Photograph by David Bleeker, Alamy
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The chalk headland of Beachy Head, part of South Downs National Park, towers above a lighthouse.

Photograph by David Bleeker, Alamy

South Downs National Park, England

Name: South Downs National Park
Location: England
Date Established: 2010
Size: 631 square miles (1,648 square kilometers)

Did You Know?

England's Newest National Park The South Downs are a line of rolling hills that run roughly parallel to England’s southeast coast and create a landscape of open heath and chalk grasslands, 400-year-old oak woods, and dramatic coastline—highlighted by the towering cliffs of Seven Sisters and Beachy Head. South Downs is less than an hour from London and, though England’s newest national park, stunningly popular. The National Park Authority estimates 39 million visitors come to the park each year—nearly triple the number to the next most visited national park.

White Chalk The bones of South Downs are made of chalk limestone, the soft rock formed by the fossilized skeletons of sea creatures that inhabited an ancient ocean here nearly 100 million years ago. In some places this chalk contains visible remains of ammonites, sea urchins, sponges, and other ancient creatures. The brilliant white rock is most obvious in the exposed cliffs of the Seven Sisters, between Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap. The cliffs here are worn away by 10 inches (25 to 30 centimeters) each year by the action of the ocean.

Wave-Cut Platform When the tide is out, a trip to the wave-cut platform at the foot of the towering cliffs gives visitors a glimpse of living and ancient creatures. Fossils such as giant ammonites can be found here, and the area is alive with modern marine animals. Limpets and mussels, whelks, sea anemones, and shrimp can be found on the rocks and in pools. Visitors can also see algae, seaweed, and even kelp forests—though these lie at the platform’s oceanside edge and emerge only at the year’s lowest spring tides.

Rare Landscape Chalk downland, the park’s iconic landscape of rolling hills covered with grass, scrub, and heather, may seem commonplace here but is globally rare. Even in South Downs chalk grassland exists over only 3 percent of its original area thanks to intrusions of invasive scrub and the encroachment of modern farming and development.

Great Diversity Today the grasslands are home to species in amazing variety—up to 40 different plants may live in a single square meter. This diversity is sustained by intense competition for nutrients in the thin, well-drained soils overlying the chalk below. The many plants and flowers help to sustain an animal ecosystem that includes insects, rare butterflies, snails, hares, and birds.

Yew Forest Kingley Vale National Nature Reserve, located inside the national park, is home to one of Europe’s finest yew woods, which has grown here over the centuries across areas that were once open downs. Some of the trees here are among Britain’s oldest (more than 500 years old) and stretch more than 16 feet (5 meters) in diameter. The fantastic gnarled and twisted yew trunks create a forest scene filled with butterflies, green woodpeckers, and red kites.

Chanctonbury Ring The long history of human habitation on the South Downs finds expression in Chanctonbury Ring—an Iron Age hill fort with commanding views. Romans later used the site and constructed two temples or shrines within its bounds. The site is perhaps most famed for a circle of beech trees that has crowned the hill since the mid-1800s. A 1987 hurricane destroyed most of the trees, but they've since been replanted.

How to Get There

South Downs is close to London and the population centers of southern England. Rail service from London to Brighton takes only an hour, and rail and bus service is available to many smaller communities in and around the downs. Visitors from the continent can take the ferry from Dieppe to Newhaven.

When to Visit

Each month is unique at South Downs, though any time of year is good for a visit. Check the park's calendar of events for farmers markets, arts festivals, and other happenings.

How to Visit

Tackle the South Downs Way, the trail on which walkers, cyclists, and equestrians can explore the 99-mile (160-kilometer) length of the national park from Winchester to the chalk cliffs of Beachy Head. The journey is easily broken up into small bits and the trail passes through market towns like Petersfield and Lewes—where traditional pubs stand ready to refresh thirsty walkers. For those who’d like to leave the ground behind, South Downs is one of England’s extremely popular paragliding locations and several outfits welcome first-timers.