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It may seem strange that one of the most familiar areas of countryside in Britain has only just received the highest form of protection available to natural landscapes.

But that's what happened in April this year, when the final part of a decade-long project was completed and the South Downs National Park became fully operational.

The main feature of the UK's newest national park is, as the name implies, the South Downs, a range of rolling chalky hills that rise near Winchester to end dramatically at the white cliffs of Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters near Eastbourne.

I first came to love this area in the late 1990s while following the longdistance trail known as the South Downs Way. On return visits I've always found the views consistently astounding and the classic English countryside unfailingly pretty, but an extra bonus is the South Downs' intriguing and sometimes hidden past. Go anywhere in the park, and you're never far from an Iron Age fort, Roman villa, medieval village or a quirky slice of history, like Chanctonbury Ring - a former hill fort and site of Roman temples now discernible by a landmark copse of trees. Many of these were planted in 1760 and reputedly watered by hand until the saplings had become fully established in the dry chalky soil.

National park status brings a higher profile to the South Downs, visited by around 40 million people each year. Avoid the busiest weekends, or walk a mile from the car park and you can still enjoy the big-sky vistas - and the sense of history - undisturbed.

David Else is the co-author of Lonely Planet’s Britain and England guides. He lives in the Cotswolds.

This article was published in partnership with Lonely Planet Magazine.

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