Long ago the hills and valleys of West Sussex were thick with trees. Not just pockets of woodland as they are now but almost everywhere. The oak was the king of the forest and the beech his queen. While we have lost much of these forests – they were cleared to make way for farmland hundreds of years ago – West Sussex is still one of the most wooded areas in England with a rich diversity of plant and animal species. Step into these ancient woodlands and be transported to a land where time stands still, and nature thrives. Read on to learn about my favourite woodland walks in West Sussex, in the spring, summer, autumn and winter.
The best woodland walks in West Sussex throughout the year
Escape to our woods and immerse yourself in the lush greenery, amongst the towering trees. Let your senses come alive as you wander through the dappled sunlight, listening to the gentle rustling of leaves and the melodic chirping of birds. Discover hidden treasures around every corner, from ancient tree trunks cloaked in moss to vibrant wildflowers carpeting the forest floor
Traditional broadleaf, mainly deciduous trees such as oak, beach, and hazel, account for about half of today’s woodlands in the county. The remaining 50% consists of evergreen coniferous trees and open scrub woodland. And throughout these ancient woodlands, a network of paths crisscross the landscape.
Some of the pathways are hundreds of years old, public rights of way that the landowners must respect such as the ancient drovers’ lanes where once shepherds herded their sheep as they moved between pastures. One such path, Tinwood Lane in Halnaker, north of Chichester, still has some remnants of the now crumbling red bricks that once covered it. Another drovers’ lane is called Puck Lane and leads you through Nore Wood, more on that later.
Whether you’re an avid hiker, a nature enthusiast, or simply seeking a peaceful escape from the hustle and bustle of everyday life, the ancient woodlands of West Sussex offer a sanctuary like no other. Connect with the natural world, relax and unwind and create lasting memories amidst the timeless charm of these sacred woods.
Spring Woodland Walks in West Sussex
A favourite time of the year for exploring the Sussex woodlands is when bluebells blanket the ground beneath the trees each April and May. At this time of year, cowslips, primroses and early purple orchids also line many of the woodland paths.
Near me, Slindon Woods is one of the best-known places to see the bluebells, but I prefer the woodlands in the hills above Fairmile Bottom Nature Reserve just north of the village of Slindon. Here you’ll most likely have the woods all to yourselves.
Park in one of several laybys on the A29 between Slindon and Whiteways roundabout and head through Fairmile Bottom Nature Reserve up into Dalesdown Wood.
Nore Wood, pictured above, between Slindon Woods and Eartham Woods is also a magical place to explore any time of year, but especially in bluebell season. Park in Eartham by The George pub and enjoy a refreshing pint or a bite to eat on your return. In Spring, look out for Early Purple Orchids too.
Summer Woodland Walks in West Sussex
In the summer, the woods provide welcome shade on hotter days and flowers such as honeysuckle and dog rose bloom.
One of my favourite summer walks in West Sussex is Kingley Vale. Here you’ll find a nature trail that leads you through ancient yew groves, through a small valley and up onto the hilltops of the Southdowns. The views are spectacular. On a clear day, you can see the Isle of Wight. A series of ancient burial mounds lie on the top of the hill. But be warned, the climb out of the valley to the burial mounds is not for the faint-hearted.
From here, the path leads back down through the trees to form a circular route of about 3 miles. I’ve seen a few different species of orchids on this section of the route.
The largest of the yew trees, found near the start of the trail, are twisted and gnarled and may well be over a thousand years old. This really is a magical place, sacred to some including the small gathering of Druids that celebrate Pagan festivals here eight times a year. I was lucky enough to join them at the summer solstice for a very moving ceremony amongst the ancient yews.
There’s a small car park on Downs Road just outside the village of West Stoke, about a mile from the nature reserve. It’s best to arrive early in the day if heading there at the weekend.
Autumn Woodland Walks in West Sussex
When autumn arrives, the trees look glorious in their fall finery in shades of ochre, rust and gold and no end of species of mushrooms can be found.
The best time to see the autumn colours varies from year to year depending on the weather. October into November is probably your best bet.
The woodlands around Swanbourne Lake in Arundel are one of my favourite places to walk at this time of year.
There’s a small car park east of the Arundel Castle off London Road. From here you can walk along the tarmacked lane to Hiorne Tower where you cross the grass past the tower and enter Swanbourne Park, a natural valley where the hillsides are covered in trees. Admire the view before following the path down to Swanbourne Lake which you can walk around before heading back up to Hiorne Tower.
Winter Woodland Walks in West Sussex
Though many trees are bare of leaves, winter can still be a magical time for walking in the woodlands, especially on a bright, crisp sunny day.
Primroses can flower as early as late December, and lesser celandine, a member of the buttercup family, with its shiny star-like yellow flowers carpet forest floors between January and May.
Some footpaths can become very muddy, especially in winter, or even flooded. The paths along the banks of the River Arun while stunning are particularly muddy in winter.
Did you know the Sussex dialect had over 30 words for mud including clodgy, gubber, slub and swank?
The 700 acres at Petworth Park, a National Trust stately home and deer park, are open every day of the year. There are several walking routes here ranging from 1 mile to 4 miles which lead you through historic woodlands. Look out for a 300-year-old Beelzebub’ oak, a lime tree that’s over 500 years old, some 600-year-old sweet chestnuts and fallow deer.
Woodland Wildlife in West Sussex
Rabbits, hares, squirrels, birds, butterflies and other insects are amongst the most likely animals you may see on a walk in the Sussex countryside. You’ll no doubt hear more birds than you’ll actually see such as the chiffchaff or blackbird. Download the free bird song identifier app, BirdNET, available for Android and iOS users. it’s not infallible, but I’ve found it very useful at pinpointing what birds I can hear.
You might also see foxes, and if you are patient and time it right, even badgers. The largest mammals in our woodlands, however, are the deer. In the woodlands near me in the southwest of West Sussex, three species of deer can be spotted amongst the trees, although they can be somewhat elusive. Roe deer are native to our woodlands, but you may also see fallow deer and if you are very fortunate the shy little muntjac. The fallow and muntjac can be a bit of a nuisance munching on the bluebells. You’re most likely to see deer in the early mornings or just before dusk.
Above: male red deer, below: roe deer – both taken at Knepp in West Sussex
Other species you might see elsewhere in Sussex include red deer, silka deer, and the Chinese waterbuck. The red deer is also indigenous to Britain. Fallow deer were probably introduced during the Norman period, while muntjac, Chinese water deer and silka deer were introduced in the 19th and 20th centuries.
Country Pubs in West Sussex
There are plenty of excellent traditional pubs dotted around the Sussex countryside to revive you during or after your walk. The George in Eartham is particularly good and has several lovely woodland walking routes nearby. In my opinion, they do the best roast dinner in the county!
The Gribble Inn is another favourite of ours. It’s a few miles east of Chichester and is a short drive from the South Downs National Park. As well as great food they serve a wonderful section of beers from their own microbrewery.
Buy an Ordnance Survey Map
To find more great walking trails (and pubs) just check out the local Ordnance Survey map (OL10 covers all the walks mentioned here) and you’ll soon discover many more routes to explore. Look out for the blue pint mug on the map to indicate a pub but they aren’t all marked on the map so I’d have a look on Google Maps too.
If you want to discover local history, hear tales of dragons, learn about foraging and more, then join me on a guided walk.
Hello, I’m the writer, photographer, and walking guide, behind Sussex Walks. I was born in West sussex and have lived here all my life (apart from a few years in Bristol while at university studying Zoology, Botany and Psychology).