If you appreciate ancient landscapes as much as you do starscapes, you’ll love this stargazing itinerary. Expect a weekend filled with guided night-time walks, mountain biking, wildlife watching and enchanting celestial views! Bignor Hill and the surrounding countryside is marked by Bronze Age burial mounds, Roman roads and beautiful natural habitats. It feels like time is standing still as you watch the Milky Way glimmer overhead – a magical experience.
Bignor Hill is part of the National Trust’s Slindon Estate, surrounded by chalk heathland and downland. Legend has it that the ridges winding around the hill were created by a giant worm curling its tail around Bignor. Stand atop one of the Bronze Age burial mounds to elevate your position even higher and add another layer of mystique to your stargazing. Listen for the twit-twoo of a tawny owl as you gaze up at the star-sprinkled sky. If you’re here in the warmer months, you might see fireflies flitting around the burial mounds.
Visit by day in the winter and you could catch a glimpse of roe and fallow deer or a rare hawfinch. The views from up here are spectacular, taking in the Isle of Wight and the spire of Chichester Cathedral. To get to Bignor Hill, follow the southbound no-through road out of Bignor Village to the National Trust car park.
Want to hear more about Bignor’s fascinating past? Then join one of Pied a Terre Adventures guided Dark Skies walks. As well as being awestruck by the celestial sights above, you’ll learn about Bignor’s history and geology. You might even get to learn night navigation skills as you listen for nocturnal wildlife and spot the area’s landmarks. These walks take place in the shorter months of the year, including during the annual South Downs Dark Skies Festival in February.
Dr John Mason of Star Treks Night Walks runs a night-time walk and talk on Bignor Hill and across the South Downs. He’ll talk you through everything from the myths and legends surrounding the constellations to current developments in space exploration. He’ll also show you how to use the telescopes he can bring along. Ask him anything – he’s the South Downs Planetariums’ principal lecturer and one of its founders so there’s not much he doesn’t know about the night sky! Get in touch by email or phone (email@example.com, 07901 890061).
Explore more of the beautiful South Downs by bike. Marmalade MTB’s bespoke guided tours are customised to your group’s size and ability, so you can hone your gravel skills on a one-to-one basis, rattle along Slindon’s Roman roads with your best biking buddy or arrange an action-packed adventure for all the family.
At Arundel Wetland Centre, you can take to the water on a boat safari to see reed warblers, marsh harriers and water voles. You’re most likely to spot a kingfisher among the bare trees of December and January. The 20-minute safaris run every day (apart from Christmas Day and days when the water has frozen over). While you’re here, wander along the boardwalks through the reedbed, which is one of the largest in Sussex.
Twitchers, don’t miss RSPB Pulborough Brooks. It’s open daily from dawn to dusk – although they also run night-time safaris. The pools and scrapes that dot the wet grassland habitat are a haven for wintering wildfowl, while winter finches feel at home in the wildflower meadows. All sorts of small mammals and bats live here too. The landscape is pocked by Bronze Age tumuli – but don’t make the mistake of attributing all Pulborough’s lumps and bumps to ancient peoples! The area was also used by Canadian troops for training during World War II.
South Downs Stay’s barn with three B&B rooms is always a gorgeous place to stay, but The Observatory self-catering studio takes it up another notch for stargazers. Far-reaching views on three sides take in the South Downs, Arundel Park and the River Arun valley – and by night, the skies above erupt in stars.
Castle Cottage has three B&B rooms on the grounds of Coates Castle but for a quirky stay request The Tree House, built around a huge sweet chestnut. Want to stargaze from the tub? Book The Barn for a bathroom with a glass roof!
The White Horse Inn’s luxurious bedrooms are the perfect full stop to a night of stargazing. The rooms are named after famous racehorses, but many of them translate into the world of astronomy too: Galileo, Eclipse and Sea the Stars Garden Lodge, for example. You can see Bignor Hill from Dubawi Garden Lodge and watch starry skies from your bed in Dante Garden Lodge.
The restaurant at THE PIG – in the South Downs is committed to a 25-mile menu. Eating here is a brilliant way to taste the best produce West Sussex has to offer, from local wines to fruit and veg grown in the walled kitchen garden.
Stock up on stargazing picnic fare or sit down for a soup and a sandwich at Slindon Forge Village Shop and Café. It’s in the lovingly restored former village blacksmith’s workshop, and there’s an emphasis on everything local and homemade.
It would be easy to while away a day walking the trails, touring the vineyard and tasting the award-winning wines at Wiston Estate. But if you only have an hour or two, book a table for brunch or lunch at Chalk restaurant, in an 18th-century barn. The menu is an expression of the surrounding land’s heritage – and the wine is exquisite too!