The chalky swells of the South Downs envelop thousands of years of history, counting numerous hillforts, barrows and monuments on its grassy flanks.
Descend from the trails that snake the Downs’ mellow summits and you’ll encounter vast, Norman fortresses, beautiful medieval houses and exceptional museums.
Here are 10 of the best historic sites in the South Downs.
1. Cissbury Ring
To the north lies the historic woodland of the Weald. To the south, 80 miles of Sussex coastline. Cissbury Ring is an Iron Age hillfort in West Sussex and one of Britain’s largest hillforts. It was first constructed around 4000 BC and has excellent views of the surrounding landscape.
Cissbury Ring is also one of the earliest flint mines in England, yielding rock over 1000 years of use, during which over 200 mine shafts were dug, excavated by antler picks, extending to depths of up to 12 metres.
Cissbury Ring is easily accessible to walkers along the South Downs Way, while the most convenient parking is located in Findon, near Worthing.
2. Chanctonbury Ring
The earthworks of Chanctonbury Ring may once have served as a hillfort and cradled a religious sanctuary, but in the 18th century an aristocrat named Chares Goring lent the Sussex hilltop its most identifiable feature. He planted there a grove of beech trees, which would provide shelter from the wind, rain and sun, and also mark it as a unique landmark on these sheep-studded and wood-bare heights.
Though the Great Storm of 1987 damaged the iconic tree cover, its periodic replanting ensures that Chanctonbury Ring remains a welcome spot of shade for walkers, runners, cyclists and all else who travel along this section of the South Downs Way.
3. Devil's Dyke
When the Kingdom of Sussex was converted to Christianity, the Devil took his vengeance by plumbing a trench through the South Downs so that the sea would flood the people of the Weald. He accepted a wager to complete the work in one night, but he only got as far as digging up the earth south of Poynings, West Sussex, before the sun rose and he fled in disgrace.
At least, this is one version of local folklore which explains the origins of Devil’s Dyke, which also has the excavated earth forming Chanctonbury and Cissbury Rings and the Isle of Wight. The 100 metre deep valley curls around the route of a prehistoric river and was a major 19th and 20th century tourist attraction.
The remains of an Iron Age earthwork as well as an extant 20th century restaurant mount the top of Devil’s Dyke, which is popular for hang gliding.
4. Weald & Downland Living Museum
The Weald & Downland Living Museum in Singleton, West Sussex, cares for over 50 historic buildings from the last millennium in an effort to rescue examples of vernacular architecture from South East England and educate visitors on the history of the built environment.
The museum’s collection includes archaeological reconstructions and buildings that range from a 15th century timber-framed Wealden hall house to a working watermill from the 17th century. They contribute to a setting perfect for demonstrations and displays of elements of daily life in history.
5. Clayton Windmills
The 19th century windmills Jack and Jill stand above the village of Clayton on the South Downs, 7 miles north of Brighton and Hove. Free parking beneath the Clayton Windmills and views of Mid Sussex makes the adjoining field a popular picnic spot. The Clayton windmills are easily accessed from the main road and a 2 mile walk from Ditchling Beacon to the west.
6. The Trundle
Of the ancient settlements and historic sites embraced by the chalky swells of the Sussex Downs, the Trundle offers some of the most impressive views. From the top of the hillfort, once the site of a medieval chapel, visitors can gaze south towards Chichester harbour where it opens into the Solent, and beyond to the Isle of Wight.
Chichester Cathedral, Selsey Bill and Pagham Harbour can also be seen from the Trundle’s southern side. There are masts on the hill, legacies of two radio stations which were built during World War Two.
7. Beachy Head
Located in East Sussex, Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain. A landmark of the English coast, it rises 162m above sea level and offers views towards the south east coast of Dungeness in the east and the Isle of Wight in the west. Its closest town is Eastbourne.
Beachy Head has witnessed much history, from the Battle of Portland in 1653 to the Second Battle of Beachy Head in World War One. During World War Two, the RAF established a forward relay station at Beachy Head to improve radio communications, and during the Cold War, a radar control centre was in operation between 1953 to 1957.
8. Old Winchester Hill
Situated 11 miles from Winchester, Old Winchester Hill rises in Hampshire’s third of the South Downs. The South Downs Way crosses the summit (as well as the Monarch‘s Way), which is also the site of an Iron Age hillfort featuring Bronze Age barrows. The British Army used the site to test mortars duirng World War Two, and some unexploded ordnance may fenced sections of the hill.
Natural England manages the site, which is a Site of Special Scientific Interest and home to various butterfly species and a diverse bird population.
9. Bignor Roman Villa
Bignor Roman Villa is a large Roman villa site on the Bignor estate in West Sussex. The Villa complex hosts the remains of a 3rd century ancient Roman home and some of the best-preserved Roman mosaics in the country.
The best and most feasible way to reach Bignor Roman Villa is by car. Signs to Bignor Roman Villa can be seen just before Bury Hill on the A29 in the east and just before Duncton Hill on the A285 further west. Small, winding roads will lead you to the villa itself, a countryside journey completed by views of the surrounding Sussex countryside.
10. Chattri Monument
The Chattri Monument is a war memorial north of Brighton and Hove. Over 800,000 Indian soldiers fought for the Allied powers during World War One, when India was part of the British Empire. Thousands of wounded combatants were treated in Brighton, including at the Royal Pavilion.
21 Muslim men who died were taken to the Shah Jahan Mosque in Woking and buried in a new cemetery, while 53 Hindus and Sikhs were cremated on a funeral pyre (ghat) on the South Downs. The marble pavilion of the Chattri was built on the exact site of the pyre, a peaceful location overlooking the city and the sea, and unveiled by Edward, Prince of Wales, in 1921.