LITTLEHAMPTON: Why go now?
The Arun Valley lies at the heart of the South Downs, amid the lush hills that roll from Horsham to the coast at Littlehampton, where the river Arun meets the sea. In summer the area is flooded with tourists drawn by the castle and antiques shops in Arundel, concerts in Petworth Park and pub-studded walks along the South Downs Way. In spring the hills are quieter and at their most beautiful. Gardens are ablaze with rhododendrons and lilac, the sandy beach at Climping is free of crowds, the fields are a rich green and, best of all, it's still possible to get a table in one of the pretty pub gardens.
Where to stay
Play at the country life at the idyllic Garden Cottage in Binsted, just outside Arundel. Chickens run around, bunnies hop out of the flower beds and the low-beamed thatched cottage has all mod cons. It sleeps four and costs from £583 a week through English Country Cottages (0845 268 0788; english-country-cottages.co.uk). The Old Railway Station (01798 342346; old-station.co.uk) just outside Petworth has more than a touch of old-fashioned glamour: the station building and four Pullman carriages are now elegant bedrooms, with wrought-iron beds and antique furniture (doubles from £99, including breakfast). For country-house chic book into Bailiffscourt (01903 723511; hshotels.co.uk), a medieval-looking mansion that was actually built in the 20s for the Guinness family. Sumptuously comfortable with prices to match, doubles start from £210, with breakfast.
Now is the best time to visit the vibrantly beautiful Leonardslee Gardens (01403 891212; leonardsleegardens.com), close to the source of the River Arun in St Leonards Forest near Horsham. Vivid azaleas and rhododendrons line the lakes, the rock garden is just coming into bloom and there is a new courtyard sculpture garden. If you want some beach action, cross the river at Littlehampton and head for the West Beach and Climping, the longest unbroken stretch of beach in Sussex. The dunes feel unspoilt, but beware: a certain amount of friskiness may be taking place among them. To get away from the crowds, take a bottle of Nutty (see Retail Therapy) and climb up to Chanctonbury Ring, an ancient hill fort on the South Downs Way. On a clear evening, the views are glorious.
Where to eat
The Black Horse at Byworth (01798 342424; theblackhorsebyworth.com) is a 16th-century inn with wooden floors and tables, well-worn bar and rambling garden. The food is modern but hearty: baked goat's cheese, steaks, monkfish, and lipsmacking puddings. Overlooking the Arun estuary at Littlehampton, the East Beach Cafe (01903 731903; eastbeachcafe.co.uk) is housed in an award-winning modern building. Locals, myself included, moan that it looks like something out of the Flintstones, but it serves great locally caught fish and a top burger. Belinda's (13 Tarrant Street) is an Arundel institution, a proper tearoom in a 16th-century building, with homemade cakes to die for.
The perfect pub
The Black Rabbit in the village of Offham (01903 882828) has the best location in the area: outdoor tables on the banks of the Arun have a view across bullrushes to the castle beyond. The pub opened in 1804 and has a certain eccentric charm, but go for the view and the ale, not the food.
The chalky soil of the Sussex Downs is very similar to that of France's Champagne region. Nutbourne Vineyards (01798 815 196; nutbournevineyards.com) just outside Pulborough produces a delicious sparkling wine (sadly called Nutty) and offers free tastings and visits to the vineyard. Ten minutes from Pulborough, the small town of Petworth is a great spot for browsing antiques shops and small galleries. Don't miss Brownrigg Interiors on Pound Street; (brownrigg-interiors.co.uk) with its eclectic mix of furniture, ceramics and glassware from around the world.
Take a hike
The villages of Amberley, Houghton and Bury, clustered on the banks of the river Arun, are the heart of walking country. The South Downs Way runs through Amberley - follow it east up and over the Downs for six miles to Washington or west, past the impressive Roman remains and villa at Bignor, to the pretty village of Cocking (about 12 miles). For a shorter walk you can park at the George & Dragon at Houghton, and walk up to the top of Bury Hill for stunning views across the Downs; retrace your steps and reward yourself with a pint in the pub's pretty garden. From next month, new walking and riding route cards for sections of the South Downs Way will be available to download from nationaltrail.co.uk/southdowns.
Take the family
The Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (01453 891900; wwt.org.uk, adults £8.95, kids £4.50, family ticket £23.95.) in Arundel is great for young kids, with boat safaris, a reed-bed boardwalk and ponds full of aquatic creatures that kids can extract and examine. Nearby Swanbourne Lake has rowing boats for hire, a circular walk and plenty of picnic spots under the trees, overlooking the lake and castle.
• More information at visitsussex.org