Quest for Britain's Holy Ale

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.

(Tara Donne)

The Perfect Pint. The aroma, the color, the head it forms when poured just right—it's not just the smoky-sweet taste that makes Harveys Best Bitter some beer lovers' ultimate drink

My 10-day trip was a quest to track down the perfect pint.

Somewhere in the misty highlands above Lewes, I'd been told, was a farm where a country vicar brews a very good ale. But it had been more than two hours since I'd left the gates of the medieval market town, following a centuries-old chalk footpath. As the trail rose above castle turrets and zigzagged through upland pastures, a thick fog descended, transforming the springtime greens of the Sussex countryside into an eerie—and gorgeous—gray and white.

I was on the verge of turning back when a hunting dog lurched out of the fog, followed by a heavyset man. "Haven't heard of the farm or the vicar," the man said, "but this path goes down to Ditchling, where Vera Lynn lives. Remember her? She sang 'We'll Meet Again' and 'White Cliffs of Dover.' Must be in her 90s now, but she's still there tottering on, bless her."

For lovers of hiking and history, the South Downs are a wonderland of Iron Age hill forts, castle ruins, and medieval villages whose time—tilted inns have hosted travelers since the Norman invasion. Rising above a busy corner of the world, the Downs offer some of England's most peaceful and appealing geography, a gently rolling countryside of farms punctuated by small woodlands and large herds of sheep. The 100-mile South Downs Way, a footpath and bridleway near Britain's south coast, is the centerpiece of South Downs National Park, the newest link in the U.K. network. There was clearly a part of me that wished I would stumble upon my younger self in England, the more adventurous and impetuous me buried under the swirling dust of my adult life.

But I didn't come here for the scenery-or the charmingly quirky locals, for that matter. My 10-day trip was a quest to track down a long-lost love, and I'd hoped that elusive brewmaster of a vicar could show me the way.

For a Midwesterner nursed on Anheuser-Busch, that maiden pint of Harveys Sussex Best Bitter was a revelation.

I took my first sip of ale at 22, a few weeks after graduating from college and deciding to sell my car and buy a one-way ticket to post-punk London. For a Midwesterner nursed on Anheuser-Busch, that maiden pint of Harveys Sussex Best Bitter was a revelation. Fresh-hopped and smoky sweet, the flavors splashed across my tongue in waves: first the gritty taste of grain, then a blast of clearing hops. Someone had put a whole lot of love into this beer, I thought. From that moment on, I was determined to love it right back.

Still, it took me 25 years to make another pilgrimage to Sussex—work, kids, the usual—and by then the trail had gone cold. My journey had been made more difficult thanks to the diminished state of the traditional English pub. According to the British Beer and Pub Association, pubs in the U.K. have been closing at the rate of 28 a week, victims of changing tastes and high beer taxes. Of course, you can still find a pint. With 52,000 pubs, there's one for every 120 or so Brits. But more and more often, you have to brave a "gastropub," the kind of establishment that puts more stock in its pheasant breast and crème brûlée than stocking a decent selection of beer.

I started at Lewes's St. Thomas-a-Becket Church—after all, he was the patron saint of brewers.

So for my mission, I started at Lewes's St. Thomas-a-Becket Church—after all, he was the patron saint of brewers. Architecturally, well-preserved Lewes is one of England's gems; the town dates back to the 9th century, when it served as a Saxon fort overlooking the river Ouse. Culturally, the town is known for its history of creative defiance. Once infamous for its riotous Bonfire Boys societies, Lewes was also home to the novelist Virginia Woolf and the revolutionary Thomas Paine. Paine's 1776 pamphlet Common Sense was instrumental in convincing American colonists to toss out King George III.

But it was a current resident I wanted to visit most: Harveys Brewery. Crossing the iron swing bridge leading out of town over the river Ouse, I paused to watch steam tumbling out of the brewery's vents. For a moment, I considered bowing toward the red-brick building that houses it. "I've actually seen people do it," head brewer Miles Jenner said, greeting me at the loading dock. "As you might imagine, that creates a rather daunting responsibility." Jenner led me into a room stacked high with bags of pale malt and bins of whole-leaf hops. I scooped up handfuls of Fuggles and Goldings hop cones, which coated my hands with an oily aroma that clung to me, like a welcome natural air freshener, all day.

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.


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.


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.


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.


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.

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Note:This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.

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