Everything you need to know about walking the South Downs Way — a 100-mile National Trail that runs from Winchester to Eastbourne in the South Downs National Park.
The South Downs can best be described as a range of rolling, chalk hills that stretch across Hampshire and Sussex. In the summer, the hills are sprinkled with sheep and wildflowers, with lots of walkers out enjoying the scenery.
The South Downs Way is a 100-mile national trail that traverses across these hills. On the trail, you’ll spend a lot of time following ridges over the crest of the Downs, with sweeping views across valleys and low farmland. This really is quintessential English countryside.
So, what’s inside this South Downs Way guide? I’ve divided it up into two sections: planning/logistics, and my itinerary/the walk itself.
My itinerary & the walk itself
Day 1: Winchester to Lane End
Day 2: Lane End to Butser Hill
Day 3: Butser Hill to Cocking
Day 4: Cocking to Amberley
Day 5: Amberley to Upper Beeding
Day 6: Upper Beeding to Kingston
Day 7: Kingston to Alfriston
Day 8: Alfriston to Eastbourne
My personal highlights of the trail
South Downs Way: Planning & logistics
To help you plan your own South Downs odyssey, here are all my tips and advice based on my own thorough research and experience of walking the trail myself.
How long does the South Downs Way take to walk?
The South Downs Way is 100 miles long, but if you’re walking to and from accommodation, heading into villages for lunch/dinner, or detouring to tourist attractions, then you’ll likely walk a fair amount more than that.
As for how long it takes to complete the trail, most people walk it in about 8 days. This equates to an average of 12-13 miles per day. If you’re an experienced walker, you could complete it in 5/6 days, or if you wanted a leisurely walk with lots of sightseeing, you might prefer to walk it over 10 days. I met a guy on the trail who was walking it in an impressive 3 days!
Ultimately, it’s your walk, so think about why you’ve decided to embark upon it — then plan the duration of your route accordingly.
Which way should I walk the trail?
The South Downs Way runs from Winchester to Eastbourne, and you can walk in whichever direction you choose.
However, I feel it’s much better to end your walk with the soaring coastal views at Eastbourne. The stunning Seven Sisters cliffs really do make for an impressive finish. This is the main reason that I chose to start from Winchester. On reflection, I definitely think the first two days of the walk are the weakest in terms of scenery.
It’s also thought that there is a prevailing wind that blows from west to east, meaning it’s a little easier to walk in an easterly direction.
How difficult is the South Downs Way?
I think this trail is a great introduction to multi-day hiking. It’s supposedly one of the easiest of the UK’s National Trails. It’s the only national trail I’ve done so far, so I can’t compare it, but I didn’t think it was particularly challenging. There are plenty of rolling hills, but none of the inclines are very steep or very long, so anyone used to hiking should find them to be no problem.
The most challenging section is definitely the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head, as these are a succession of many hills one after the other. This is the very last part of the entire trail, though, so you’ll be working up to it.
Because of the chalky terrain of the South Downs, many of the paths you’ll be walking along are hard chalk paths. These can be really quite tough underfoot — I found that the soles of my feet ached a lot more than usual after a day’s walking. Keep this in mind when planning your daily mileage!
South Downs Way Map & Navigation
Navigating the route is simple: just follow the acorns! As with all of the UK’s national trails, the South Downs Way is waymarked by the acorn symbol.
The route is very well signposted. There are signposts/acorns every few hundred metres, at every fork, and on most gates that you’ll need to pass through. The path itself is also usually pretty obvious so it’s unlikely that you’ll accidentally veer away from it. I probably only checked my navigation app a couple of times a day to confirm I was still on the right path, and I usually was.
That being said, you definitely don’t want to rely on waymarking alone. I used the AllTrails app for navigation and this worked great for me. You can see the AllTrails map I used here which covers the entire South Downs Way.
Getting to and from the trail
One of the reasons the South Downs National Park is so popular is due to its proximity to London. There are regular trains to both ends of the trail from the capital: it’s 1 hour to Winchester from London Waterloo, and 1.5 hours to Eastbourne from London Victoria. You can easily book tickets on Trainline.
Despite the convenience of reaching the start and end points of the South Downs Way, the trail itself isn’t so well-served by trains. After all, it wouldn’t be much of a countryside walk if it was! The only train stations you’ll walk by are Amberley and Southease.
That being said, you can usually take a bus or taxi from the trail to nearby train stations, such as Petersfield, Chichester, Falmer, Brighton or Lewes.
You’ll spend a lot of your time on the South Downs Way walking along ridges and through country parks. It’s when you come down off these ridges to a village or A road that you can usually find bus stops or a convenient place for a taxi pickup. Ubers will generally not pick you up from country parks, as it’s usually quite far out of their way from the town they’re based in.
Many of the country parks do have car parks, such as Queen Elizabeth or Ditchling Beacon. So, if you wanted to do day walks on the South Downs Way, you could leave your car in a country park and get a bus/taxi back to it at the end.
Hotels and B&Bs on the South Downs Way
If you’re planning to stay in hotels and B&Bs along the South Downs Way, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of options. You can be pretty flexible with where you finish walking each day, as there will likely be somewhere to stay in almost every town/village along the route.
That being said, hotels and B&Bs can get booked up pretty quickly, so do make sure to book well in advance. They can also be quite pricey — usually starting from at least £50 per night, going up to £300+! You’ll want to get in there ahead of time if you want to stay at the more affordable places.
South Downs Way Camping
As someone who tries to travel as often as possible, I am very budget-orientated. This means I wanted to camp along the South Downs Way to save on costs, and I also like the satisfaction of being self-sustained.
There aren’t tons of campsites along the South Downs Way, but there are enough that it’s totally doable. You may just have to plan your itinerary based on the location of campsites (this is what I did)! All of these are conveniently on the trail itself, except for two which are just a 15-minute walk off-route.
Here’s a list of all the campsites along the South Downs Way. Some of these also have camping pods and shepherd’s huts available.
Holden Farm: Located right on the trail about 7 miles after Winchester. There’s lots of space, a lovely cafe on site, and a communal cooking area. Prices range from £15 to £25 depending on the time of year you book.
The Sustainability Centre: I would have chosen to stay here had it not been fully booked, as it’s located directly on the trail between Old Winchester Hill and Butser Hill. Pitches are £15 per night.
Upper Parsonage Farm: A gorgeous little campsite near Butser Hill — I was even given a key to my own private bathroom! It’s just a 15-minute walk off the trail to reach it. Prices range from £15 to £20 depending on the time of year you book.
Manor Farm Campsite & BnB: At just £10 a night, this family-run campsite in Cocking is great value for money. It’s a fairly basic site, but the view from my tent was lovely and the pitch was peaceful.
Littleton Farm Campsite: I didn’t stay here so can’t really comment on it and am unsure of the cost, but this campsite is located right on the trail in Upwaltham.
Foxleigh Barn: They have limited camping on their small campsite, so make sure to book well in advance. I didn’t stay here so am unsure of the cost. Located right on the trail in Amberley.
YHA Truleigh Hill: Located right by the trail at Upper Beeding. This youth hostel has both dorm rooms (from £20 per night) and camping pitches (from £10 per night) available. I really enjoyed my stay here as I got talking to some interesting people.
Housedean Farm Campsite: Right on the trail by the A27 between Falmer and Lewes. It’s a fairly basic campsite but has lovely views of the South Downs. Pitches cost £15 per night.
Alfriston Camping Park: Located 15 minutes or so from the trail, Alfriston Camping Park is decent value for money at £12 per night. However, it’s quite busy and not the most peaceful site!
I’ve pinned all the above-mentioned campsites on the map below, to help you plan where you might want to stop each day.
Wild camping on the South Downs Way
Wild camping is not technically legal in England, but many people do it anyway. It’s generally well-tolerated if you’re discreet and respectful: make sure to arrive late, leave early, stay quiet and pitch in an inconspicuous spot away from the trail.
Wild camping along the South Downs Way has huge benefits: you’ll save on accommodation costs, you can stop whenever you want, and you get to enjoy the freedom and satisfaction of being self-sustained. Several people I met on the trail said they were wild camping.
The downside is that the trail frequently takes you up onto ridges or through private farmland. It’s not really feasible to wild camp discreetly in these spots. That being said, I definitely saw plenty of places that would have made a decent spot to pitch. You may just have to be a little patient when looking for an appropriate place.
What to pack for the South Downs Way
My clothing, camping equipment and food supplies fit into a 70L rucksack. I borrowed my dad’s Cyclops II Alp from Berghaus — it’s pretty vintage now as he purchased it in the late 80s/early 90s but it’s still holding up!
You might not need a rucksack quite this big. I chose to take a very warm sleeping bag which was rather bulky, and I also packed my numerous skin care products (definitely not necessary, but I need some luxuries).
If you’ll be staying in hotels and B&Bs, you can get away with a 40L pack.
My South Downs Way packing list
2 walking trousers
1 pair of shorts
1 lightweight waterproof
5 pairs of hiking socks
5 pairs of underwear
Toothbrush & toothpaste
Are there frequent places to find food and water?
I’d say there is somewhere to refill your water supply about every 5-6 miles on average. This will either be a pub/cafe or an actual drinking tap for walkers. I really loved the numerous water taps on the trail — they’re completely free to use and are usually found near farms.
Some water tap locations include:
- Holden Farm
- Lomer Farm
- Meon Springs Fly Fishery
- Hill Barn
- Manor Farm
- Amberley, near the Arun River crossing
- Parkfield Farm
- Botolphs, just before you get to the A283
- YHA Truleigh Hill
- Saddlescombe Farm
- Housedean Farm
- Southease Church
- Birling Gap
I recommend carrying plenty of snacks in your pack. While there are convenience stores along the way where you can buy food, you probably don’t want to have to keep diverting from the trail to get to them.
Aside from convenience stores, there are lots of pubs/cafes directly on the trail, or just a very short walk from it. The pubs can be a little pricey, but they offer fantastic pub grub to keep you fuelled.
Many campsites and B&Bs will also happily make you a packed lunch, so it’s a good idea to enquire with them about this at check-in. You can pick it up in the morning before you set off for the day.
Budget and costs
Your daily costs on the South Downs Way will vary massively depending on your walking style:
£5-10 per day: If you choose to wild camp and cook your own meals, you could potentially get by on a mere £5-10 per day.
£30-40 per day: This budget will get you a campsite and groceries every day, as well as a few pub meals and treats along the way.
£80-100+ per day: If you’ll be staying in hotels/B&Bs and eating out each day, you’re going to need a fairly sizeable budget. You’re looking at at least £50 per night for a hotel, and probably another £30+ on meals out.
I personally spent £30-40 per day. Campsites were an average of £15 per night, and I spent an additional £15-20 on food each day. I would typically buy lunch from a store if one was available, otherwise, I relied on cafes/pubs along the route. For breakfast and dinner, I would usually make porridge and packet dinners on my camp stove, although I did have the occasional pub meal.
On top of my daily budget, my train from London to Winchester was £9.50, and my train from Eastbourne to London was £22.
Not sure about arranging it all yourself?
If you’re keen to walk the South Downs Way but aren’t sure about organising all the logistics yourself, you’ll be pleased to know that there are plenty of companies who offer semi-supported walking holidays. Macs Adventure, Contours and Mickledore are some good options.
They’ll book all your accommodation, transfer your luggage each day, provide detailed maps and be available for assistance if you need it. You will not be led along the trail each day by a guide, but rather will follow the provided route and itinerary in your own time. This is ideal for hikers who aren’t too sure about embarking on their first walking holiday completely unaided but do want a bit of freedom.
My South Downs Way Route & Itinerary
Here is my 8-day itinerary, including plenty of photos, personal thoughts and an overview of the walk each day.
Day 1: Winchester to Lane End (7 miles)
I took the train from London on the morning of Day 1, as I wanted to spend half a day exploring Winchester before joining the South Downs Way. Winchester is a nice little city, and it’s definitely worth spending some time there to check out the Cathedral and King Arthur’s Round Table.
I started walking at about 2 pm, so only covered 7 miles on the first day, but it gave me a little taste of the trail. It was easy to join the South Downs Way from the Cathedral, as there is a waymarker round the back on the right. It took me east out of Winchester, over the M3 via a bridge, and then into some sweeping fields.
After the fields, I walked along a quiet country road for a while through the village of Chilcombe, before entering the Downs themselves. It was here that the scenery really started to pick up. There was a small climb to Cheesefoot Head — a beautiful spot with spectacular views.
It was then a pleasant walk through woodland and open farmland to my campsite at Holden Farm.
Day 1 photos:
Day 2: Lane End to Butser Hill (15 miles)
After walking in the rain for most of the morning along country lanes, the downpours started to clear when I entered the Beacon Hill National Nature Reserve. It was rather pretty through here: I followed a lightly forested trail for a while, before arriving into more open scenery.
The viewpoint from Beacon Hill itself was wonderful — a panorama of the surrounding landscape. The grey clouds were still looming, but I was glad the visibility was good so I could enjoy the scenery. Just to confuse you, there are actually two Beacon Hills on this walk, this being the first.
After following the ridge down off Beacon Hill and through some farmland (passing over lots of styles), I entered the village of Exton. I popped into The Shoe Inn for a coffee before continuing on towards Old Winchester Hill. At the top of Old Winchester Hill was an Iron Age hill fort along with numerous Bronze Age barrows, a common sight within the South Downs National Park.
The trail then dipped down into the Meon Valley and alongside the Meon River. Towards the end of the day, I passed by The Sustainability Centre, where I would have stayed for the night if it wasn’t fully booked, before pushing onto my campsite at Upper Parsonage Farm.
Upper Parsonage Farm was located just a 15-minute walk off the trail. It was simply beautiful with very friendly owners, and I even had my own private bathroom!
Day 2 photos:
Day 3: Butser Hill to Cocking (17 miles)
Today was my longest day on the South Downs Way at 17 miles, and although the route was relatively flat with just a few ups and downs, it was still a challenging day. However, I walked through some spectacular bits of countryside, such as Queen Elizabeth Country Park, Harting Down Nature Reserve and the old fort at (the second) Beacon Hill.
The day began with a walk up the ridge to Butser Hill. This was unfortunately not the most scenic place, due to some intrusive pylons and the loud A3 below. Nonetheless, I soon crossed over the A3 into Queen Elizabeth Country Park, which was much more scenic. It was a busy Saturday so cyclists, joggers and dog walkers were everywhere. The trail led me through peaceful woodland, which made a pleasant change from the rolling vistas.
Upon arriving at Harting Down Nature Reserve, I was rewarded with divine views across the valley. From here, you can really appreciate the rolling hills of the South Downs and get a good panoramic image. It was easily one of my favourite viewpoints on the whole trail.
Next, I was confronted with the steep Beacon Hill. Although the South Downs Way technically goes around Beacon Hill, I highly recommend climbing it for the viewpoint before descending and continuing on the trail.
From Beacon Hill to Cocking, the path took me through picturesque farmland, patches of woodland, and country lanes. My campsite for the night was Manor Farm, located just south of the town Cocking. It was a pretty basic campsite, but the washroom facilities were clean and I had lovely views from my pitch. You’ll have easy access to town if you want to hunt down a pub for dinner, but you also have the option of picking up local delicacies from the on-site farm shop.
Day 3 photos:
Day 4: Cocking to Amberley (12 miles)
As I was getting ready for the day’s walk, I got chatting with a guy named James who was also walking the South Downs Way. Unbelievably, he had just 4 days to complete the whole trail. We decided to set off together.
The morning took us through some pretty sunflower fields and Charlton Forest. We came to a cafe directly on the trail called Cadence Cycle Club Upwaltham, where we couldn’t resist stopping for a coffee. This is also attached to the Littleton Farm Campsite, for those who might want to stop here for the night. It was at this point that James said goodbye and set off at pace to get in his mileage. Clearly, I am too slow!
From the cycle club cafe, the trail took me along into Slindon Estate, a stunning spread of downland, farmland and woodland. There were lots of cyclists on this part of the trail, as the gravel path is quite wide and great for biking.
As I walked over the final ridge of the day, I was treated to lovely views across the Arun Valley as I came down into Amberley.
Despite there being a campsite in Amberley (Foxleigh Barn), I opted to stay at the South Downs Bunkhouse. It seemed reasonable at £30 for the night, and it meant I got to enjoy an actual bed. The bunkhouse had 3 dorm rooms, with 4 beds in each, but only myself and one other person — a bubbly lady called Nat — were staying for the night. This meant I got an entire room to myself!
Day 4 photos:
Day 5: Amberley to Upper Beeding (13 miles)
I woke up early and headed towards Amberley train station, where there was a cafe called the Riverside Tea Rooms. I had a delicious breakfast here, accompanied by views over the River Arun, where I watched people kayaking. I then crossed over the river and continued on the South Downs Way.
I spent a lot of the day following along ridges with excellent valley views across the Downs, and at a few points, I could even see the sea. I noticed the ground was becoming very hard underfoot and was causing some pain, so I made sure to stop regularly to give my feet a break.
At Washington, the trail dipped down and crossed the A24, before it was up another ridge at Chanctonbury Ring. There are remains of a prehistoric hill fort here, as well as some great views heading out to the ocean. Chanctonbury Ring was a fairly busy spot, with lots of people out enjoying a picnic or walking their dog.
It was then onto Steyning, where there was a gorgeous viewpoint called “Steyning Bowl,” boasting far-reaching views across the valley. Shortly after, I meandered through the village of Botolphs, before crossing over the River Adur and the A283.
There was a final uphill push before arriving at my campsite for the night at YHA Truleigh Hill. This hostel has both dorm rooms and camping pitches available.
Day 5 photos:
Day 6: Upper Beeding to Kingston (14 miles)
I began today by walking through the Fulking Escarpment, which had increasingly great views as I climbed up onto the ridge. Then, it was into the famous Devil’s Dyke — a beautiful valley where people made settlements during the Stone Age.
I stopped for a coffee at the WildFlour cafe, a cute little caravan popup in Saddlescombe Farm, and couldn’t resist one of their delicious-looking cakes.
It was then on through forested tracks and along another ridge, before crossing the A23, and entering Pyecombe Golf Course. The route took me along the golf course for some time, which was very well-kept and manicured. I was able to see the Jack and Jill windmills from the course too, which made a great photo opportunity.
The South Downs Way took me directly through the Ditchling Beacon National Trust — Ditchling Beacon itself is the highest point in East Sussex at 248 metres. It’s a popular spot for walkers thanks to the fantastic scenery. Beyond Ditchling Beacon, I was guided over the A27 before arriving at my campsite at Housedean Farm, just shy of Kingston by the A27.
Day 6 photos:
Day 7: Kingston to Alfriston (11 miles)
After crossing some roads and a bridge over the A27, I quickly found myself walking along some very pretty paths through open downland, sprinkled with sheep and wildflowers. The gorgeous scenery, coupled with the warm sunshine, put me in a really great mood.
I followed a ridge for some time this morning, before descending into the village of Southese. Here, I crossed the River Ouse and over Southease Station, before stopping at the YHA South Downs cafe for a cold drink.
Back on the trail, I rambled through grassy fields and over Firle Beacon. The ridge up to Firle Beacon was very windy — probably some of the strongest winds I’ve ever encountered at such a low height. My cap flew off and I had to chase it down like an idiot.
It was a relief once the ridge began to descend into Alfriston via more sheep-peppered farmland. Alfriston is a beautiful little village, with quaint tea rooms, local stores and traditional pubs. I couldn’t resist stopping for a cappuccino in the garden at The George Inn before heading to Alfriston Camping Park for the night.
Day 7 photos:
Day 8: Alfriston to Eastbourne (12 miles)
From Alfriston, the South Downs Way splits into two. You can take the inland route via Jevington, or you can take the coastal route via Exceat and the Seven Sisters. In my opinion, there’s only one choice: the Seven Sisters! It’s one of the absolute highlights of the entire trail.
As you leave Alfriston, you’ll need to cross a bridge over the Cuckmere River. As soon as you get to the other side of the bridge, you’ll see a waymarker that shows “South Downs Way – Jevington” and “South Downs Way – Exceat”. Make sure you take the Exceat route that goes off to the right.
I turned right at the bridge to follow the Cuckmere River across the fields. After a little while, I caught a glimpse of the Litlington White Horse, a remarkable chalk drawing of a horse painted into the side of the hill. It was then past the Plough & Harrow pub, across the road, and along some farmer’s fields before arriving into Friston Forest.
Friston Forest was really scenic and made a nice change from the rolling valley views. I climbed some stairs at Westdean, and arrived at the top of a hill with an incredible view across Exceat, the Cuckmere Haven Meanders and the sea.
The trail led me down the hill into Exceat, where I couldn’t resist stopping for an iced coffee at the Saltmarsh Farmhouse and Cafe, before officially entering the Seven Sisters Country Park. I had great views over the Cuckmere Haven Meanders — an impressive-looking river that loops its way to the coast.
Soon, I arrived at the coast itself and made my way over the Seven Sisters. The hills were more gentle than I was expecting, and I had epic views of the iconic chalk cliffs and the English Channel to keep me company.
I stopped for a bite to eat at the cafe at Birling Gap, before continuing on past Belle Tout Lighthouse and the striking Beachy Head. The trail then took me around the headland, where I caught my first glimpse of Eastbourne. The end was in sight! The last mile was spent coming down off the Seven Sisters hills and into Eastbourne, with ocean views to my right, and green parkland to my left.
It was then a bag of chippy chips on the Eastbourne seafront to celebrate!
Day 8 photos:
My personal highlights
So, what is the best part of the South Downs Way?
After 8 days of walking along this lovely trail, I would say that Days 4, 5 and 8 were my favourites. The scenery along the stretch from Cocking to Upper Beeding was consistently beautiful, while the Seven Sisters cliffs were very dramatic and made a great finale.
If you want to do a weekend walk with an overnight stop, I’d recommend Cocking to Upper Beeding. If you want to do a day hike, Alfriston to Eastbourne is the way to go.
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