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South Downs National Park

The South Downs National Park is England's newest national park, designated on 31 March 2010.[1] The park, covering an area of 1,627 square kilometres (628 sq mi) in southern England, stretches for 140 kilometres (87 mi) from Winchester in the west to Eastbourne in the east through the counties of Hampshire, West Sussex and East Sussex. The national park covers the chalk hills of the South Downs (which on the English Channel coast form the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head) and a substantial part of a separate physiographic region, the western Weald, with its heavily wooded sandstone and clay hills and vales. The South Downs Way spans the entire length of the park and is the only National Trail that lies wholly within a national park.

The idea of a South Downs National Park originated in the 1920s, when public concern was mounting about increasing threats to the beautiful downland environment, particularly the impact of indiscriminate speculative housing development on the eastern Sussex Downs (Peacehaven was an example of this). In 1929, the Council for the Preservation of Rural England, led by campaigners including the geographer Vaughan Cornish, submitted a memorandum to the Prime Minister urging the case for national parks, including a national park on part of the South Downs. When however, towards the end of World War II, John Dower was asked to report on how a system of national parks in England and Wales might be established, his 1945 report, National Parks in England and Wales, did not identify the South Downs for national park status, but rather included it in a list of "other amenity areas". Sir Arthur Hobhouse's 1947 Report of the National Parks Committee took a different view, and he included the South Downs in his list of twelve areas recommended for designation as a national park, defined by John Dower as an "extensive area of beautiful and relatively wild country in which, for the nation's benefit...the characteristic landscape beauty is strictly preserved". In 2016 the national park was granted International Dark Sky Reserve status, to restrict artificial light pollution above the park. It was the second such area in England and the 11th in the world.

A view west from Devil's Dyke
The South Downs National Park stretches for 140 km (87 mi) across southern England from St Catherine's Hill near Winchester in Hampshire in the west to Beachy Head, near Eastbourne in East Sussex in the east. In its western half, the southern boundary of the park lies up to 10 km (6.2 mi) inland from the south coast; it thus excludes the major coastal towns and cities of Southampton, Portsmouth, Chichester, Bognor Regis and Littlehampton. Further east, where the park's southern boundary lies much closer to the coast, it has been carefully drawn to exclude the urban areas of Worthing, Brighton and Hove, Newhaven, Seaford and Eastbourne, which had all made substantial encroachments onto the Downs during the 19th and 20th centuries. By contrast, the park includes a number of towns situated in the western Weald, including Petersfield, Liss, Midhurst and Petworth, and the two historic Sussex towns of Arundel and Lewes.

The South Downs National Park's chalk downland is a feature that sets it apart from other national parks in Britain. However, almost a quarter (23%) of the national park consists of a quite different and strongly contrasting physiographic region, the western Weald, whose densely wooded hills and vales are based on an older Wealden geology of resistant sandstones and softer clays. The highest point in the national park, Blackdown, at 280 m (919 ft) above sea level, is in fact situated in the Weald, on the Greensand Ridge, whereas the highest point on the chalk escarpment of the South Downs, Butser Hill, has an elevation of 271 m (889 ft) above sea level. 

The Seven Sisters cliffs and the coastguard cottages, from Seaford Head across the River Cuckmere. Most of the national park consists of chalk downland, although a significant part includes the sandstones and clays of the western Weald, a strongly contrasting and distinctive landscape of densely wooded hills and vales. The chalk was formed in the Late Cretaceous epoch, between 100 million and 66 million years ago, when the area was under the sea. During the Cenozoic era the chalk was uplifted as part of the Weald uplift which created the great Weald-Artois Anticline, caused by the same orogenic movements that created the Alps. The relatively resistant chalk rock has, through weathering, resulted in a classic cuesta landform, with a northward-facing chalk escarpment that rises dramatically above the low-lying vales of the Low Weald.

The chalk escarpment reaches the English Channel west of Eastbourne, where it forms the dramatic white cliffs of Beachy Head, the Seven Sisters and Seaford Head. These cliffs were formed after the end of the last Ice Age, when sea levels rose and the English Channel was formed, resulting in under-cutting of the chalk by the sea.

The South Downs run linearly west-north-westwards from the Eastbourne area through southern Sussex to the Hampshire downs, separating the south coastal plain from the clays and sandstones of the Weald. Behind the escarpment, on the dip slope, are the characteristic high, smooth, rolling downland hills interrupted by dry valleys and wind gaps, and the major river gaps of the Cuckmere, Ouse, Adur and Arun.

The chalk is a white sedimentary rock, notably homogeneous and fine-grained, and very permeable. It consists of minute calcite plates (coccoliths) shed from micro-organisms called coccolithophores. The strata include numerous layers of flint nodules, which have been widely exploited as a material for manufacture of stone tools as well as a building material for dwellings. Similar areas in Britain include the North Downs and the Chilterns.

In its western section, the national park extends north beyond the chalk escarpment of the South Downs into a quite different and strongly contrasting physiographic region, the western Weald, taking in the valley of the western River Rother, incised into Lower Greensand bedrock, and the densely wooded hills and valleys of the Greensand Ridge and Weald Clay south of Haslemere.

Seven Sisters Cliffs
Seven Sisters Cliffs

The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs by the English Channel. They form part of the South Downs in East Sussex, between the towns of Seaford and Eastbourne in southern England. They are within the South Downs National Park which is bounded by the coast, the Cuckmere and the A259 road. They are the remnants of dry valleys in the chalk South Downs, which are gradually being eroded by the sea.

From west to east, the sequence starts just east of Cuckmere Haven. The cliff peaks and the dips between them are individually named. Listed below, the peaks are in italics. There are seven hills, with an eighth one being created by the erosion of the sea: Haven Brow, Short Bottom, Short Brow, Limekiln Bottom, Rough Brow, Rough Bottom, Brass Point, Gap Bottom, Flagstaff Point (continuing into Flagstaff Brow), Flagstaff Bottom, Flat Hill, Flathill Bottom, Baily's Hill, Michel Dean, Went Hill Brow. Just east of the last peak is Birling Gap. Beyond, on the top of the next hill, is Belle Tout Lighthouse and beyond that Beachy Head. A lighthouse in the sea marks the latter headland. The South Downs Way runs along the edge of the cliffs, taking a very undulating course. Many landmarks around the area are named after the cliffs, including the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre.

The Seven Sisters cliffs are occasionally used in filmmaking and television production as a stand-in for the more famous White Cliffs of Dover, since they are relatively free of anachronistic modern development and are also allowed to erode naturally. As a result, the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head remain a bright white colour, whereas the White Cliffs of Dover are protected due to the important port and are therefore increasingly covered in vegetation and are greening as a result. They are also featured at the beginning of the film Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, and at the end of the film Atonement where Robbie and Cecilia always wanted to live. Much of the 2015 feature film Mr. Holmes was filmed around the Seven Sisters. The 2019 film Hope Gap, starring Bill Nighy and Annette Bening was against the backdrop of Seaford Head. The film is named after the distinctive area of chalk cliff between Seaford and Cuckmere Haven. In 2020, Jessica Swale's feature film debut Summerland will premiere, set in and shot around the Seaford area, featuring numerous views of the Seven Sisters. An east-facing photo of the Seven Sisters is included as one of the default landscape wallpapers packaged with Microsoft Windows 7.