Christmas in the South Downs

Spending Christmas in the South Downs is all about enjoying an extra special time of year either outdoors on a winter walk or inside tucked up by a log fire. From carol singing Morris men in locally owned pubs close to Lewes and Brighton to Christmas markets in villages like Pulborough, Ditchling and Storrington, this is a time of year that always crackles with good cheer.

Although exhibitions such as those at the Weald & Downland Living Museum in Singleton and the museum and heritage centre at Amberley do close over Christmas, practically all the national park’s woodlands and walking trails remain open. Many of the National Trust’s estates in the South Downs are also open at Christmas. You’ll find lots of things to do, including festive nature trails around parks and gardens, as well as opportunities for mulled wine, mince pies, and even a chance to meet ‘you know who’.

Staying in the South Downs for a Christmas holiday allows you to discover a distinctly different destination to what you’ll experience in the summer. Far fewer crowds – apart from those on Brighton promenade – provides a real locals’ perspective, and some of the views from locations like Black Down, the highest point on the Downs, and Kingley Vale, one of England’s first national nature reserves, are absolutely beautiful.

This time of year is also ideal for listening to some of the spooky tales associated with the South Downs, shared as you venture out into the cold winter’s night for stargazing expeditions with flasks of hot pumpkin soup. However, if you prefer to enjoy your ghost stories by the fire, you’ll find lots of small family-run B&Bs and characterful self-catering cottages in the South Downs to help you do just that.

If that’s whetted your appetite for festive fun and conjured up images of snowy Sussex slopes and horse-drawn sleigh rides in Hampshire, below are some more things to do in the South Downs at Christmas.

Things to do in the South Downs at Christmas

Go wild in winter

The South Downs National Park has just launched a ‘wild winter’ John Muir Award which encourages families to get out together and discover nature. It’s an excellent initiative that gives all ages an excuse to explore in the countryside and learn more about conservation and the natural world. All you need to do is sign up to the John Muir Award’s newsletters and find out what nature-based outdoor activities you can do either outdoors in the South Downs or in your own home. From sustainable Christmas craft tips to where to go on winter walks, spending time together as a family at Christmas has never been so rewarding.

Start stargazing

The South Downs National Park is one of only four Dark Sky Reserves in England. This means that if you’re staying in the area over Christmas, you’ll be able to take advantage of some exceptional opportunities for stargazing (English weather permitting). Dan Oakley is a South Downs National Park ranger and dark skies expert, he recommends watching winter skies through a telescope: “Alongside the Milky Way, some of the most amazing sights you can see above the South Downs include the rings and dust lanes of Saturn, as well as the Andromeda Galaxy that contains around a trillion stars that are 2.5 million light years away.”

Even without a telescope there’s plenty to see: “I’d also encourage people to look at the Orion Nebula, which is very bright and therefore visible with the naked eye. There’s a tiny little fuzzy star between Orion’s Belt that’s actually a cluster of thousands of young stars – kind of like a stellar star nursery. You wouldn’t know it was there if you didn’t know where to look.”

Find out where to stargaze in the South Downs National Park.

Listen to spooky stories & horrible histories

South Downs National Park has long been associated with ancient history and is the location for a number of folklore tales, usually involving the Devil in some way or another. The large natural amphitheatre known as the Devil’s Punchbowl near Black Down in Surrey and the Devil’s Dyke near Brighton, for instance, are both said to have been created when the Devil tried to eradicate Christianity by scooping out the land to flood the villages with seawater. Whatever you believe, both locations are great for walking at Christmas and for enjoying some sensational views over the South Downs.

Charles Pugh is a member of the sustainable tourism team at South Downs National Park and explains how visitors to the Downs will be surrounded by history: “Lots of battles have taken place on the South Downs, probably due to its proximity to Europe. For example, Lewes in East Sussex is steeped in history, as is Kingley Vale, near Chichester. Kingley Vale is where King Alfred and a small band of Anglo-Saxon soldiers fought off more than 1,500 Vikings. The four large circular barrow mounds, known as the Devil’s Humps, are thought to be the burial tombs of the Viking chiefs. This area also features some of Britain’s oldest yew trees. The 2,000-year-old grove of yews is among the most impressive in Europe and the red colouring on the bark is often said to be symbolic of the blood that was spilt when the Vikings invaded. Most people just stroll under the trees oblivious of how old they are.”

Also, if you’re looking for stocking fillers for any young history buffs who are visiting the South Downs at Christmas, particularly the heathlands around Black Down, The Fish, The Goatsucker and The Highwayman has been written by local heritage volunteers and comes highly recommended.

Seek out the Serpent’s Trail

This trail in Hampshire runs for over 100km from Haslemere to Petersfield and takes in some of the South Downs lesser-known heathlands, woods and riversides. A recently installed stone sculpture trail runs adjacent to the Serpent’s Trail and tells the story of Hampshire’s heathland heritage as recounted by local people, ancient maps and the words of Queen Victoria’s Poet Laureate Alfred, Lord Tennyson. The seven sculptures were created over six months by local volunteers and school children under the watchful tutelage of award-winning sculptor Graeme Mitcheson.

Staying locally and walking sections of the Serpent’s Trail at Christmastime might not mean that you get to meet any of the indigenous species of reptiles, lizards and insects, but you will experience the area’s heathlands when they’re at their quietest and most atmospheric.
Written by Chris Owen
Photo credits: [Page banner: Dominic Alves] [Intro: © Sam Knight] [Go wild in winter: © SDNPA/Rebecca Saunders] [Seek out the Serpent’s Trail: © SDNPA / Anne Purkiss]