The South Downs Of Britain Saturday May 19, 2012

In the North of England you have the Peak District, Lake District, Northumberland, Yorkshire Dales, North York Moors and Wales. In the middle of England you have Shropshire and north, middle, and South Wales. In the east it’s the Norfolk Broads, down west it’s Devon and Cornwall, and in the south east it’s the Downs: North and South. In every part of Britain, you can find an urban escape. Yours may be one of those, or another area I’ve not mentioned. Scotland is most impressive of all if you live in Aberdeen, Glasgow, Edinburgh, Fort William, Aviemore, or further north giving you easy access to North West wilderness.

The South Downs have recently been given National Park status. It doesn’t mean they compare to more rugged and dramatic areas; it means they have been recognised as an important resource worthy of acknowledgement and protection. I went there recently – went back, actually, because I used to live in Brighton where they are on your doorstep. Brighton is long and thin, sandwiched between the sea and the hills. Behind the hills the congestion grows and the concrete proliferates until you reach London, about sixty miles away.

Beachy Head is a fine place with rugged chalk cliffs and extensive views along the coast. The nearby Seven Sisters Country Park is equally pleasant, with another cliff top walk climbing hills above Cuckmere Haven. I’d not seen the sea for a year: the last time was on Skye in April 2011. Then, as on the Downs, I felt a pleasurable subtle shock, an immediate sense of ease. The sea, the sea, so thrilling and fun as a child and embedded in the British history and psyche. I imagine if you live in the heart of the continent, thousands of miles from ocean, it must be delightful to see it. When you climb the grassy hill to Beachy Head suddenly it’s there: vast blue space the equal of any mountain view. It is this space, together with the soothing glistening ripples, which is so calming and soothing for the soul. When I was in Skye last year I wanted to camp at Glen Brittle to be beside the sea. I walked up to the Cuillins the next day and then the Glen Shiel Five Sisters and South Ridge, but the pleasure of the sea also figures as part of that trip.

On the South Downs ridge, the sea haunts you in the distance. It’s not close enough to taste the air and it’s no more than a distant glimpse, but that’s enough: you know it’s there. In the other direction gentle hills meander and fold into the distance, correspondingly sea-like. In the best light, shadows and illumination pass over grassy curves with the effect of waves.

The South Downs are easily accessible, offering pocket size walks with quick rewards. There are charming villages to visit (and where rich people live in multi million pound property), with quiet pubs for refreshment. Writer Virginia Woolf lived at the foot of the Downs when she wasn’t in London. It’s worth exploring the roads, either by car or bicycle or on foot, for pretty views. East Sussex is chalky, and the old houses have walls made of flint. Large fields of rape spoil the land with glaring yellow but elsewhere you find subtle gradations of green, brown, and white. As with other parts along the south coast like Dorset, Wessex and the West Country, agriculture mostly blends pleasantly into the land covering the curves and flatland up to the very rough places or steep inclines, evocative of gentle harmony with the earth.

The South Downs ridge is well worth a romp, and you can reach it easily in many places after twenty minutes climbing. For me though it’s pretty scenes like this which sum up the area, quintessential English fields resting under fluffy clouds and a summer sky:

South Downs Photographs