Western Weald Revealed

Dec 12, 2023 | Nature & Conservation

Sunrise over Butser Hill

Did you know that the South Downs is the UK’s longest National Park? The South Downs Way winds its way along the chalk ridge for 100 miles between Winchester and Eastbourne. However, even removing all the twists and turns, it is still 75 miles as the crow flies from west to east: significantly longer than the 63 miles it takes to cross the Cairngorms, the UK’s next longest national park.

If you have walked the South Downs Way, you will know that the landscape gradually changes as you travel east from Winchester. It begins in rolling countryside, progresses through woodland and over ancient forts before crossing agricultural plateaus, valleys, and miles of traditional downland. All this before reaching the great white cliffs of the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head. There are no abrupt transitions marking the end of one section and start of the next. However, it is hard to overlook the changes in landscape along the way.


sheep grazing field at Didling


As a professional walk leader who lives on the Hampshire/West Sussex border, landscape matters. This is because I offer South Downs experiences. However, ‘my’ South Downs is a very different place to the “blunt, bow headed, whale backed downs” of Kipling’s poem out east. The issue I have is conveying this contrast to visitors, who often think the whole park is one large chalk down. Photographs help, but it would be really useful to have a name with which to identify this, and other different areas within the wider park. I thought I might have to make one up, but much to my surprise discovered one already exists – the Western Weald.

Fallen Out Of Fashion

The question is, why had I not already come across this name? Apparently, back to 2008/9 it was on everyone local’s lips, along the lines of ‘are we in or out’ of the proposed National Park. While undeniably beautiful, planners felt the Western Weald was distinctly different from the chalk escarpment that forms the backbone of the Downs, and therefore questioned the validity of its inclusion. It was a hard-fought battle; however, it made it in thanks to the support of people like writer and campaigner Bill Bryson. In an article published in Country Life he wrote that a failure to include the Western Weald in the new park would be a ‘national tragedy’.

Inclusion into the UK’s newest national park has brought us all much-needed protection from development. However, out west it has come at the expense of losing our local identity. Google ‘Western Weald’ today and you will find few entries with a date beyond 2010. The phrase has quite simply fallen out of use. It has been replaced by South Downs National Park at every opportunity.


view from older hill

Natural vs Man-made Borders

As a walker, I feel this is a shame because the name resonates with what my eyes and feet know to be home turf. This is because ‘Western Weald’ is a geographic term fashioned by geology not man. The map below clearly shows the origins of the name with the convergence of Wealden clay and Greensand with the chalk rim of the Downs along the Sussex/Hampshire border. Hills, rivers, mountain ranges, and shorelines make for much more subtle, acceptable, natural dividing lines than any bureaucratic boundaries we draw on a map.


geology map of the western weald


As a national park, the South Downs is not unique in its landscape being diverse. However, other parks have embraced and named their distinct areas. The Peak District has the rugged, heather-clad moorland and soaring gritstone edges of the Dark Peak, alongside the gentler dales, and winding river valleys of the White Peak. Dartmoor too distinguishes between the landscape of the North and South moor. Equally, the individually named lakes and dales of the Lake District and Yorkshire Dales help us visualise their own particular character, scenery, and attractions.

So, if these smaller national parks can identify distinct areas within their whole, why can’t the South Downs, the UK’s longest park? Even notable natural historians of our area from Gilbert White to Dr Peter Brandon have recognised that obvious, natural dividing lines exist. The terms Eastern and Central Downs are often used in the media, but how about popularising the Western Weald and maybe also Hampshire Downs for the section from the Meon Valley across to Winchester?

Beauty Needs An Address

With no clearly defined maps of the different parts of the South Downs, I sketched out what I felt constituted the Western Weald for my own walking purposes. Local wildlife illustrator, Rachel Hudson, then crafted the beautiful map below. I am not holding this out as a definitive map, more a means of starting a conversation. Where do you feel nature naturally divides the landscape of the South Downs National Park, and what names should we give to these areas?

map of the Western Weald

Read Down To Earth for more information about what geology you can find in the Western Weald.

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