Rolling Around in Southern England's South Downs - Page 2
Most Americans might not know that Brits use "down" as a synonym for a gently rolling hill, and "the Downs" refers to those famous grassy-topped limestone escarpments edging Southern England. With terrain more bucolic than bad-ass, and lots of family-friendly attractions and scenic side roads, the South Downs makes a brilliant trail-running vacation destination or a delightful daytrip from London.
"Despite the South Downs' proximity to so many big towns and cities, it's amazingly peaceful and beautiful," says Martin Bulger, a veteran of some 150 marathons and ultras and founder of the Seaford Striders. His club hosts the Seaford Half Marathon on the first weekend of June.
South Downs National Park, established in the spring of 2010, protects over 600 square miles of farmland, moorland, woods and coastline. Trails, too? Bloody right! The main artery, called the South Downs Way National Trail, runs diagonally through the heart of the region for a full 100 miles point to point.
Ultrarunner Jen Jackson of London likens the South Downs Way National Trail to a chocolate box because it offers so much that's sweet and varied about the English landscape, from quaint villages to wild woods and working farms. "In London, there is not much countryside to run, yet after an hour on the train, I can be on the South Downs Way soaking up the rural atmosphere," says Jackson. "It's well sign posted so I don't need to consult a map, and it's almost always going either up or down, so it's a challenging workout."
Jackson is a race director of the South Downs Way 100-Mile Ultra, held July 9 and this year is expected to draw about 200 runners. The event begins at the east end of the trail, near the seaside resort of Eastbourne and a 530-foot-high sea cliff (Britain's tallest) called Beachy Head.
"As you climb the heights of Beachy Head, you feel like you're on top of the world," says Jackson. The trail reveals the sheer cliff face towering over a red-and-white lighthouse sticking up from the sea. It's a postcard view on pleasant days, "but in bad weather, you are completely exposed to the elements while on the ridge. It can provide a rough experience in the wind and rain."
The South Downs Way Ultra gains about 13,600 feet in elevation to its end in Winchester, a city 68 miles southwest of London.. Numerous trail races take place on the South Downs Way (see sidebar), many of them concentrated near the east end of the trail, which goes past Beachy Head and another famous portion of cliffs named the Seven Sisters.