Rough Guides editor Rachel Mills road tested a car-free weekend escape in the gently sloping chalk downlands and pretty patchwork fields of the South Downs National Park, just an hour south of London by train.
Get up close and personal with nature
It is possible for city folk to escape to the countryside without foregoing creature comforts. A glut of new luxury camping sites means that you can roll up to a pre-erected tipi, yurt or hut with none of the hassle of hammering in pegs – or arguing about who packed the kettle. I stayed at off-grid Adhurst Yurts, which is set in 100 acres of ancient woodland bang in the middle of the National Park. Perfect for cool autumn nights, the four cosy yurts have proper double beds with duvets (pull out camp beds are provided for children), rugs on the wooden floors, wood burners and solar powered fairy lights that twinkle into the night. Kids will love foraging in the surrounding woodland, the zip line, the open air hot shower and, of course, toasting marshmallows over a proper campfire. And for adults, there’s a couple of great pubs in nearby Sheet, including the family-friendly Queen’s Head, which from next year you’ll be able to reach via a short road-free ramble through the woods.
Image by Rachel Mills
Within walking or cycling distance from Adhurst, you can pick your own fruit and veg at Durleighmarsh until the end of the season in October. The varieties are clearly mapped and labelled and when we visited there were loads of raspberries, blackberries, courgettes and marrows, as well as some gorgeous PYO flowers. The farm shop supports a small range of local producers and sells a range of meat, game, pies, jams and chutneys, and the tea barn, looking out over the tractors working the fields, is a nice spot for tea and cake. There’s also a pretty boating lake in the nearby market town of Petersfield, with a lakeside adventure playground and café, where we whiled away a lovely lazy afternoon. For bigger kids, the lowland heath surrounding the lake is dotted with Bronze Age burial mounds to explore.
Get active on the South Downs Way
If you want to get a bit further afield, the 160-kilometre-long South Downs Way stretches the entire length of the national park from the ancient city of Winchester to the white cliffs of Beachy Head and the seaside resort of Eastbourne. From Petersfield you can bike around four miles south along a section of a new cycle route from Bentley (near Farnham) to Portsmouth, called the Shipwrights Way – named so because it was the route for transporting oak to the dockyard for shipbuilding. You'll join the South Downs Way at Queen Elizabeth Country Park, although there is a large hill (Buriton Hanger) to climb along the way, so you’ll need a lot of pedal power.
Image by Rachel Mills
To tackle the entire route by bike takes at least three or four days and I’d say start out from Winchester and head east to take advantage of the prevailing wind. Rob Stanley runs Walk and Cycle, which organises short breaks with as much or as little hands-on support as you need. They know the area inside out and can take care of accommodation booking, bike hire, guiding and itineraries, luggage transfers, transport and roadside repair. With just a basic road bike you can explore quiet country lanes passing chocolate box villages such as Amberley and Alfriston, and National Trust Properties including the wonderful Petworth House and Park. If you choose a more serious mountain bike to go off-road on smaller trails, remember these can get pretty muddy in wet weather. Tailored itineraries include the Downs Explorer and Hills and Coast, but if you, like I was, will be cycling with young children, the best (flattest) places to bike the route are found in East Hampshire and West Sussex; the Downs Link or the Hayling Billy Line are a couple of gorgeous options.
On this trip, I stuck to cycling the lanes around the pretty East Hampshire villages of Sheet and Steep. Biking with my lively very-nearly-three-year-old niece in a child seat on the back certainly added a bit of fear factor; she really wasn’t very pleased with me when we careered into a ditch. The terrain is surprisingly varied (I guess the clue is in the name “downs”), but as we meandered past village greens and churches and waved to locals’ walking their dogs, I felt a million miles away from the chaotic and congested London streets.
Need to know
Trains from London Waterloo to Petersfield (every 30min; 1hr) are £32.50 return. Call Petersfield Taxis on 01730 303030 for transport from the train station. Adhurst Yurts are from £125 per night based on 2 sharing.