If you're looking for an easy-going UK walking holiday, I think the South Downs Way might be the one for you.

Most of the gradients are reassuringly manageable along the pleasant chalk hills of the South Downs, and the weather down here is usually pretty favourable.

You’ll need just over a week to complete the hike from the cathedral city of Winchester to the seaside resort of Eastbourne, and for much of that time, you’ll be blessed with sumptuous views of rural Hampshire and Sussex from your perch atop the ridge of chalk which this hundred-mile National Trail follows.

Haven Brow and Seven Sisters South Downs Way

View of Haven Brow and Seven Sisters, South Downs Way

Walking the South Downs Way

South Downs Way

Distance: 99 miles (159km)

Duration: 9 days

Start point: Winchester

End point: Eastbourne

Difficulty: Moderate to easy – relatively short and very easy to navigate; few very steep climbs, though a lot of walking up and down small hills

Suitable for: Any reasonably fit walker, including families; can also be cycled

You’ll walk through landscapes of rolling hills and breezy fields of corn, passing numerous pretty villages with thatched cottages, historic pubs and gardens bursting with blooms. And there’s a fitting final-day climax as you rollercoaster your way up and down the majestic chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters before reaching the beaches of Eastbourne for a celebratory ice cream.

Paragliders over Devils Dyke South Downs Way

Paragliders over Devil's Dyke, South Downs Way

South Downs Way route

Easy going to start with, the Way leaves the River Itchen in Winchester and continues along leafy country lanes through a patchwork of villages, fields, hedgerows and woodland, before reaching the Meon Valley and its scattering of pretty hamlets. The true line of the Downs begins now, a ridge of chalk hills which you’ll follow all the way to Eastbourne.

You’ll soon be climbing Butser Hill (270m), the highest point on the trail and known for its numerous species of butterfly, before flirting with the beech forests of Queen Elizabeth Country Park on your approach into the village of Buriton, with its pretty pond and 12th-century church. More shaded woodland follows before the steep climb up Beacon Hill (242m). Look out for Bronze Age burial mounds as you cross Cocking Down – you may even catch a glimpse of the Isle of Wight off to the southwest. There’s a beautiful forest to walk through atop Graffham Down, as well as more ancient burial mounds before the Way picks up part of the old Roman road over Bignor Hill.

There are lovely views over the Arun Valley as you sweep your way down towards the picture-perfect village of Amberley before eventually reaching the hilltop Chanctonbury Ring, the site of a long-since-disappeared Iron Age hill fort dating back to the 6th-century BC and now a copse of beech trees commanding fabulous views.

The climb up Truleigh Hill is soon followed by wonderful views over Devil’s Dyke and, after passing through Pyecombe, you soon spot the famous pair of 16th-century windmills, known affectionately as Jack & Jill. The rolling hills continue as you climb up Ditchling Beacon, down to the railway level-crossing at Southease, then up Firle Beacon, before reaching the delightful Tudor village of Alfriston, with its quaint teahouses and ye-olde pubs.

The final day’s walk is the best of the lot, as you follow the River Cuckmere through pastoral scenes of English countryside all the way to the coast, where your rollercoaster ride up and down the marvellous Seven Sisters chalk cliffs begins. One final climb up to Beachy Head, marked by its famous lighthouse, is all that’s left between you and that ice cream shop in Eastbourne.

South Down's Way sections

A key consideration on this walk is that you’ll have to drop down off the hills to reach many of the towns and villages you’ll be staying in, and that means a steep climb back up to the trail in the morning! T

here are numerous options, though, and the following is just one of many possible itineraries. If you’re fit, and not carrying a full load of camping equipment, you could easily combine some pairs of stages into one longer stage.

Day 1: Winchester – Exton (12 miles)

Day 2: Exton – Buriton (12.5 miles)

Day 3: Buriton – Cocking (10.5 miles)

Day 4: Cocking – Amberley (11.5 miles)

Day 5: Amberley – Steyning (10 miles)

Day 6: Steyning – Pyecombe (10 miles)

Day 7: Pyecombe – Southease (14.5 miles)

Day 8: Southease – Alfriston (7.5 miles)

Day 9: Alfriston – Eastbourne (10.5 miles)

Hidden gems

It’s well worth dropping down off the Way at Bignor Hill to make the 30-minute detour to Bignor Roman Villa. Believed to date from the 3rd-century AD, it contains some of the world's best-preserved Roman-era floor mosaics, including the longest corridor mosaic in Britain.

About the author

The South Downs Way

Daniel McCrohan

Daniel is a prolific guidebook writer who divides his time between exploring Asia for Lonely Planet and Britain for Trailblazer. As well as writing close to 50 guidebooks for Lonely Planet, he has worked on more than a dozen Trailblazer walking guides, and has hiked and camped his way across many parts of the UK, China, Mongolia and India.

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