South Downs autumn colours

Exploring outdoors in autumn is all about enjoying the peace and tranquillity, as well as observing the changing colours in our woodlands and on our heaths. South Downs National Park is blessed with endless opportunities to experience autumn’s range, with walking trails, cycling tracks and plenty of places to sit and stare. From ancient coppiced woodlands and historic trails in Hampshire to family foraging spots and accessible tracks in West Sussex and East Sussex, here’s where you find out more about a few of our favourite forests and woodlands in autumn.

South Downs National Park, Hampshire

Alice Holt Forest can be found in north-east Hampshire, just 6km south of the market town of Farnham that lies over the border in Surrey. Once upon a time, this royal woodland was almost entirely ancient oaks, although many of the original trees were used during the 18th and 19th centuries to supply the Royal Navy with shipbuilding materials. These days, you’ll find a good mix of deciduous oaks and coniferous pines forming the South Downs National Park’s northern entrance. There are lots of easy-going walking trails to explore in autumn alongside excellent cycling tracks and natural outdoor activity areas for children.

Stretching through the countryside for just over 17km, the Meon Valley Trail previously served as a railway line to connect rural Hampshire communities between Alton and Fareham. These days, you’ll find all manner of dog walkers, cyclists, horse riders, wheelchair users and mobility scooters making the most of the easy-going, mainly flat trail. Thanks to the gradient and lack of stiles, this is an accessible path for everyone to enjoy the autumnal colours all the way from West Meon in the north to Wickham in the south.

Kat Beer is responsible for promoting sustainable tourism in the South Downs National Park, one of her favourite autumn spots is Hampshire’s Stansted Forest: “This 12,000-acre ancient woodland is an excellent area to explore in autumn and winter. Well-maintained footpaths and bridleways run through traditionally coppiced chestnut trees, which are sustainably managed to improve biodiversity and create natural habitats for wildlife such as bats, birds, insects and a variety of fungi and plants. Although Stansted Forest is very close to Portsmouth, not many people even know it exists. It’s never that busy, even in the summer.”

South Downs National Park, East Sussex & West Sussex

West and East Sussex offers plenty of choice when it comes to making the most of autumn’s colours: “The amazing variety of landscapes, heaths and woodlands in the area provides great opportunities to experience autumnal foliage changing colour, as well as lots of potential for foraging for fungi, conkers and chestnuts” explains Kat. “Places like Friston Forest, close to Seven Sisters country park, and the woods and downlands on the Slindon Estate, which are owned by the National Trust, are great for getting out and about in nature. There are around 40km of public footpaths and bridleways at Slindon, and there are also some great local pubs with welcoming log fires for getting warm and cosy after a winter’s walk in West Sussex.”

Friston Forest in East Sussex is an expansive beech woodland that’s amazing for exploring in the autumn. You’ll find loads of walking and cycling tracks to suit all ages and abilities, as well as some fantastic scenery. An extended walk along Cuckmere Haven is highly recommended if you’re looking for a riverside stroll down to the sea with the iconic Birling Gap in the distance.

Slindon Estate in West Sussex offers 1,416 hectares of woodland, farmland and downland, all of which is criss-crossed with well-maintained tracks, footpaths, bridleways and rural lanes. Walkers have access to hundreds of acres of woodland from where to enjoy the colours of autumn as well as wide-reaching views over the Weald and across the South Down’s undulating slopes and coastal plains.

If you’re looking for an accessible autumnal adventure in West Sussex, check out the Centurion Way that follows the course of the railway line which once connected Chichester in the south with West Dean, 9km north. The southern section of the route, between Chichester and Lavant, is tarmacked and suitable for wheelchair users, walkers and cyclists. The northern half, to West Dean, is made of compacted stone – also fine for wheelchairs – and there’s a ramp at the end which avoids having to use the stone steps.

The Centurion Way also extends to Black Down from Midhurst – worth considering if you’re planning on spending more time in some of the South Down’s lesser-known villages, such as Meonstoke.

Excellent excuses to get out in autumn

Photographing fiery foliage – lose yourself behind your lens as you capture autumn’s colours on your camera or phone. Mugs of soup and flasks of tea – there’s no better warmer-upper than a nice hot cuppa under a canopy of russet reds and amber oranges. Family foraging adventures – seek out conkers and sweet chestnuts or pick up colourful leaves from the forest floor for making autumn collages when you get home. Fresh air and exercise – you don’t have to go far to soak up the scenery of the South Downs and there are hundreds of different signposted trails to enjoy at your own pace. Local pubs with rip-roaring fires – you’re never far from a locally owned country pub on the South Downs, so why not plan an autumnal walk around lunchtime or have an afternoon treat by the fire? Affordable accommodation – a handful of campsites on the South Downs are still open in the autumn, or you can book into a locally owned B&B or small hotel if you fancy something a bit more comfortable. Either way, it’s going to be much more peaceful and affordable than what you’d expect to find in summer.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Autumn colours: © Sam Moore] [Alice Holt: © SDNPA/Sam Moore] [Friston Forest: © Sam Moore]