Walking in Sussex: A Quick Guide

Sussex is a diverse mainly rural county, with a long coastline along the south coast of England. The South Downs cross most of the county in the south and meet the sea in the East, most famously at the white cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters. In the interior, over the ridge of the Downs from the sea, the Low and High Weald dominate much of the landscape, and in many ways this is classic ‘garden of England’ countryside with patchwork fields and wooded countryside. This makes for a diverse and varied county to walk in – chalk hills, marshes, riversides, sea cliffs, wooded valleys, heaths – take your pick.

The South Downs

Mount Caburn

Mount Caburn near Lewes

The open, whale-backed hills of the South Downs are the most obvious target for walkers in Sussex. Away from hotspots near car parks, these chalk hills remain a remarkable escape from the crowds of south-east England. Although not especially high, you can really feel on top of the world from the many vistas on its main walking route, the South Downs Way. Now a national park, the Downs spread from Eastbourne in the East passing through East and West Sussex, finishing at Winchester, just over the border in the neighbouring county of Hampshire.

Between the downs are some beautiful villages and small towns such as Lewes, Arundel, Alfriston and Amberley, containing many traditional flint stone buildings. Notable landmarks include Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex, the giant hillfort of Cissbury Ring, and the chalk figure of the Long Man of Wilmington.

The Downs are usually dry underneath thanks to the chalk and are often windy where exposed. Some of the more wooded bridleways can become muddy, but overall, the Downs are great for walking. The walking can be surprisingly demanding at times as you follow the contours of the downs, but it is usually firm though soft underneath, except for the steeper escarpments where there may be loose flint and chalk. The wind usually blows from west to east – look out for the gorse and hawthorn bushes where you can see the effect of this.

The Low and High Weald

Sussex weald from the downs near Hassocks

Sussex Weald from the downs near Hassocks

The Weald is the area between the South Downs and the North Downs, and goes well beyond Sussex to include the counties of Kent, Surrey and Hampshire. Immediately north of the South Downs, the low weald is clay-based, and can therefore tricky for walking at times! Weald is derived from the old English for Forest and for centuries the Weald was considered too difficult to pass through. Many downland villages owe their remote character to the impenetrable Weald. Today, the low Weald consists of many small woodlands and a large number of streams, many of which are tributaries of the major Sussex rivers such as the Adur, Cuckmere, Ouse and Arun, which cut through the downs on their way out to sea.

The predominantly sandstone High Weald offers some excellent walking and is easier on the foot, and includes at its centre, the Ashdown Forest (see below). The majority of the High Weald is classified as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty and typically consists of rolling hills, sandstone outcrops, woodlands and scattered farmsteads. The landscape rises from the low Weald, hitting its highest points at the most northern and western ends of the Weald, where the geography changes again, with a greensand ridge providing another good base for walking opportunities. Although the majority of the densely wooded greensand hills are not in Sussex, it is here that you will find Blackdown, the highest point in Sussex, at 280m (919ft).

Ashdown Forest

View from AA Milne Plaque

A.A.Milne & E.H.Shephard Memorial, Ashdown Forest

The Ashdown Forest is most famous for its Winnie-the Pooh associations. It is here that you can find Pooh Bridge where you can play poohsticks as well as other landmarks featured in the Pooh books such as Eeyore’s Gloomy Place. A A Milne lived in the attractive village of Hartfield to the North of the Forest. The Forest itself, more sandy heathland than Forest, offers many excellent walks and is a surprisingly quiet open space. Watch out for deer, especially if driving! See the Wealden Walks page for the many excellent Ashdown Forest walks, including a classic Winnie-the-Pooh walk.