more information.

South Downs Way, a long distance footpath and bridleway along the South Downs hills in Sussex, Southern England, UK

What are the sights and highlights on the South Downs Way?

Aside from sweeping views and a landscape that could adorn any postcard, there are still some special historical, geological and culinary highlights waiting for you on this special southern English long-distance hiking trail.

The Roman villa of Bignor

An entire Roman villa was excavated and rebuilt in Bignor. There you can admire the famous mosaics next to the building.

Devil’s Dyke

The section between Upper Beeding and Pyecombe takes you to this unusual valley. According to legend, the devil himself is said to have carved it into the stone to drown the surrounding churches. Devil’s Dyke is right on the South Downs Way and is a popular destination for local Brighton residents.

Clayton’s White Windmills

Clayton’s two picturesque white windmills were built back in 1821. They are known by the residents of West Sussex as “Jack and Jill”. In the green, wide landscape they represent a very charming photo motif.

The Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters is the name of seven beautiful sea cliffs made of chalk cliffs that you walk over on the last day of a hike on the South Downs Way to Eastbourne. In the case of the Seven Sisters, the sea is allowed to slowly erode them which allows them to retain their special white colour as opposed to the protected cliffs of nearby Dover. Unsurprisingly, these pretty cliffs have therefore been used as film sets for many films including Robin Hood.

Looking towards Cuckmere Haven on the Vanguard Way footpath with Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters in the distance.

Self-guided walks on the South Downs Way

If you are tempted to experience the idyll countryside of South England yourself and then let your gaze wander over the sea, read more about Hillwalk Tours’ self-guided hikes on the South Downs Way . Different route options are available to suit every fitness level and cozy B&Bs and luggage transport are all part of the overall package. As far as planning is concerned, you are in good hands all round: all you have to do is enjoy your hike on this spectacular trail!

We hope that you enjoyed this guide to hiking the South Downs Way. If you’re interested in a South Downs Way hiking tour, just get in touch.