The South Downs

Not sure where the South Downs are? It's high time we got better acquainted with Britain's newest National Park, says Peter Sargent.

A CLEAR, SUNNY SATURDAY IN EARLY AUTUMN. From Beacon Hill, we were rewarded with stunning views on all sides. To the north, west and east were rolling hills and he classic English countryside of the weald – but it was the view to the south that caught the eye.

There, shimmering below us a few miles away, were the waters of the English Channel with the Isle of Wight and the outlines of Portsmouth in the distance. Inspiring.

I must admit, before visiting the area at the end of September, I was hazy about exactly where the South Downs are. The area extends from Winchester in the west to the white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head, near Eastbourne on the south coast, which is the extent of the 100-mile long South Downs Way National Trail. The route is popular with walkers, cyclists and horse-riders, but the whole area, all 1,600km square is well worth getting to know. In April this year the area became a National Park, and already it has seen an increase in the number of visitors. There is plenty of room for more.

For this short break we were based at The Spread Eagle Hotel and Spa, in Midhurst. This is an attractive market town, just north of Portsmouth. The nearest rail station is Haslemere, less than an hour's journey from London's Waterloo Station. Taking the 9am train from Norwich to Liverpool Street took me less than four hours in all – though I was lucky with connections.

The Spread Eagle is a proper gem. It has a lovely old-fashioned feel, with a colourful history, but has been updated to meet demanding 21st century needs.

General manager Ted James and his staff work hard to give visitors a warm welcome, and plenty of local people were popping in for afternoon tea and a bite to eat.

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The Aquila Health Spa offers an array of treatments. There is a pool and gym, sauna and hot tubs plus a range of beauty and body treatments. For me, the main attraction was the heated swimming pool – and a few lengths soon after arrival helped set me up for a long walk in the morning.

Properly wined and dined, we set out for a day's walking. Joined by hotel manager Ted and Poppy, his two-and-a-half-year-old Boxer dog, our guide was Bridget Glynne-Jones.

Bridget runs B-Footloose, taking private groups of walkers on specially tailored routes.

Bridget's philosophy is that walking is not just great exercise, but brings people together and gets them talking. Lifts can be arranged at the start and end of the walks, which can be guided or taken unguided.

The walks are well suited to works groups, breaking down barriers that exist in workplaces in these hurried and pressurised times. You don't have to be super-fit to do this, and the groups go at the pace of the slowest.

That said, our particular route had a couple of fairly steep climbs; I for one was catching my breath.

But – no pain, no gain! To get the best of the route and drink in the scenery you need to exert yourself a little. There's time and space to take a breather, take on board some water and enjoy your surroundings.

We were fortunate with the weather. The rain and mist of the previous day had given way to pristine blue skies and warming sunshine. In the skies above, gliders cavorted, performing daring acrobatics. By happy coincidence, we could see a Spitfire and Hurricane in the distance, it being a little after Battle of Britain Day. The sight of Portsmouth in the distance, with its military and naval connotations, made it more poignant.

On the ground we were a little more staid.

Our route took us through the Westdean estate, a little off the signposted South Downs Way.

Starting at the village of Cocking, we made our way up Beacon Hill through a mixture of open chalk downland and hills and secluded woodland, to panoramic views of Harting Down. People have been walking these paths since the Stone Age, and you get a good idea of the history from this ancient landscape.

By now it was time for lunch. In the village of Elsted, the Three Horseshoes fitted the bill. A proper village pub, its large garden was a big draw on this sunny day, but inside all was snug and cosy, perfect for the colder weather to come.

A pint of the local beer – Ballards Best – and a ham ploughmans later we were ready for one last climb, followed by a gentle walk through Treyford to complete the circular route. This particular walk was about 11 and a half miles; it could have been much shorter or longer, depending upon taste.

Walking is a civilised pastime, and brings the best out of people. Walkers and cyclists coexist happily, and city and town pressures are left behind.

With that it was back to the hotel to sit back in the comfortable leather chairs in the lounge.

This felt like a journey back in time, with old wooden beams and a vast open fireplace – perfect for an autumn or winter afternoon. The hotel is one of a group of three in the area, owned by the same family for half a century.

You're in exulted company when you stay at The Spread Eagle. Dating back to the 1430s, it is an old coaching inn. It's said Queen Elizabeth I stayed in 1591, while Norfolk's Admiral Horatio Nelson was a visitor – presumably while based at Portsmouth. King Edward VII was on the guest list, as was poet Hilaire Belloc, and author H G Wells lived and worked in Midhurst.

In the White Room there is a secret passageway, reputedly used by smugglers in past times. Another celebrated historical character associated with the area is Guy Fawkes, who worked for the Earl of Southampton, an important local landowner.

In the hotel restaurant, awarded three rosettes by the AA Restaurant Guide, we chose from a menu of English dishes. I opted for beef sirloin washed down with a Rioja – there's a large wine list.

The town itself attracts walkers, golfers, shooters and racing enthusiasts, being close to Goodwood. On the edge of town is the 16th century ruin of Cowdray Castle, which is open to the public.

Nearby attractions we didn't have time to visit include Arundel Castle, the historic city of Chichester, the seaside resorts of Bognor Regis and Littlehampton, Portsmouth, home of HMS Victory and the Mary Rose, and the National Trust property at Uppark House.

They'll just have to wait until next time.