Britain's South Downs National Park has stunning views, mysterious artifacts, and literary roots. Less celebrated (but no less important): It's got terrific beer. We sent our writer on a 10-day trip to track down the perfect pint.
Whether I crossed paths with that perfect pint—and whether it even existed—seemed less important with each day I spent discovering the landscapes and history of the South Downs.
I had been roaming in the South Downs for nearly a week, and I'd put away a lot of very good beer. But the notion that I might find a mainline to my memories in a foamy glass was beginning to seem unlikely. Then again, it occurred to me that the act of looking might be at least as worthwhile, perhaps more so, than the payoff itself. Whether I crossed paths with that perfect pint—and whether it even existed—seemed less important with each day I spent discovering the landscapes and history of the South Downs.
I had mostly given up when I detoured off the trail to the village of Salehurst to meet hop farmer Andrew Hoad, who cultivates the flowers that bitter Harveys beers. As we headed toward his fields, passing his distinctive witch's-hat oast house where the hops are dried, Hoad told me that he almost retired after a devastating wilt destroyed his crop two years in a row. We walked out between hedges, where rows of chin-high plants were twisting around vertical lengths of twine, climbing toward wires strung overhead. "Just about everything in hops has its own terminology," Hoad said. "They're bines, not vines. They're grown in gardens, not fields. The blooming part is called a cone, not a flower."
Could it be—the perfect pint?
By the time we arrived back at Hoad's house, built in 1340, the sky was clearing. It was the first trace of blue I'd seen in days. Together, we walked down the hill to his local pub, the Salehurst Halt. With the weather clearing, at least half the village had converged at the Halt. The crowd was in high spirits, talking and relaxing at the picnic tables in the garden and under bouquets of hop flowers hanging from the beams. Hoad made his way through the throng and came back with a round of Harveys Best Bitter, the same almost-but-not-quite-perfect beer I'd had at the beginning of the trip. We raised our glasses to the evening, and as I took my first sip, drawing the ale in through a lace of closely packed bubbles, I felt a shudder. It was exactly as I remembered it 25 years ago: smooth and grainy, with a breaking wave of hops so fresh that the beer might have been drawn through Hoad's hop garden. Could it be—the perfect pint? Perhaps. Or maybe I'd finally come to the place in my journey where I could savor the moment—the people, the pub, the buoyant atmosphere—along with the beer.
England's south downs way is a wonderland for lovers of hiking and history. But at 100 miles, it's not always a walk in the national park. Fortunately, there's a section to suit explorers of all sizes.
FOR BOOK LOVERS Winchester to Exton: Twelve miles of gentle hills rising to open countryside. Winchester was home to Jane Austen. She's buried in Winchester Cathedral, though her original headstone made no mention of her novels. Where to stay: Giffard House, 50 Christchurch Rd., Winchester, giffardhotel.co.uk, from $145.
FOR HEARTY HIKERS Cocking to Amberley: Twelve hilly miles connecting farms and woods. Despite the slightly heavy terrain, there are plenty of rewards to be found, including the Amberley Village Tea Room (the Square Amberley, Arundel, amberleyvillagetearoom.co.uk, cream tea for two, $13), which makes its scones and tea cakes with local ingredients. Where to stay: Woodybanks B&B, Crossgates, Amberley, woodybanks.co.uk, from $49.
FOR HISTORY BUFFS Upper Beeding to Pyecombe: Eight rolling miles along the Adur River valley and overlooking greater Brighton. Landmarks stud the route, including the remnants of 13th-century salt-making equipment in Saltings Field, now a wildlife conservation area. Devil's Dyke, the deepest dry valley in Britain, is known for its views and its hill forts. Where to stay: Downs View B&B, St. Austell, High St., Upper Beeding, upperbeeding.com, from $120.
FOR CHILDREN Southease to Alfriston: Seven miles first up, then down, all gentle. A popular section to bike (cuckmere-cycle.co.uk, rentals $150 per day for a family of five), this route also passes Drusillas Park (drusillas.co.uk, from $55 for a family of four), the best small zoo in the country. Where to stay: Riverdale House, Seaford Rd., Alfriston, riverdale house.co.uk, from $130.