A Weekend In The South Downs

Nick Nomi

Senior Contributor

The South Downs slide easterly across a rural and stunning slice of Britain's south coast, starting with cosy villages and hill-framed views of the sea. Ambling across wheat fields, past startled cows, into forests paths coloured by butterflies, warrens of country lanes and thatched cottages with broken cobbles leading to ivy-hidden walls, until it eventually opens to the blue expanse of the English Channel and the chalky whites of the Seven Sisters cliffs. Walkers and cyclists are well served by the South Downs Way, while those in search of one of England’s most charming hotels will find it attached to a romantic restaurant lit by fire and moonlight (the skies here are protected meaning artificial light is kept to a minimum). To get the most of it all, travel slowly, take in a town or two, a village and a pub. Straddle the River Arun and sip a glass of English champagne as the sun goes down, revealing one of Britain’s most impressive star-filled skies.

A Castle With A Town

Arundel sits on a curve of the River Arun and feels like an ancient market town that never once lost its desire to treat travellers to its charms, with lively markets, countless tea rooms, antique stores stuffed with art deco sculptures, tatty books and personal relics from local auctions along with inviting little pubs lining the main street. But the most notable attraction is the castle packed full with 1000 years of history that sways over the slated roofs of Arundel. From afar, the Castle’s imposing looks are disarming and its various battlements and towers look huge, giving Arundel the appearance of a medieval village clinging to the walls of a castle for safety, especially when coupled with the cathedral that forms a striking double-tiered crown when viewed from the hills.

A closer inspection reveals rooms immortalised and bedecked with luxuries enough for a Queen — indeed Queen Victoria’s bedroom is accessible, still waiting patiently to comfort royal shoulders once more — and various artefacts and paintings from throughout Arundel’s history line the ancient walls. Of particular note is the stunning library that evokes a sense of smokey mysticism with its fusion of Asian and European decor: hardwoods, lush, evocative red fabrics and Chinese lanterns that light the dusty pages of the 800-year-old manuscripts. Much of Arundel Castle is private as the family of the Dukes of Norfolk still live there so many parts are off-limits. But the oldest part, the castle keep, offers a fascinating view into Arundel's beginnings as well as the best elevation to take in the views of the South Downs. In the warmer months, the gardens provide glorious escapes, with enchanting fountains, pretty follies, water gardens and the sweet aromas of rose, dahlias and lilies scenting the air with a summery English romanticism. 

The Restaurant With Rooms

Pig Hotel’s latest venture — the Pig in the South Downs — occupies a beguiling location close to the South Downs Way, with a vineyard growing 4,000 vines of chardonnay, pinot noir and Gamay just off the alfresco dining area, as well as a gorgeously renovated main house and a collection of farmhouses and wooden huts all with views of the tranquil gardens and sweeping meadows. Rustic, rural and charming to the extreme, the house beckons with a warmly lit interior, just visible beyond an ornate iron canopy that’s laced with pretty vines. Inside, the bar chooses a maximalist approach with glasses piled high against a window (as is signature in the Pigs) in a jewel-like rainbow of frequencies, and a mish-mash of velvets and linens, open fires and eclectic furniture styles glue together that signature lived-in Pig style. The restaurant, serving a delicious menu of ingredients sourced within 25 miles or less (many from the garden, a moment's walk away) is dimly lit and elegantly placed with the same orderly chaos as the bar, while two fire pits extend the comfort, warmth and ambience to the outdoors — making an evening digestif in the open air a sumptuous and atmospheric delight.

Drinks With Views

A tour of the South Downs by pub would perhaps take centuries, but there’s sufficient fuel should one want to take the stumble. But close to the Pig and Arundel, the sleepy little hamlets of Houghton and Amberley offer a surprising amount of charm hidden just off the South Downs Way on a busy little road that cuts an antique passage through the countryside. The 700-year old George and The Dragon looks a bit tipsy from the local ale, slanting into the street from its timbered roof and its low beams and flowery exteriors with views and rosey scents. It has the distinction of being the alehouse that Charles II stopped in after his defeat at the battle of Worcester. Further along the road, past an old church and a handful of thatched cottages, is the Bridge Inn, on the corner of Houghton bridge that arches across the River Arun. Stop for drinks here and you’re likely to end up on the river as canoes and motorboats can be hired next door for lazy summer jaunts on the water. Oenophiles should opt instead for the county’s much-lauded vineyards for some of England’s best wines — try Artelium for a tasting at one of the region’s newest vineyards or Wiston to sample their refreshing English sparkling amongst the history and grandeur of one of Sussex’s oldest estates. 

The Country Walk

This 100 mile stretch of walking and cycling route takes a journey across southeast England undulating atop hillsides and along rivers until it meets the South Downs most easterly point — the Seven Sisters white chalk cliffs. It's here that the South Downs becomes the Seven Sisters country park, supplying view laden strolls along the coast, taking in shipwrecks and unspoiled beaches and coves that look out to France and rocks as old as time. It takes a week or more to walk the entire route but it’s possible to split the journey into sections, strolling down vistas chopped in two by hilly peaks and drops, and into cobbled villages to take a train to the next section. Alternatively, choose walks based on your location and you’ll stumble into shaded forests where the temperature dips and the sound of birdlife replaces the roar of engines, as well as views of the country — from sheep-studded farmlands to the amber-coloured beaches of West Sussex. At night the skies darken to reveal a theatre of constellations, stars stretching beyond the horizon, no light pollution to ruin the view, making the South Downs ideal for stargazers. 

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