Beyond Gatwick: Top sites in the North and South Downs
Most beautiful spots in the North and South Downs
The beauty spots that you must visit when exploring the North and South downs in your rent-a-car
The North and South Downs cover a huge part of southern England, taking in swathes of land from Hampshire’s Itchen Valley in the east to the White Cliffs of Dover in the west. This truly is England’s green and pleasant land, and it’s crying out to be explored.
The North and South Downs are perfect places to explore if you’ve got a hire car. Pretty villages are dotted liberally around this part of the world, giving you ample chance to stop off for tea and cake when you need a break from driving.
We’ll start in Surrey, and loop west before making our way east towards the English Channel, taking in the beautiful and historic counties of East and West Sussex, and Kent.
car hire Gatwick Airport
Petrol tank loaded and snacks at the ready? Good, we’re ready to go. First, into the North Downs towards the bucolic Surrey Hills...
North Downs: Breathe in the countryside at Surrey Hills AONB
The Surrey Hills AONB (Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty) is found just a few miles outside London, but there’s no way you’d know it. There’s a lot to explore in this area, so we’d recommend stopping off in a few different places
Make sure you visit the highest spot in South East England at Leith Hill, which includes the 18th Century Leith Hill Tower, and Box Hill, made famous by Jane Austen’s famous picnic scene in Emma. Make sure you climb to the top of Leith Hill Tower for a view of London to the north, and the sea near Brighton to the south.
How to get there: Leith Hill is close to Coldharbour Village, near Dorking. The quickest route from Gatwick Airport takes around 35 minutes, travelling via the A29. As you travel through the Surrey Hills look out for the quaint villages of Newdigate and Ockley.
South Downs: Ascend for a panoramic view at Black Down
The highest point in the South Downs is found close to the idyllic village of Haslemere, Surrey. Leave your rent-a-car in the well-situated main car park, and join the circular track that takes in purple heather, shady copses and flowery meadows. Black Down is managed by The National Trust, meaning it’s incredibly well-maintained and can be visited easily at any time of year.
Black Down is also well known as the site of the summer residence of the poet Lord Alfred Tennyson. The secluded lane that runs from Haslemere past Aldworth is named Tennyson's Lane in his memory.
Once you’ve explored Black Down, it’s time to jump back in the hire car and head 30 minutes south across the South Downs National Park towards your next stop.
How to get there: From Gatwick Airport, it’s around one hour's drive to Haslemere via the M25 and A3 If you fancy taking a break from the journey, Surrey's historic county town of Guildofrd is a must-see, with its cathedral and Medieval castle,
South Downs: Get a slice of ancient history at The Trundle
Want to track down some real local history? One of the most famous spots in the South Downs is The Trundle, an Iron Age hill fort that is home to a buried golden calf (according to folklore that has been circulating in the area since the mid 19th Century.) Whether you find the treasure or not, you will be treated to panoramic views of the surrounding Sussex countryside. You’ll find The Trundle at the summit of St. Roche’s Hill, three miles outside the pretty city of Chicester.
How to get there: It will take about an hour and 15 minutes to drive from Gatwick Airport to Chichester via the M23 motorway and the A264. The historic market town town of Petworth is good stopover, and the gardens and parkland of Petworth House would be a perfect place to stretch your legs.
South Downs: Pack up for a picnic at Beachy Head
You next drive is a coastal one, taking in the village of Arundel (no, nothing to do with Frozen) and the imposing 1,000 year-old Arundel Castle, the village of Falmer, and the county town of East Sussex, Lewes. All of these spots are part of the South Downs National Park, so make sure you take time to explore them before you reach your destination.
Beachy Head, on the East Sussex coast near Eastbourne, is the UK’s highest chalk sea cliff and offers spectacular sea views. Get out your picnic blanket and stop off for a break after your 57-mile drive from Chichester, or hunker down in the hire car with a thermos and a box of sausage rolls for the real English coastal experience if the weather is bad.
How to get there: From Gatwick Airport, it’s about an hour and 15 minutes'' drive to Eatbourne, via the A23 and A27. If you're travelling from Chichester, it will take about an hour and a half to drive.
North Downs: Explore castles, coasts and history at Kent AONB
Next, it’s time to put your foot down and head 60 miles north west towards our second Area Of Outstanding Natural Beauty: the Kent Downs. The area has an absolute wealth of history, including Dover Castle and Winston Churchill’s home at Chartwell.
The place is packed with walking trails, nature reserves, sweeping valleys, picture-postcard English villages, and is also home to the St Margaret’s Heritage Coast. Park up the rent-a-car whenever you see a spot to be explored, and while away the hours.
North Downs: End on a high at the White Cliffs of Dover
End your Downs road trip by skirting 22 miles along the southern edge of the Kent Downs towards one of England’s most iconic sites: the White Cliffs of Dover. The Kent coast’s most famous attraction (sorry, Margate) sees chalky white cliffs rising from the water as the English Channels laps them gently from below. Visit the lighthouse, join a guided walk, learn about the history and the role the area played in the Second World War, or just sit and drink in the peacefulness of the area. Truly majestic.