Friends of the South Downs Society

Friends of the South Downs


Friends of the South Downs, also known as the South Downs Society is a charitable body with over 1,500 members that works to conserve and enhance the beauty and amenities of the South Downs.

The Friends was founded in 1923 as the Society of Sussex Downsmen to counter the threat of widespread development on the most beautiful parts of the Downs. Now we focus on guided walks and activities, conservation and campaigning.


Guided Walks & Activities

Walkers on Beacon Hill

We organise over 200 interesting and varied walks each year throughout the beautiful South Downs, together with a range of educational coach trips and activities to promote our cultural heritage.


Conservation and Access

Our volunteers and members support projects to help improve access and enjoyment of the landscape and to preserve the South Downs for future generations. Examples of our current projects are South Downs Generations, Stiles and Seats and Mend our Way, and here is a flavour of each:


South Downs Generations

Our involvement in the South Downs Generations project will create a ‘living history’ of the South Downs from the reign of Queen Victoria to the reign of Queen Elizabeth II, a vibrant resource, which we hope will be used by people of all ages for many years to come.

Bignor Post
Stiles and Seats

Style replaced by gate on path down to Lewes from permissive path to Caburn
We have paid to replace stiles on certain paths within the park with kissing gates to help the very many less mobile walkers to use popular paths that are currently impossible for them to use because they cannot climb over stiles.
We have made great progress with the provision of seats on popular paths, and in particular on the South Downs Way. Designs have been to enable installation during 2020.

Mend Our Way

We are pleased with the work we helped to finance to restore a popular section of the South Downs Way between Ditchling Beacon and Lewes. This 1,300m section of the SDW runs along the crest of the Downs with far reaching views across the Weald. It attracts over 80,000 walkers per year. This section is almost completely flat, but water lying on the track caused the surface to quickly degrade. The level of the track has been raised above the surrounding fields to allow a camber to shed water off the track. The track has been built up with natural chalk and strengthened with flint.



Our campaigning work is vital to influence the outcome of planning applications, contributing to local neighbourhood plans, commenting on the emerging plan for the whole of the South Downs National Park and acting as “critical friend”. The last year has given us the opportunity to enhance our policies on climate change as well as responding to the Glover Review and the planned new Environmental Land Management system proposed in the new Agriculture Bill

Our volunteer District Officers oversee around 6500 planning applications each year, 10 times more than any other Park Society due to the pressure on housing/infrastructure in the densely populated South East.
Recent successes include:

  • Soft Sand Quarrying: achieving a reduction in the development of nine Soft Sand Quarries in West Sussex to three.
  • Crowlink: a treasured view of one of the finest landscapes in Britain has been saved following a campaign by conservationists and residents. Campaigners, including the Society, claimed the much loved vista close to the Seven Sisters cliffs, featured in paintings, films and countless photographs, could have been permanently ruined by the building of a road.

Our campaigning work has a long history. The Society’s effort in helping to save the Seven Sisters for the nation remains a significant act in the history of the South Downs. In August 1926, a building syndicate was set up to acquire 475 acres of land at Crowlink Valley (an area immediately inland of the Seven Sisters) for £9,750 to build another Peacehaven there.

After plans to get the land designated as an open space failed, the only way to prevent development was to purchase the land. The Society of Sussex Downsmen (as the Society was for 81 years) launched a public appeal and many events were held to raise funds. One of the most spectacular was the landing of an aeroplane at Birling Gap, piloted by Mr (later Sir) Alan Cobham. Coaches were laid on to see this event which raised a large sum.

Seven Sisters from Seaford Head
Sarsen Stone
However by the last day of the appeal, the Society was still ÂŁ5,000 short of the purchase price of ÂŁ16,450. At the eleventh hour, William Campbell stepped in and lent the money. Later he forewent repayment and had previously donated ÂŁ2,000. His contribution was acknowledged in the Sarsen stone monument at the Flag Staff point.

In due course the land was handed over to the National Trust. Although we may be familiar with this view of the Seven Sisters, would we have wanted it to look like this?



Here is an example of an interesting moment in the Society’s history in 1927: the Sussex Daily News featured this article about our stoolball enthusiasts in a match again the Society of Sussex Wealdmen who still exist today. It would have been likely that the gentlemen of the Downsmen were wearing shepherds smocks, as was their habit in the early days. In fact, we used to have a smock in the office but it has now gone to a museum in Worthing.


Society of Sussex Downsman v men of Sussex, Sir William Bull MP batting (picture courtesy Stoolball England)