If you are house sitting in south-east England, it’s likely that you’ll find yourself within close proximity to, or even living within, the beautiful South Downs National Park.
Since the 1950’s, fifteen areas considered “important to the national heritage and worthy of special protection and attention”, have been designated “National Parks” in the UK. There are ten parks in England, three in Wales, and two in Scotland, with the South Downs receiving its status most recently, in 2011.
This is also the closest and easiest National Park to reach from London and the home counties.
Dog walking opportunities for house sitters
This area is, quite simply, a dog walker’s paradise. There are over 3,000km of public rights of way to explore. However, this is also farming land and in spring, when lambing and bird nesting is underway, you should be respectful, by keeping your dogs on leads around all livestock and wildlife.
Sheep are nervous animals especially when pregnant and it’s easy for them to go into premature labour when frightened by an excited dog, however friendly he wants to be!
If you are house sitting with dogs, check with the home owners how your charges behave around sheep and other livestock. In any case, you will often see signs indicating that you need to keep your dog on a leash.
Many people in the countryside will tell you not to worry if your dog poops on grass or fields, away from the track or path, and we’ve seen many avoid pickup at any time in rural locations.
We prefer to pickup, bag and dispose of responsibly when close to a track or where kids play and roam a little away from the trail. Any public bin can be used for properly bagged poo!
The South Downs lie sandwiched between London and the south coast, and encompass an envious mix of rolling hills, quaint well cared for villages, and breathtaking landscapes.
There really is something for everyone here, unless perhaps your preference is for remote mountain vistas – for that you’ll need to venture much further north!
Walks and hikes can be tailored to any level of fitness and you can explore Roman villas on foot, cycle along ancient tracks or redundant railway lines, attend local village fetes, or shop at abundant farmers’ markets.
There’s always something happening and something to do. And it’s easy to immerse yourself in the local community, especially if you partake of a few pints of beer at one of the welcoming village pubs – many of which welcome dogs in the public bars or garden.
Traversing the three counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex, the South Downs also provide access to a number of historic cities and towns.
Check out our recommendations a little further on, but don’t forget to also wind your way through the picturesque smaller villages where you’ll find it hard not to succumb to long, leisurely lunches in a pub or hotel garden.
In winter months most will provide a glorious real log fire to warm you after a day’s walking.
Do I need a car?
We would say yes, if you want to fully experience this vast (by English standards) area, some of which isn’t serviced directly by buses or trains. A car gives you the freedom to really discover some of the off-the-beaten-track destinations.
We were back in the UK in June 2016, house sitting in a small village called Soberton, close to the coastal town of Southampton. We couldn’t have managed without a car, as the closest supermarket was a 20 minute drive away.
It was possible to walk or cycle less than a mile to a garage shop which catered for (expensive) emergency provisions, but personally we felt that for an eighteen day house sit such as ours, a car was a distinct advantage.
Please do remember the drinking and driving laws in the UK are severe – so if you are considering a pub visit along the way, please seriously bear this in mind.
Best car hire deals in the UK
We used Skyscanner to find the best monthly deal for car hire in the UK, about 4-6 weeks in advance of our trip. We started our search while still in Australia, and found the rate was quite high. By waiting and watching for offers, we were able to get our rate down to £11.00 per day for a 2-door compact size vehicle with Europcar.
We collected our car at London Heathrow, and paid an additional £50.00 “one-way fee” to drop-off at Manchester Airport seven weeks later. This represents good value, given that trains in the UK are now expensive (unless you book online well in advance).
Accessibility to the National Park
The South Downs National Park is relatively close to London and if you don’t have a car there are regular trains from Waterloo and Victoria train stations. They take between 60 and 90 minutes to get to locations such as Winchester or Lewes, both of which are gateways to the National Park, in the west and east respectively.
Image credit – SussexScenes.co.uk
National Parks in the UK do not have official entrances as they do, for example, in the US. You are able to access them from many different entry routes, and they are free. This does mean an element of planning is necessary and information can be found on the National Parks UK website or at tourist information offices in local towns.
Discovery Tickets – for the bus network
There is a good network of bus routes linking train stations, villages and local visitor attractions. Discovery Tickets provide you with unlimited bus travel across most of the bus operators within the South Downs National Park and beyond. In 2016 a family day ticket for up to five people is £16.00 and individual tickets are £8.50 per adult and £7.00 per child.
Seaside town Brighton utilizes open top “Breeze Buses” to connect you to the rolling downs at Devil’s Dyke, Ditchling Beacon, and Stanmer Park. Or if you are in the county of Hampshire, you could explore 10 miles of the Watercress Line, from New Alresford to Alton, by old fashioned steam train. They also run “real ale trains” on selected dates, when you can drink beer from local breweries “on tap” as you travel!
Popular outdoor activities around the South Downs National Park
There are many activities to be experienced in and around the South Downs National Park. They include paragliding, mountain biking, cycling, horse riding and walking. The nearby English Channel also provides opportunities for sailing and leisure boating.
There are 15 bike hire sites around the National Park. With 1,200kms of bridleways weaving their way through forests and countryside, cycling is a great way to see the best of the South Downs. See this link for much more information
The 100 miles of the South Downs Way (more info below), is the only UK National Trail that is fully traversable by bike. There are also over 30 hidden geocaches across the National Park, with over half of them reachable by bike. If you want more challenging riding, there are a number of mountain bike tracks too.
Walking and hiking
Walk in the footsteps of writers and artists from history. This area was home to Jane Austen and Virginia Woolf.
Take advantage of the open access, rights of way across local fields and land. There are walks from almost every town and village, all of which will be way-marked if public access is available.
We found our home owners had a collection of local maps, but any good bookstore will have a good selection or Ordnance Survey maps. Take a look at the Ordnance Survey Map website – there’s a FREE app for 7 days, or for just £3.99 you can get access to maps for a month. These maps show all the public access trails around the UK.
Long distance trail – The South Downs Way
Traversing the entire length of the South Downs National Park, from Winchester in the west, to Eastbourne in the east, there are 100 continuous miles (160km) of National Trail – The South Downs Way. It is clearly marked with the Acorn symbol to show you the way. There is a great PDF download at this link, that shows the complete trail.
The trail takes in the market towns of Petersfield and Lewes (see below), and winds along the banks of the River Adur. There are many beauty spots along the way, with about 4,150m (13,600 feet) of ascent and descent whichever way you travel. Of course you can just attempt short sections of the walk.
The trail is also suitable for cycling and horse riding.
Cost of living
Living in south east England is not that different to anywhere else in the UK. But eating out at restaurants and drinking in bars and pubs isn’t cheap.
This is the home of many of the rich and wealthy who have moved away from London and the suburbs, to enjoy a quiet life in this beautiful countryside.
As such, many of the village “Gastro pubs” cater for this level of wealth and an evening meal might be more expensive than in some of the larger coastal towns.
Gastro pubs are popping up all over the place and some are better than others. Again ask your home owner to give you tips about the most popular village pubs and the best value eateries.
While we were house sitting in Soberton, Hampshire we found one great pub “The White Lion” and we didn’t ever make it into the other three locals! Try the fish and chips!
Remember though, the countryside is free and a tasty picnic lunch doesn’t cost much to make. A flask of coffee keeps down the costs of high priced coffee shops, and markets provide cheaper produce than some of the supermarkets.
Do beware of Farmers’ Markets, which although often have excellent local and even organic produce, are these days a little pricey if you’re on a budget. We look out for homes with veggie gardens who often sell their extra produce cheaply at the end of their driveways.
Places to visit in and around the South Downs National Park
There are so many places to visit, it would be impossible to list them all. You’ll find historic cathedral cities like Chichester and Winchester, and seaside towns like trendy Brighton with it’s famous pier, the Royal Pavillion, and “The Lanes”, famous for its small shops, bars and restaurants.
We’ve listed only a few of the places you might enjoy visiting, but there are many website links in this article to help you plan other sightseeing trips and days out.
Seven Sisters Country Park, South Downs, Eastbourne
The actual South Downs (which, in reality, are only a small area of the South Downs National Park) are a range of chalk hills that cover around 260 square miles (670 square kms), from Itchen Valley in Hampshire to Beachy Head (close to Eastbourne). To the north is a steep crest where you’ll find extensive views.
The South Downs have been inhabited since ancient times, supporting large populations especially during Roman times. You’ll find many archaeological sites and burial mounds as part of a collection of over 35 “Sites of Special Scientific Interest”.
Visible from miles away along the coast, the distinctive chalk cliffs known as The Seven Sisters lie at the easternmost end of the country park.
You can canoe, cycle, walk and enjoy bird watching.
The park is a working farm with grazing sheep and cattle. It’s therefore important to keep dogs under close control at all times. You must pick up after your dog and use dog bin locations for disposal.
There is a visitor’s centre and parking. The cost of car parking is £3.00 for up to 2 hours, or £4.00 for the day. The machines do not take cards or notes, so take exact change.
The Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust, Arundel
This provides a great family day out. The 26 acres of wetlands include board-walks and bird hides, bird feeding areas, and an explorer pond where kids can discover and examine small aquatic creatures. There are also guided boat safaris which travel deep into the reed beds.
An entry fee is charged, but you can save 10% by booking online at the centre’s website. Both individual and family tickets are available. Nearby Swanbourn Lake hires out boats, has a small café, and is a good spot for a picnic.
The town of Arundel and its spectacular castle are also worth a visit.
The historic city of Winchester is full of surprises and is well worth a visit. We chose to drive to one of the “Park and Ride” car parks and use the buses to get around. This avoids driving and parking issues on the narrow, medieval streets.
A note about the Park and Ride: it was not possible to pay by notes or credit card. You either need the correct coins or an active sim card in your mobile to pay by phone.
Winchester is full of culture and history, and is home to one of the largest cathedrals in Europe. It was a beautiful warm spring day when we arrived, so we bought sandwiches and coffees in a nearby shop and sat on the sprawling lawn that surrounds this royal Anglo-Saxon church.
There is a fairly hefty entry fee although you can view part of the interior of the cathedral free of charge.
The history surrounding the cathedral is fascinating and dates back to the 7th Century, when England’s pagan monarchy first became Christians. The website history is well worth a read especially if you are home-schooling kids!
And if you are home schooling, a visit to the City Museum provides a visual history of Winchester with plenty of hands-on activities – and admission is FREE. Kids can make a small brass rubbing, colour in their own Anglo-Saxon pot design, and try on period costumes.
Other places to visit in Winchester include Wolvesey Castle, the River Itchen, The Hospital of St Cross, and the Great Hall.
Winchester is well known a “foodie” destination and you can visit the largest Farmer’s Market in the UK.
There are plenty of restaurants, cafes and pubs where you can sample great food and drink. If you want a special night in a hotel in-between house sits then try the acclaimed Hotel du Vin – this hotel chain used to be one of my personal favourites.
There’s so much more you can do in and around Winchester, so check out the city website for much more information.
Lewes (pronounced Lewis)
If you enjoy browsing in antique or gift shops, checking out delicious foods in delicatessens, or reading the morning papers over croissants in an independently owned café, then Lewes won’t disappoint you.
I have visited Lewes a few times, and still there are so many small cafés and eateries that I haven’t had the chance to try.
You won’t find a day out here cheap, especially if you are weak willed where food and drink is concerned – there’s so much to tempt you.
Lewes is also home to the quirky South Street Sports Day and Dog Show, which is held on Saturday 20th August this year. Events and entertainment include the Sports Day highlights:
- Egg and spoon relay
- Bean bag boule
- Welly shot-put
The Dog Show features:
- Best sausage catcher
- Prettiest bitch
- Smiliest face
Ah, English summer festivals – delightfully eccentric!
Click here to see the event flyer for full details.
But it’s one of my favourite South Downs towns, especially around Christmas, when you’ll find homely pubs with roaring winter fires to warm you after a day’s Xmas present shopping.
Chichester and West Wittering Beach
Chichester is another cathedral city with history dating back to Roman times. Apart from the cathedral built 900 years ago, you can visit one of the finest stately homes in the country – Goodwood House
You are close to the coast here and it’s an easy route out to West Wittering Beach – a large, sandy beach in a designated “Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty”.
As a child, my parents used to take my brother and I on day trips from the London suburbs to both the West Wittering and nearby East Wittering.
My memory is of a typical English “bucket and spade” seaside location.
West Wittering Beach in summer. Image courtesy of CoolPlaces.co.uk
It has changed little since then, but it is now patrolled by lifeguards in the summer months, and the beach holds a Blue Flag Award for cleanliness and safety. It’s also a good starting point a walk around East Head.
A beach café serves food throughout the day (weekends in winter).
If you want to experience England at its “countryside” best, then you can’t go wrong house sitting in this area.
Of course, the UK is well known for its beautiful rural landscapes and there are many other areas that you could consider, such as Devon and Cornwall, The Lake District and the Brecon Beacons in Wales, to name just a few.
But what we enjoyed most about the South Downs was the ease of access to both London, the south coast, and a great network of walks and cycling tracks.
Most of all we loved that we were able to visit any number of village pubs and enjoy the great British pint – something we have both missed since leaving the UK to pursue our long term house sitting travel adventure.
Which house sitting platforms are best for assignments in this area?
You’ll find all of the international websites have house sit assignments in, or close to, this area at various times.
For a UK-specific platform you’ll find HouseSittersUK offer great value, and focus on…. well, it’s quite obvious really!!