Did you know that the whole of the South Downs National Park is an International Dark Sky Reserve? Some particularly brilliant stargazing spots festoon northwest West Sussex, which also happens to be a great area for walking and wildlife – by day and by night. With a selection of day, night, guided and easy-access walks through nature reserves, this stargazing itinerary is cosmic for ramblers and wildlife watchers!
There’s plenty of space to sprawl under the stars on Iping Common, and you don’t have to venture far from the car park to make the most of it. This Dark Sky Discovery Site covers more than 100 hectares of heathland. It’s peppered with burial mounds and mostly owned by Sussex Wildlife Trust – an extraordinary amount of wildlife calls the common home. If you’re here at dusk in spring and summer, you might even hear the churring call of a nightjar as you settle in to stargaze.
Harting Down Dark Sky Discovery Site is cared for by the National Trust. By day, you can see out to the Isle of Wight from the tops of these ancient chalk downlands. By night, the star-speckled view is even older than the hills and you’ll soon see why Harting Down is a prime spot for landscape astrophotography. The downland grasses and scrub patches thrum with wildlife, too. In the darkness of winter, you might hear a short-eared owl. Birds of prey wheel in the wide-open skies here all year round.
Black Down, another National Trust place, is the highest point in West Sussex (and the South Downs). The sweeping views make for huge, star-studded skies as well as daytime panoramas to make you stop and stare. The National Trust has created an easy summer stargazing walking route but it works just as well in winter. While you won’t hear the nightjars or see the pipistrelle bats, winter is when all the best starscapes come out to play. And it’s not just your imagination – the stars really are brighter during the colder months.
If you’d like to learn a skill that equips you for remote stargazing adventures, check out Pied a Terre Adventures’ Night Navigation course. You’ll learn how to follow a route using a map and compass, without relying on any landmarks. It’s a handy and fascinating way to explore Iping Common and, like any decent stargazing expedition, ends at a cosy pub! Pied a Terre Adventures run guided walks in the daytime too.
With so much to do at night, we wouldn’t blame you for sleeping all day – but it would be a shame to miss out on the area’s walks and stately homes!
Stick with the space and navigation themes and head to Petworth House and Park to see the Molyneux Globe, one of the first terrestrial globes made in England. There are only six left and Petworth’s dates from 1592. (Check that it’s on display before you visit.) Don’t miss the grand State Rooms, hung with one of the nation’s finest art collections. Afterwards, stroll through the Pleasure Garden and Deer Park.
There are over 2,050 miles (3,300km) of footpaths, bridleways and byways to choose from in the South Downs National Park, but start with the Serpent Trail. This 65-mile (105-km) route wriggles – like a serpent – across the South Downs, taking in Black Down, Petworth and Iping Common on the way. You don’t have to do the full length of it; it’s easily broken up into stages. Look out for the quote from poet Alfred Lord Tennyson inscribed on a stone in Black Down and the dragonfly sculpture bench near Iping Common. They’re part of a Sculpture Trail designed to tell the stories behind some of the heathland sites.
If you’re visiting over the February half term, check out the array of events happening.
Amberfold is a rambling, black-and-white 17th-century property with two self-catering options, at the heart of the South Downs. The Serpent Trail snakes past its door.
Near Petworth, the 250-year-old Halfway Bridge Inn has rooms clustered around its former stable yard, or you can book the shepherd’s hut. Food is served until 9 pm, so you can dine on the slow-braised beef cheek or braised hispi cabbage before you hit the sack.
Night Pastures has off-grid camping and glamping in a series of snuggly yurts and bell tents. You can check-in between 1 April and 31 October but they’re happy to open their fire pits and compost loos to groups who want to spend a winter’s evening stargazing up at the massive expanse of sky visible from their woodland-surrounded field.
The shelves at Comestibles Deli in Midhurst are piled high with delicacies and treats – just the thing for those stargazing picnics! Their homemade ready meals are an easy post-stargazing option for self-caterers too, or you can pull up a seat in their café.
Take a tour of Langham Brewery and sample some of the award-winning microbrewery’s craft beers in the taproom before you settle down under the stars, or buy some bottles from the shop to take with you.
For a delicious and warming post-stargazing meal, try The Hamilton Arms’ authentic Thai dishes, close to Iping Common.