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Things To Do In The South Downs National Park – A Stargazing Microgap

by Chloe Gunning
Exploring the South Downs National Park, England
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Find out the best things to do in the South Downs National Park, including beautiful walks, charming villages, great places to eat and a quirky place to stay. 

I’ve discovered another truly beautiful part of my home country, and I couldn’t be happier! I’ve just got back from a lovely trip to the South Downs National Park – an area I’d barely stepped foot in before my time as a Microgap ambassador.

In all honesty I had no concept of how big the region was. Spanning a whopping 1600 square kilometres, stretching from Winchester in the west all the way to Eastbourne in the east, the national park encompasses a huge variety of landscapes. You’ll find stunning vistas of rolling hills, heaths, vineyards, farms and ancient forests, as well as epic cliffs and beaches.

This is a region famed for its incredible dark skies. With little light pollution, there’s a chance to enjoy some incredible stargazing – something that would be a little theme running through our adventure!

Stargazing in the South Downs, England

Stargazing in the South Downs, England

Then there are the cute and quirky towns and villages, most with that quintessential English feel. Think thatched cottages, village pubs, tearooms and locals who stop in the street to chat to each other.

We decided it was the perfect place for a Microgap… and if you’re wondering what this wonderful word means?

A Microgap is designed to pack the best bits of a gap year into just a few days away! Think big experiences, memorable moments and a bit of character development too. Whether you’re looking for a Microgap that lets you switch off, give something back to the community, something a little wild and adventurous, or like me, you fancy learning something new, it’s all possible right here in England. 

#MyMicrogap
Want to learn more about Microgaps? Click here to plan an adventure of your own! 

Watch the video to find out more about our trip to the South Downs (including our stargazing experience) then scroll down to plan your trip!


Why visit the South Downs National Park?

There are SOOOOO many reasons to visit, but here are a few off the top of my head…

  • South Downs walks – Head out along the South Downs Way, a route spanning 100 miles, which takes you all the way from Winchester to Eastbourne.
  • Dark skies – In 2016, the South Downs National Park was named an International Dark Sky Reserve. You’ll find some of the best stargazing spots in England in places like Old Winchester Hill, Harting Down and Devil’s Dyke.
  • Variety of landscapes – If you were to drive from one end of the national park to the other you’ll see the mix of landscapes. Some parts are hillier, some have flat heathland and countryside, and then there are the coastal areas with epic views like the chalk cliffs at Seven Sisters.
  • Wine production – This is an area with outstanding food and drink options, and a special mention should go to the region’s vineyards. From Nutbourne Vineyard and Denbies Wine Estate to Stopham Vineyard, there’s a really high concentration of wineries, many producing fine English sparkling wines.
  • Outdoor activities – from hiking and cycling, to horseback riding, downhill mountain biking, paragliding and more, it’s a region made for adventure lovers,

    South Downs National Park, England

    South Downs National Park, England


Things To Do In The South Downs National Park, England

Who wants to plan a trip to follow in my footsteps? If you’re dreaming of a long country walk followed by some tasty food in a cosy pub, and a dash of English magic, this South Downs travel guide is guaranteed to help. Time for a quick run down of my favourite things to do in the South Downs National Park.

Learn about space at Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium

With plans to do some stargazing during our Microgap, we were excited to learn a little more about space. Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium has plenty of great activities, that are perfect for adults and kids.

I loved the Explorer:Space zone, an immersive area packed full of interactive activities to learn more about the Solar System, different planets and constellations. After donning a space suit, I picked up plenty of tips for that evening’s stargazing mission.

Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium

Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium

Explorer: Space at Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium

Explorer: Space at Winchester Science Centre and Planetarium

The planetarium is the largest standalone planetarium in the UK, and shows several films on the curved ceiling each day. I enjoyed watching We Are Stars – a short animated film about how stars are created. Depending on when you visit you could catch one of the live demonstrations or evening sessions for adults.

I'm an astronaut!

I’m an astronaut!

Go stargazing in the South Downs National Park

We loved getting to know England’s dark skies throughout our Microgap. The South Downs National Park is an International Dark Sky Reserve, known for its lack of light pollution and clear views to our remarkable solar system.

We visited Halnaker Windmill on night one, keen to try our hand at some night photography. Unfortunately, it was pretty cloudy, but we managed to capture a few sparkling stars above.

Halnaker Windmill, South Downs

Halnaker Windmill, South Downs

On night two we met up with South Downs National Park ranger Dan – aka Dark Skies Dan. He has a huge passion for stargazing, and with this area as his back garden, I don’t blame him! 

We ventured to Old Winchester Hill, one of the best stargazing spots in the region, and were greeted with spectacular views of constellations and one of the brightest moons I’ve ever seen. Dan was really inspiring – he taught us more about the different stars, solar systems and what makes the region one of the best in the country for stargazing.

Stargazing on Old Winchester Hill

Stargazing on Old Winchester Hill

My favourite moment was looking at the moon through one of his telescopes. Seeing something I’ve looked at hundreds of times, but in so much detail blew my mind. I could see individual craters, the seas (dark patches) and the crisp outline of its spherical shape. It was impossible not to feel very very small; just a tiny dot in this vast universe. A magical, floaty feeling, that I knew I wouldn’t forget.

Stargazing in the South Downs, England

Stargazing in the South Downs, England

Stargazing is one of the things to do in the South Downs, so if you’re interested in trying something similar, plan your trip to coincide with the Dark Skies Festival (held in February) or one of the park’s stargazing experiences that are held throughout the year.

The moon (taken on my Google Pixel 4 - through a telescope!)

The moon (taken on my Google Pixel 4 – through a telescope!)

Explore the spooky trees at Kingley Vale 

With the South Downs Way and endless walking trails in the region, those looking for picturesque countryside to amble through will be spoiled for choice.

I’d recommend a trip to Kingley Vale. After parking in West Stoke car park, follow the trail for around twenty minutes and you’ll arrive in a unique area of forest. There’s an ancient grove of yew trees, with tangled, twisty branches, creating a view more akin to something from a spooky film.

Exploring Kingley Vale

Exploring Kingley Vale

The reserve contains one of the finest yew forests in western Europe, and some of the trees are thought to be around 2,000 years old. Kids will love clambering on branches, while adults will no doubt be just as snap happy as we were!

Kingley Vale's ancient yew trees

Kingley Vale’s ancient yew trees

Enjoy Arundel’s history and charm

This was my first trip to Arundel, and wow did I fall in love with the town! As you drive in you’ll be amazed by the views of the traditional market town, with its large cathedral and colourful shops, set against a vast backdrop of the castle. It is totally awe-inspiring.

The castle was closed during our visit, but it’s still impressive to see from outside its gigantic walls. Dating back to 1068 it was where King Henry I settled. It’s open each year from April to November, and you can find more about visiting on the Arundel Castle website.

Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle

Arundel Castle

While the castle is a huge draw, be sure to venture inside Arundel Cathedral too. The architecture is magnificent, and it’s a wonderfully peaceful place.

Arundel Cathedral

Arundel Cathedral

Arundel Cathedral

Arundel Cathedral

As we wandered the charming streets of Arundel, I kept saying “just imagine living here with that massive castle looming over you!” Sure enough, we met someone who could relate to that! We popped into The Tea and Biscuit Club, where the owner told us of his move from London to Arundel. He now lives on the high street, and his garden backs onto the walls of Arundel Castle!

I’d recommend a visit to the shop, which is a total treasure trove of unique and exotic tea blends, colourful teapots and smartly-packaged biscuits. There are plenty more independent gems along the high street, including antique stores boutiques, wine merchants and delis.

The Tea and Biscuit Club, Arundel

The Tea and Biscuit Club, Arundel

If you’re partial to a cuppa and a slice of cake, you might want to extend your time in Arundel a little! There are quite a few tearooms and cute cafés to choose from.

Explore one of the prettiest villages in the South Downs  

The South Downs has a few things in abundance: beautiful countryside, cosy pubs and charming villages.

After a little bit of research on pretty villages in the South Downs, I decided we HAD to visit Amberley. The photos I’d seen showed thatched cottages and cobbled streets.

Admiring the pretty houses in Amberley

Admiring the pretty houses in Amberley

We parked up and it really felt like we’d turned back the clock. Locals popped to the village shop carrying wicker baskets to pick up daily essentials, stopping for a chinwag in the street, all with delightful smiles on their faces.

It was very misty that morning, so while the photos might benefit from a pop of blue sky or sunshine, I think you can see how charming this village is. There’s also a village tearoom and a spectacular 900-year old castle, which is now a luxury hotel.

Pretty houses in Amberley

Pretty houses in Amberley

Enjoy a gourmet pub lunch at The Shoe Inn, Exted

A personal highlight of our time in the South Downs was the food! It’s a region brimming with great culinary options, from casual cafes to fine-dining experiences.

In all honesty, we hadn’t intended to visit The Shoe Inn, but two rumbling tummies led us to search for somewhere close our location. We couldn’t believe our luck!

Of all the South Downs pubs I visited, this was my favourite. It turns it’s one of the best in the regioin – clearly reflected by the full restaurant at 1pm on a weekday! I’d definitely recommend booking in advance if you can. It’s also in a great location for walkers, on the South Downs Way in the heart of the Meon Valley.

Lunch at The Shoe Inn, Exted

Lunch at The Shoe Inn, Exted

We enjoyed a delicious scallop dish which came with a potato and parmesan purée and a chilli, ginger and tomato dressing. We also tucked into a board of mackerel pate along with some extremely-moreish truffle fries. One of the highlights was the bread, which is produced on site by the Hampshire Pantry. In fact, there are several loaves available to buy, and a delightful scent of home baked bread throughout the pub.

Walk over the Devil’s Humps

Sometimes a place name intrigues me so much, I just HAVE to go and find out more! The Devil’s Humps are a series of mounds within Kingley Vale Nature Reserve, and are said to be the ancient graves of Viking kings. I read stories of how their ghosts have been said to haunt the spooky yew trees at Kingley Vale… and felt relieved I didn’t know about that when we visted!

Devil's Humps, South Downs

Devil’s Humps, South Downs

While the mounds themselves are of historical interest, they also provide one of the best viewpoints in the region. On a clear day you can see across the rolling hills of the South Downs, past Chichester Cathedral and as far as the Isle of Wight.

TIP: To visit, we parked at the entrance to the Stoughton downhill cycle trails, and hiked up steepish forest tracks for around an hour. Lovely scenery, but after a few days of rain in the area, it was very muddy! 

Stay on board an old Pullman carriage at The Old Railway Station, Petworth

There are plenty of cute and quirky places to stay in the region, from shepherd’s huts and castles, to charming cottages and B&Bs. We stayed at The Old Railway Station, Petworth’s former railway station, which was closed in the 1960s. Since then it’s been converted into an incredible B&B with old Pullman carriages for bedrooms.

The Old Station, Petworth

The Old Railway Station, Petworth

Inside our Pullman carriage at The Old Station

Inside our Pullman carriage at The Old Railway Station

The attention to detail is immense. Breakfast is served in the old waiting room, complete with cosy log fire, historical memorabilia, and vintage tunes playing through a record player. The platform is now a terrace with chairs and tables laid out for sunny days, while the tracks have been turned into a pretty garden.

Our Pullman carriage at The Old Station

Our Pullman carriage

Waiting room at The Old Station, Petworth

Waiting room at The Old Railway Station, Petworth

Hop on board your carriage for the night and you’ll be in vintage heaven, with a wooden interior, retro posters and all you could need for a cosy night.

I’ve stayed in plenty of cool places around the world, but in all honesty, this is one of my favourites so far. The accommodation is brilliantly quirky, service was warm and friendly, and it really felt like we’d turned back the clock. It’s also in an ideal location for visiting Petworth House – one of the most famous National Trust properties in the region.  

Check prices and availability at The Old Railway Station here

Our carriage at The Old Railway Station

Our carriage at The Old Railway Station

 Stop for tea and cake  

You’re in tearoom country, so be sure to factor in your daily slice of cake or scone with jam and cream. You’ll need it after all the South Downs walks you’ll be going on! There are plenty of adorable places to visit, but a few I’d recommend are Tillys of Midhurst, LulaMae’s in Arundel and Amberley Village Tearoom.

Tillys of Midhurst

Tillys of Midhurst

Visit Cowdray Ruins

On our final afternoon, we enjoyed a wander around these historic ruins, located moments from the high street in Midhurst. The ruins are all that remain of a Tudor manor house after a fire destroyed much of the building in 1793.

There’s something magical about seeing the bare stone frame, with outlines of windows and elaborate turrets. You can let your own mind fill in the blanks.

Cowdray Ruins, Midhurst

Cowdray Ruins, Midhurst

Cowdray Ruins, Midhurst

Cowdray Ruins, Midhurst

If, like us, you’re curious about the yellow window and doorframes on a lot of the houses in the area, it’s all connected to the Cowdray Estate. As with many old English estates, a signature colour was used to show all the land that was owned by the family.

TIP: You can park for free for one hour at North Street car park, just a few minutes’ walk from the ruins.

Saying goodbye to the South Downs at Cowdray Ruins

Saying goodbye to the South Downs at Cowdray Ruins

Houses owned by the Cowdray Estate

Houses owned by the Cowdray Estate

Enjoy some hearty pub grub by a log fire 

Wondering where to eat in the South Downs? There are so many cosy pubs, perfect for walkers looking for a place to rest tired limbs and refuel. Most seek to highlight the impressive local produce, working together with local farms to serve up flavours of the region.  

I really enjoyed our dinner at The Thomas Lord in West Meon. The menu features plenty of pub classics, from fish and chips to burgers and steak. I went for the sausage and mash, which was excellent, and tasted even better in the proximity of a toasty log fire!

Sausage and mash at The Thomas Lord, West Meon

Sausage and mash at The Thomas Lord, West Meon

The Lickfold Inn is another great option, with a history stretching back to the 1500s, and the option of a cosy bar or chic restaurant to dine in. All of this pub’s dishes are sourced within a 10-mile radius, so you can expect the menu to change with the seasons.

The Lickfold Inn, South Downs

The Lickfold Inn, South Downs

The Lickford Inn

The Lickford Inn

How to get to the South Downs

As the name suggests, the South Downs National Park is located in the south east of England, and passes through the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. As it covers such a vast area, you’ll need to decide which part you’re aiming in order to plan an itinerary. In one weekend you’ll only scratch the surface, but it’s a lovely region to return to again and again to explore new areas.

It’s also VERY accessibly, both by car and public transport. If you’re based in or around London, you can pop down for a day trip or plan a mini break. If you’re travelling by car from London, you can reach Winchester in under two hours, or catch the fast train from Waterloo which only takes an hour.

If you fancy visiting the eastern side of the park to enjoy a coastal break in Eastbourne, it’ll take you around two and a half hours by car or an hour and a half by train from London.

South Downs Map

Whether you fancy a city break to Winchester, a bit of time in the countryside along the South Downs Way, or want to venture to Seven Sisters Country Park, this map will help you plan your visit. I’ve plotted all my fave spots on it for you. 

I also found this map quite handy, on the South Downs’ website. It gives a good idea of the scale and a few of the famous landmarks, as well as the route for the South Downs Way. 

I hope you’ve enjoyed hearing more about #MyMicrogap. It was amazing to learn more about the night skies, whilst exploring one of the most picturesque regions in England. Whether you fancy an adventurous break or something a little more relaxing, check out the Microgap hub for suggestions of other Microgaps you could go on.

This trip was organised by Visit England as part of my ambassadorship, but as always all thoughts and opinions are my own. 

Looking for other great breaks in the south of England, find out about visiting Brighton, Cornwall, Hastings and Dorset.

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