Standing on the clifftop above Beachy Head lighthouse, warm sun on my face and flower-splashed grass beneath my feet, I felt I had finally ticked a long overdue box. Far below me, the azure water of the English Channel was retreating from the gleaming chalk cliffs, whilst ahead, the unmistakeable outline of the Seven Sisters rippled towards the horizon, my walking route for the next couple of hours.
This famous stretch of coastline was a geological wonder I’d long wanted to see but never somehow got around to, despite living just a couple of hours away beyond the capital. But I’d always been too busy going to other places until Covid travel restrictions made me take a closer look at UK options. Now I was finally here, it was every bit as good as I’d hoped.
I’ve loved walking my local area during the pandemic, but I always love exploring someone else’s backyard too, and West Sussex ticked all my boxes for an active short break within easy reach of home. So I booked a Monday-to-Friday stay at Abingworth Hall in Thakeham, one of 17 country houses across the UK run by walking specialists HF Holidays.
I have joined guided groups at a number of HF properties and always enjoyed the daily choice of walks and the sociability of other guests, but this time I decided to opt for the flexibility of a self-guided break, travelling with my regular walking companion from home. Friends since school and both only children, Liz and I have been ‘surrogate sisters’ to each other for over 50 years, always up for a new experience, and never short of things to talk about!
Set in large grounds with a lake, Abingworth House is tucked into the rolling South Downs and offers a wide variety of walking options. Independent hikers enjoy the same full-board deal as guided walkers, including cooked breakfast, copious picnic lunch, and a three-course dinner with three choices per course.
I’ve always enjoyed HF food, but the young chef at Abingworth ticked all my boxes for both interesting dishes and attractive presentation. HF have long prided themselves on their choice of Gluten Free fare, and have now added additional Vegetarian and Vegan options to the mix. Monday is Local Food Night and Friday, Chef’s Tasting Menu.
Abingworth also offers a wide choice of walking routes, from short strolls – great for those who want to combine walking with local heritage visits – to full day leg-stretchers. But whilst guided walkers have transport provided at either end of a linear walk, independent walkers must either go for circular trails (from the property itself if you don’t have a car) or be prepared to take public transport at some point.
We tried both options. On day one, we set off from the front door for a delightful circular route of 8.6 miles, passing through rolling farmland to the RSPB reserve at Pulborough Brooks before winding through villages and vineyards. We dropped in at quaint country churches, stopped to snack on scenic benches, and even made friends with an alpaca farmer. The laminated note cards were easy to follow with strategic photos accompanying written directions, and including an OS map section with the trail clearly marked. But having OS maps on a smartphone also enables you to zoom in for even greater accuracy.
A chance conversation with one of the HF group leaders at dinner that night sent us off next day to explore nearby Knepp Wildland. This former farm was taken out of production in February 2000 and is now grazed by traditional livestock such as longhorn cattle, Exmoor ponies and Tamworth pigs. We even saw nesting storks.
Four colour-coded trails wind through the estate on public footpaths and permissive trails, and you can also book onto themed nature safaris. We chose the longest loop, the 6-mile Red route, which left the afternoon free for the spectacular gardens of Parham House near Pulborough, and the vineyard trail at Nutbourne Vineyards. What better way to end an active outdoor day than with a glass of crisp English wine and a bottle or three to take home?
After a spell of changeable weather, the settled forecast for our third and final day was perfect for the coastal section of the South Downs Way (SDW). Everyone at Abingworth seemed to be heading the same way – the guided walkers for their daily walk and the small group tackling the last leg of their SDW adventure. Once again, the note cards we borrowed from HF were impeccable, advising independent ramblers to park at the end of the walk and then catch one of the regular buses towards Eastbourne to pick up the SDW and walk back.
A six-mile loop picks up the SDW west of Beachy Head at Birling Gap, but we opted for the nine-mile circuit over National Trust downland for the chance to experience Beachy Head too. With a soundtrack of meadow birds and 360° views at almost every step, it was a spectacular finish to a packed but relaxing short break.
By the time we checked out on Friday morning, Liz and I had covered around 35 miles on foot, averaging 25,000 steps on each of our three full days. And with only a modest homeward journey ahead of us, we had time to enjoy a last morning in Arundel, just 25 minutes by car from Abingworth – pre-booking essential at time of writing for the castle and fabulous formal gardens.
So would we do another self-guided walking break through HF? Most definitely. We loved the flexibility to combine walking with heritage and garden visits at our own pace, whilst based in a relaxed hotel that is totally geared up for outdoor adventurers. And you can, of course, still be sociable with other guests around the property.
Liz and I talked all the way home – no surprise there – reliving our fun-filled break and planning the next one. Uplands or lowlands? Coast or countryside? Britain has so much to offer, and we fully intend to put some more ticks against our To-Do list.
Silver Travel Advisor recommends HF Holidays.