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.
I'd begun to realize that my search for the perfect beer represented something bigger than a mere drink.
Jenner and I then walked across the cobbled street to the John Harvey Tavern, to sample the product. "Two pints of Best," Jenner told the young barman. As we watched him pump it up from the cellar, I braced for my long-awaited reunion. "Let me give you the second one out," Jenner said, sliding the pint over. "I think it's always just a little better." It was very good—as smooth as I remembered it, with an earthy yeastiness and a fresh bitterness. But it didn't blow me away the way I remembered. Maybe it was the cold I was nursing. Or maybe I'd begun to realize that my search for the perfect beer represented something bigger than a mere drink. There was clearly a part of me that wished I would stumble upon my younger self in England, the more adventurous and impetuous me who was buried under the swirling dust of my adult life. A rather daunting responsibility to ask from a pint of beer indeed.
That afternoon, I made my way up to the town's magnificent 11th-century castle, stronghold of the First Earl of Surrey, a brother-in-law of William the Conqueror. I took my time ambling down the narrow backstreets called "twittens," stopping into antiques shops and rare-book dealers tucked into crooked wood-and-stone buildings shaded by sprawling beeches. Then I took off for my odyssey on the South Downs Way.
I took off for my odyssey on the South Downs Way.
Walking the gently undulating trail was fairly easy, despite the daily downpours. I saw few people (the lousy weather?), but I could feel the weight of history. At Bignor Hill, the trail traces the path of the Roman road from Chichester to London, dating from a.d. 70. Near Ditchling, the trail, cutting deep into the chalk, dates back 6,000 years to the Stone Age. Crossing the Ouse again at Rodmell, I paused at the spot where Woolf drowned herself in 1941 by walking into the river with her pockets full of stones.
One day, I found myself hiking in the unbelievably green Cuckmere Valley when I walked past the trail leading to Berwick. Backtracking through the low weald-a term descended from an ancient Saxon word meaning "wild, wooded hills"—I looked up and saw a 226-foot-high figure of a man with a staff in each hand watching over me. Suddenly, I realized that I had passed the Long Man of Wilmington before, on a weekend trip from London 25 years earlier. Stymied by the unexpected flashback, I spotted the Cricketers Arms, a flint stone cottage pub. I approached through a brightly flowered garden and opened the door to a series of rooms thick with conviviality. Sitting next to a crackling fire with a pint of Timothy Taylor's Landlord and some chunks of strong Stilton cheese, I began to reconsider the whole notion of a perfect pint. Maybe it wasn't the beer at all. Maybe it had more to do with the drinker's mood or the quality of companionship. Or was it something beyond the reach of language and intellect, such as the atmosphere of the pub itself?
As I traveled from village to village, I scribbled geeky "tasting notes" in my notebook.
As I traveled from village to village, I scribbled geeky "tasting notes" in my notebook: At the Chequer Pub in Steyning, I had pints of Ringwood's Old Thumper (soft and meaty). At the Bridge Inn in Shoreham, I shook the rain off my jacket and sampled Cottage Western Arches (clean and mellow; a bit light in body and bitterness). I found myself sitting next to a poodle perched on his own bar stool while I discussed the weather with the dog's elderly companion. At Shoreham's Red Lion Inn, I drank Hepworth Iron Horse (tangy and abundantly carbonated) and chatted with the pub's owner, Natalie Parker, about the ghost who is said to haunt the premises. "Sometimes, he'll tap me on the shoulder late at night when I'm sweeping up," she joked, ducking under low, blackened beams laid in the 16th century. "It's more of a nuisance than a fright." As I approached the pretty village of Alfriston, on the banks of the Cuckmere River, the patchwork of farmers' fields and beech woods gave way to bigger, more dramatic landscapes. I climbed along the chalk ridge to Beachy Head, where the trail coasts atop white cliffs that soar more than 500 feet over the surf below. This is one of the most dramatic stretches of coastline in southern England, with top-of-the-world views every bit as striking as those found at Dover, 75 miles to the east.
After spending a morning leaning into 50-knot gusts, I practically fell through the thatched roof at the Tiger Inn. In need of a bracing pick-me-up, I asked for the thickest, darkest thing on tap. Publican Charlie Davies-Gilbert, who recently started a brewery in a nearby barn, brought a pint of Parson Darby's Hole, named for a 17th-century minister who set lanterns in the caves along the cliffs to warn sailors about the rocks. "I imagine him sitting in the cave, getting the sailors he'd saved drunk," Davies-Gilbert said.
Trail Guide: South Downs
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.
What does it feel like to live in the Coolest Small Town in America? Ask the folks in Grand Marais, Minnesota, who earned the top spot in our 10th annual contest. Their town showed us the perfect blend of edgy, sweet, beautiful, and travel-worthy that adds up to “cool” in our book. Read on to stoke your wanderlust.