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Exmoor or South Downs for walking, end of March

We are hoping to be able to travel to Italy in March 2022. We fly British Airways and like to include some time in the UK on the way there or back: some time in London and some time walking in the countryside. For the latter, we like to book a guided walking holiday with HF Holidays at one of their country houses. For our time frame in March, the options I like are Exmoor, near the village of Selworthy, or South Downs, near Thakeham.

I can view photos of the scenery online, and both look lovely. I am attracted as much to the feral ponies of Exmoor as the chalk cliffs of the South Downs area. Does one tend to have better weather than the other in springtime? Particularly with respect to strong winds? Any other considerations I should know about?

Thank you for your help. And yes, I am booking refundable flights, and will wait to book anything non-refundable until we have a better sense of travel realities in 2022.

Posted by
151 posts

The south east generally tends to be drier than the rest of the country BUT there is no guarantee to the English weather...

Posted by
4341 posts

The further west you are, the wetter and windier it will be, so Exmoor will generally fare worse than the South Downs. Exmoor, being further from London maybe quieter, but both places should be quiet in March.

Eaton, Exmoor is currently 5 degrees (10.15 am) and Thakeham is 8 degrees. It’s been a wet and windy week here with gale force winds. March wouldn’t be my choice for a walking holiday anywhere in the U.K.! I am currently further north and we had a little snow yesterday.

The South Downs are easier to get to from the London airports. Both areas have very pleasant countryside and pretty villages. I have always had more luck seeing wild ponies in Dartmoor and the New Forest than Exmoor.

You can’t go wrong with either area.

Posted by
4210 posts

The South Downs is more likely to have better weather than Exmoor but there's not a great deal in it. The South Downs is a relatively new National Park and encompasses a large area containing a number of towns and villages. I walk my dog in various locations in the South Downs daily and there's a great variety of walks, landscapes and visitor attractions. Whilst Thakeham itself isn't in the park it's not far from it.

There are some recently introduced wild ponies on to Butser Hill http://www.westsussex.info/south-downs-way-butser.shtml but they're only a small group and they're contained to the top of the hill by way of fencing. For a more wilder pony experience the New Forest is an excellent option and isn't far from the western boundary of the South Downs National Park.

We're currently mid March and I kept to the coast today as there were gales, I wouldn't fancy being on the higher slopes of the Downs. I was climbing Butser last week and the weather was brutal, strong winds and driving rain, even the dog couldn't wait to get back to the car. A couple of years ago we had significant snow around this time whereas last year it was unseasonably warm so come prepared for all possibilities.

Posted by
11904 posts

Thank you both very much; this is vey helpful. It sounds like the temperatures are similar to what we have here in Seattle now (4 to 10 degrees the past few days). We have good clothing for cold and wet, so it is wind that mainly concerns me. The South Downs area looks so exposed in the photos, I surmised it might be windy there.

The actual dates would be 21-25 March for South Downs, or 28 March to 1 April for Exmoor. There are other options available, including Peak District, Western or Southern Yorkshire Dales and Northumberland, but I feel we should avoid going north this early in spring. I have had good luck with the weather in March in southern England on previous trips, including a glorious sunny day on the Salisbury Plain spent reading with my back propped against a stone at Stonehenge in 1967 (before it was fenced). But of course luck can always change!

There is also a Brecon Beacons ( Wales) option, not as far north as the others, but still north of Exmoor. They don't seem to be offering their country house at St. Ives, my original choice, at all in March. I suppose that says something about the weather way out west in Cornwall?

Posted by
2640 posts

The distances between places in Great Britain are pretty short by U.S. standards, and I wouldn't judge the anticipated temperatures by how far north you go, unless you're talking about Scotland vs. the south of England. Exmoor is only about 25 miles further north than the South Downs. That's shorter than the north-south distance between Seattle and Tacoma. You wouldn't expect March weather to be more balmy in Tacoma than in Seattle, right? But, as others have pointed out, the west tends to get more rain and heavy winds.

Also, a word about the feral ponies. I've never seen them myself, but a B&B owner in Cornwall once warned me, "If you go to Dartmoor, watch out for the ponies -- they bite!"

Posted by
4210 posts

Exmoor is much more open and exposed in comparison to the South Downs. The South Downs National Park encompasses a wide variety of environments and there are plenty of woodland walks as there are hill walks so if wind is a concern then there is always the option to take a walk somewhere a bit less exposed. A good example of this is Kingley Vale nature reserve, https://www.greatbritishbucketlist.com/kingley-vale-walk/. This is a great walk that takes in a lot of wooded area including the best example of a yew tree population in Europe and up to the top of the hill amongst some Bronze Age burial mounds and some excellent views. You can follow trails down the other side of the hill to the small village of Stoughton where there is a very well preserved, and still used, Saxon church.

I would also recommend a visit to nearby Petworth if you're in Thakeham. Petworth House is now looked after by the National Trust and has a superb collection of art and is a fascinating place to visit, hopefully the house will be open in 2022. The village of Petworth itself is a lovely, compact place full of antique shops (serious antiques, it's a main hub for London dealers), tea rooms and delicatessans selling excellent local produce. https://discoverpetworth.uk/

Posted by
4210 posts

To add to the South Downs appeal here is a quote from Helen Gordon's book 'Notes from Deep Time':

If you want to witness the effects of the inexorable motions of continents, “just go for a walk on the South Downs (the African plate crashing into the Eurasian plate)”. It’s the collision of continental plates that released nutrients crucial to the evolution of life.