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Heart of Britain’s newest landscape treasure

Costa Rica

Just 30 miles SW of London, suburbia cedes to wide rolling Sussex downland, laced with secret wooded valleys. It’s part of Britain’s newest landscape treasure, the South Downs National Park. The writer took a break there, found a museum of bygone buildings, a garden that rose from the 1987 hurricane, and a perfect ruin for the imagination. Photo of Cowdray House, by the writer.

Downs head up

The formal opening of the South Downs National Park in April (2011) brought promotion - in a tourism sense - for Midhurst, the small and amiable town in its heart. Midhurst, on the banks of the river Rother, offers easy browsing among old timber-framed buildings down narrow lanes. Close by is the South Downs long distance trail, and a scattering of pretty, tucked-away villages. We stayed in the centre, at the Angel Inn, where corridors and stairs twist and curl to some haphazard medieval pattern, and bedroom floorboards creak reassuringly - sound effects of 400 years of history. It’s a short walk to the polo at Cowdray Park.

Romantic ruin

Cowdray House, a short step from Midhurst town centre, is one of England's epic ruins. Built by Sir David Owen, Henry VII’s uncle, this Tudor house was the architectural match of many great palaces and country homes of the age. A certain Guy Fawkes had a job there as a footman. Was his employment an omen? In September 1793 Cowdray burnt down. Lottery money came to the rescue in the 2000s. With a rebuild out of the question, they conserved what was left - some glorious walls and a tower (well worth the climb), and re-opened it in 2007. Eloquent bricks - and your own imagination - complement the audio guide. The house features in Anya Seton's Green Darkness.

Speed spectacular

Goodwood, high on the downs above Chichester, celebrates the elegance of the swift. Cars, from F1 to electric, tackle the illustrious Festival of Speed uphill race. And the night we called Chris Evans was DJ at an evening of music and horse racing on that glorious course. Photos of illustrious drivers festoon the walls of the Goodwood Hotel’s Richmond Arms Restaurant - another part of this big sport and leisure centre. The chef uses estate reared produce and ingredients from the local countryside and seashore. Next day for lunch to the Royal Oak, East Lavant. It’s an exceptional village pub, where the food is as good as the beer - “chic yet rustic, with a buzzy atmosphere.”
01243 527 434

Visual visit

Audio guides are so last year. The National Trust presents Petworth House, a vast 17th-century mansion in a 700-acre Capability Brown-landscaped deer park, on an iPod-like device preloaded with a “Talking Guide App” video tour of the house. A presenter conducted us around the fabulous collection, which includes 19 paintings by Turner, as well as works by Van Dyck, Reynolds and Blake, ancient and Neo-classical sculpture, fine furniture and Grinling Gibbons’ carvings. It’s one of the first places to offer this gadget, which lets you view individual items in greater detail. Try to finish by 4.45 to be in time for the button-bursting cream tea.
Saturdays only. 01798 345513

New life for old

Most old buildings standing in the way of “progress” are lost. Just a few make it to safety in places like the Weald and Downland Museum, at Singleton, to be recreated in wide and ample parkland in the Lavant valley. An afternoon’s wander took us past random rescued treasures from the 13th to the 19th century - houses and cottages, barns, a watermill, toll house, market hall and school. But, sorry, no pub. Helpful and not intrusive guides are on hand to drop in helpful detail if you want it. Such as how it must have been one long (if smokey) party in the open hall - with open fire - of the medieval house Bayleaf.

Garden glory

After the devastating 1987 hurricane which struck Southern England, gardeners Jim Buckland and his wife Sarah Wain set about remaking the grounds of West Dean in the South Downs. Their splendid work won the gardens an English Heritage Grade II star listing. Key features include sweeping lawns dotted with venerable trees, and a restored walled kitchen garden with 13 of the finest Victorian glasshouses in the UK, full of exotic flowers, seasonal fruit and vegetables. The 300 ft Edwardian pergola runs across the North Lawn to a sunken garden. The Fruit Garden holds 100 varieties of apples. And it’s a pleasure to end up in the sort of shop where everything is so well chosen and tasteful. 01243 818277.

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