The South Downs Way: Day 6 – Southease to Eastbourne

(23rd April 2016 – 17 miles + 3 additional miles)

And so my final day on the South Downs Way; and if I had whinged and moaned about the weather yesterday, somebody took note.  It was cold, it was windy but the sun shone and I had more photogenic fluffy clouds than I could shake a stick at.  I also had Jim, my partner, for company and later our friend Annie would join us too.

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Jim and I packed our day-sacks, slammed the front door, walked the mile to the station, sveltely hopped on to a train and a few minutes later sveltely hopped off again at Southease.

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The SDW leading to Itford Hill

It was about 8.30 as we crossed the footbridge over the A26 and began the first of today’s dozen climbs.

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Years ago, the path bounded to the top of Itford Hill in one straight, punishing leap.  But countless feet and mountain bikes cut deep into the thin downland soil.  To ease that erosion, the route was diverted to a longer, slower, curved farm track.  This better shows off the Ouse valley, with views – 3½ miles distant – of Lewes at the northern end of the valley:

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though we need my zoom lens to see the market town and castle clearly.

Southease Village

Swiveling my lens across the valley, Southease village looked a lot less gloomy, a little more welcoming than the day before.

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As I fiddled with my camera, Jim surged on up the hill and I ran, muttering, to catch up.

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To our right, where the Ouse meets the sea, lies Newhaven.  The Ouse originally found the sea at nearby Seaford but a huge storm in 1579 blocked the estuary and diverted the river westward.  A new harbour was built at ‘New Haven’ and Seaford, no longer a port, slipped quietly into relative penury and obscurity … until the coming of the railway and its rebirth as a seaside resort.

Beddingham Hill

Beyond Itford Hill, our next target was the telecommunication masts on Beddingham Hill

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which they really, really don’t want you to play on.

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Nearby, an abandoned harrow has been adapted as a makeshift bench.  It sits nicely here, high up on the Downs and if it wasn’t purposefully placed, it ought to have been.

South Downs Way Southease to Eastbourne (7)

Close to my home, this seven mile stretch between Southease and Alfriston is my favourite part of the ‘Way with huge skies over the Downs, English Channel and Weald.  Soft grass underfoot and extensive views all about, make this the very best of Downland walking.

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For most of my walk the trilling of skylarks had been a constant but I rarely saw a lark other than as a black, climbing speck far above my head.  A shame really as close up they are a pretty, little thing.

Horseriders on the South Downs

Today was Saturday and the path was fairly busy;

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but even so we had long sections to ourselves and very occasionally, when Jim paused for breath, I even managed to slip a word or two into the conversation.

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“As God is my witness, I’ll never be hungry again!”

Animals can be so darn melodramatic: a ewe over-eggs her Scarlett O’Hara audition;

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and these two ponies put on a magnificent,

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if alarming,

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definition of ‘horseplay’.

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After they’d calmed their spring-time exuberance, the ponies were safe to walk amongst and for Jim to pet. (His hat was knitted by his Mum and I wore its matching, green twin … which I’m not going to show you).

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Some of these ponies are semi-wild Exmoor ponies and have been introduced to graze on invasive grass species as well as young gorse, bramble and blackthorn.  The ponies help to maintain the close-cropped, chalk-turf habitat and halt its natural inclination toward scrub and eventual forest.  There’s more information about the use of these natural lawn mowers – here.

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Alfriston

Ideally, every walk should include a mid-morning snack destination and ours was the village of Alfriston.

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With our stomachs gurgling for want of pie, I didn’t spend too long studying a goldfinch;

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before we fair galloped down to the village.  At the shop, Jim bought coffee and superb sausage rolls and coming out passed a famous, cross-dressing artist going in.  A little later, the famous, cross-dressing artist joined us on our bench and chatted.  It was nicely reassuring somehow that he didn’t allude to who he was; and we didn’t let on that we knew, he knew, that we knew who he was.  That the famous, cross-dressing artist was wearing muddy cycling garb rather than a shepherdess dress, lipstick and rouge made the whole episode more relaxed than it might otherwise have been.  As did me not asking for a group selfie.

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Stuffed with sausage, we passed through the village, bumped into one of Jim’s Ladies of Alfriston (for whom he gardens) and then pulled away along the banks of the River Cuckmere. (From Alfriston there is a choice of routes to Eastbourne.   If you’re pedalling or on horse-back you must take the more mundane inland bridleway via Jevington.  But if you’re on foot, and don’t mind the extra hills, there is really only one way to go: Cuckmere Haven and the Seven Sisters coastal path).

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Heading south toward the sea, we glanced at the Litlington White Horse – but only glanced.  It is modern, cut in 1924 and not particularly accomplished, as the legs testify. We strolled on through the village of Litlington and dived into Friston Forest.

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There’s a mile or so of woodland before West Dean village, followed by an evil flight of steps.

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At the top, we emerged from the trees above Cuckmere Haven: the meandering end to the river.  Here I met the only other full-back-packed hiker on the ‘Way.  He had set out this morning from Eastbourne and looked knackered, frankly.  We compared notes and I wished him well for his remaining day’s walk to Rodmell.  He looked so tired, I didn’t have the heart to tell him that, in my opinion, he was walking the path in the wrong direction.  I’m quite kind like that.

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It was above the Haven that friend Annie (the best cook I know) was waiting and, after hugs, the three of us set out on the last seven miles to path’s end.

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With a large car-park, and easily reached by bus from either Eastbourne or Brighton, the Haven is always busy and especially so on a fine Saturday.  Between here and Eastbourne was the busiest section on the South Downs Way.

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Often, as we three walked along, I’d lag behind to photo something or other – like this white egret (which couldn’t be bothered to face the camera).

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The coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Haven are world-famous, if not particularly from this angle.  I guarantee however that you will recognise them from the west:

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November 2011

Thought so.  The view from above the cottages looking east also shows off the Seven Sisters better and the exhilarating climax of the SDW.

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Between Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap, the Seven Sisters present a tiring challenge.  Each of the Sisters is named:

  1. Haven Brow
  2. Short Brow
  3. Rough Brow
  4. Brass Point
  5. Flat Hill
  6. Bailey’s Hill
  7. Went Hill

and each, of course, is a stiff climb.

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After Birling Gap, there are two further climbs before The End.  A nine-hill, afternoon finale then and I was grateful for a lightweight day-sack; and my five days of ‘training’.

Here are a few snaps from along the cliff tops:

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an up, a down, an up;

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an interesting pose, if not one I needed to emulate;

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chalk deposits turn the Channel to milk;

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the cliffs are very white because of regular land-slip and collapse;

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and the cliff-edge is friable and unstable – though many visitors fail to realise the very real danger;

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a breather on one of the hills;

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another in a dip;

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startling colour on the skyline;

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and brooding cloud over the sea.  We stopped for coffee and big cake at the Birling Gap Café, before pushing on to Belle Tout Lighthouse, on the penultimate hill.

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Famously, in 1999 the lighthouse was jacked up and dragged 165 feet inland.  In danger of tumbling into the sea, it was thought that pulling it back from the receding cliff edge would save the building for another 170 years.  18 down, 152 to go.

Belle Tout Lighthouse

If you have the cash, Belle Tout is a non-cheap B&B with, on a sunny day, intimate views of an almost constant human crocodile.

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After the first lighthouse, we approached the second and began the very final climb of the day – and the very final climb of the South Downs Way too – to the top of Beachy Head.  At 531 feet it is the highest chalk cliff in Britain.

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From the Head the view back along the Sisters is glorious and if the sun had been intermittent for the last couple of hours, it kindly returned for this dramatic ending.

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Each year, approximately twenty people leap to their death from Beachy Head.  Small crosses on the precipice commemorate some of them.

This is a stunning finish and as good as that of any English National Trail (if you can think of a better one, I can’t).

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Satisfied, tired, a little achey we descended toward Eastbourne.

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It was a quick mile to the official end of the path and confirmation that I had completed 100 miles from King Alfred’s statue in Winchester (though with extras, I actually walked 112 miles in the six days).

South Downs Way End

Some people would have you believe that Eastbourne is the start to this path.  Don’t listen to them.  The South Downs Way is a much better path walked west to east; and to my mind, Eastbourne is most definitely The End.

We had a further two miles of pavement bashing to our bus-stop; a scenic top-deck trip back along the coast; a brief walk home and a very cold bottle of Chablis.

My nerdish compulsion to complete, for the first time, all of the ‘Way in one attempt had been satisfied.  And my conviction that this is as good a path as you’ll find in England held true.  Generally, the weather had been excellent and I hope the same holds true for you.

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Hanging on a wall at home, we have a 1950s travel poster called ‘Downland  Rambles’.  The poster is of the above scene; though the artist has cheated somewhat by twisting and folding the perspective to bring the two lighthouses closer together; and to show more road, more white cliffs.  Gazing at this poster had helped me decide which long distance footpath I wanted to walk in 2016.

Downland Rambles

It proved a grand choice.

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The South Downs Way: Day 5 – Pyecombe to Southease 

22nd April 2016 (15 miles + 1 mile)

The sun absolutely refused to shine today but, given the good weather I’d enjoyed since Winchester, it would be unreasonable to grumble.

I grumbled unreasonably.  You see, today’s walk would lead me along a stretch of the South Downs Way I know very well and I wanted to show it off at its best: all blue skies; stark, white clouds and distant views of the sea.  But sadly, under a thick grey mantle, the light was rubbish for photos.  Oh well, you’ll just have to take my word that from Pyecombe to Southease, the SDW is more dramatic and beautiful than my photographs allow.

After a hearty breakfast (of … muesli) and a half-hour drive from home, Jim dropped me outside Pyecombe church at 8.30.  We bid each other a tearful farewell – for at least eight hours – and I marched away, staunchly not looking back.

My morning’s initial climb to the top of the Downs was easier than usual;

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if across a golf course.

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I dislike walking on courses; especially so after hard, white, spherical missiles have twice whizzed by my ear on earlier walks.  Don’t always assume, as I did, that players will wait for you to pass, even on a public footpath, before teeing off.

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Flowering gorse, in the absence of sunshine, lit up the way ahead and soon I thankfully left Pyecombe Golf Club behind … without injury.

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As I was now returning home each evening, I carried only a small knapsack and felt remarkably light on my feet, nimble even, without my heavy rucksack.

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A sign reminded me where I had come from and where I was going, if not who I was – which would be increasingly handy the older I get.

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Sign-posting on the ‘Way is excellent and especially so on this bit. Your sense of direction and path-finding skills would need to be pretty dire to go astray.  Worse than mine even.

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The nearer I drew to the coast, the more wind-sculpted trees I saw.

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It looks as if these hawthorns have been bent over by the prevailing south-westerlies running in off the sea.  They haven’t really: new growth and buds on the windward side are damaged and stunted, whereas on the leeward they are more protected.  When I first learnt that, I remember finding it quite interesting but it probably isn’t.

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Downland turf, close-cropped by sheep, is probably the nicest, softest walking surface and a blessed relief if your feet are sore.  When I started distance walking as a teenager, I assumed that blisters and bloody feet were an unavoidable consequence; but actually they were caused by not very good boots.  Modern boot design is taken for granted nowadays but as I can’t remember the last time I suffered a blister, I think it bloody marvellous.

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After about an hour, I reached Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex (248m).  In the ’90’s, I volunteered as a South Downs Ranger and spent a Sunday or two each month on conservation work: clearing paths, pulling up ragwort or “scrub-bashing”.  I also attended various courses and learnt about honeypot sites, of which Ditchling Beacon car park is a good example: it attracts many visitors who mostly don’t stray more than a couple of hundred yards from their cars.  Compared to surrounding areas, honeypots suffer heavy erosion of grass and adjacent footpaths, higher levels of litter and dog mess too.  Generally, I speed by them (unless there’s an ice-cream van).

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I crossed the Brighton-Ditchling road to follow the obvious, straight path towards Lewes and left behind the few dog-walking honeypotters.

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I’ve walked this length of path countless times; usually on Sunday afternoons with friends and family; or alone with my dogs in a vain attempt to tire them out.

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Two and a half miles east of Ditchling Beacon, the SDW turns sharp right toward the coast.  It’s at this way-marker that over-nighters for Lewes, the county town of East Sussex, can leave the SDW and march straight on.

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There’s no denying that today’s weather was the least satisfactory of my six days but despite the forecast, it didn’t rain.  And to cheer me up, I was looking forward to meeting my friend John.  Though we were at school together and have been friends for 40 years, I’d barely seen him since the Millennium.

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On the skyline, halfway between the hump of Kingston Hill and the masts near Woodingdean, was the spot where we’d arranged to meet.

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I passed some rare distance walkers but they didn’t stop to talk; only greeting me with a muttered hello or a tired smile, before disappearing over the near horizon. I guess they were on an outward bound course … whilst looking like they rather wished that they weren’t.

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As well as being a relatively short day, there are only two significant climbs.  And here is the second – a sharp drop to cross the A27 and then straight back up again, past triangular Newmarket Plantation.

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The main Lewes to Brighton dual-carriageway is very busy but a short detour leads to a footbridge and a non-life-threatening crossing.

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I had only 6½ more miles before the railway halt at Southease but first that climb up to Newmarket Plantation and Kingston Hill.

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The path wended (good word) through blackthorn blossom;

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and began the long, if fairly easy, climb

past New Barn in the valley of Loose Bottom: a lovely example of a flint Sussex barn, built at an intriguing angle.

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At the top, and a little after midday, I sat on a tussock and waited for John.  He soon appeared and after plenty of arm thumping and back slapping, we fell into easy conversation and, distracted, I took fewer photos still.

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We walked along to Kingston Hill (that isn’t us) to look out over the Ouse Valley, with Mount Caburn on the left and Firle Beacon directly ahead.  The South Downs Way goes over the latter and I would stand by its trig point tomorrow.

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We didn’t have far to go now: a stretch of concrete path toward Newhaven;

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a brief pause from chatting to snap the view over Kingston village with Lewes beyond

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(or, if you prefer, in muddy colour);

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and passed the Greenwich meridian line, about which I can’t think of anything to say.  It is what it is.

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At about 2pm, we descended off the Downs into the village of Rodmell;

and a long-anticipated, late lunch stop at the The Abergavenny Arms.  Rodmell doesn’t sit on the SDW but I think this slight diversion is better than the designated path, and the pub is a very good one.  If you’ve time, and it’s open, Monk’s Housethe home of Leonard and Virginia Woolf – is nearby and perfect for whiling away an hour.

John and I stuffed ourselves rigid with haute cuisine (ham, egg and chips for me) and over two pints of Harvey’s Sussex Best Bitter, we easily solved most of the world’s problems.

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Afterwards we waddled on for the final mile, passing a show-off display by this male kestrel.

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St Peter’s, Southease

Southease church is one of only three in Sussex with a round tower.  (The other two are close by: in Piddinghoe – a couple of miles downstream – and Lewes).

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Each year, the village hosts the Southease Open Gardens Fete.  There are five gardens to explore and cake in abundance, with all proceeds going to the upkeep of the church.  It is an archetypal English afternoon and a fine day out.

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Shortly after leaving the clutch of cottages about the church, a bridge carried us across the Ouse.  It was at this bleak spot that Virginia Woolf’s body was eventually found, three weeks after her suicide by drowning.  I never cross it without sparing her a thought and suppressing a shudder at her awful, final state of mind.

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On a lighter note, Southease Station is just beyond the bridge and the natural end to this section of path.  Hourly trains run north to Lewes and Brighton; or south to Newhaven and Seaford.  Alternatively, there’s the brand new Youth Hostel South Downs nearby.  I waved goodbye to John as he disappeared on a train to Brighton, and hopped on my own train southwards, followed by a mile’s walk to my front door.

If today’s weather had been a sombre disappointment, tomorrow’s final leg to Eastbourne would compensate with a return to sunshine.  The last day on the SDW is a grand finale and one of the finest of any National Trail.  Near perfect weather would make it finer still.

And I managed some better photos too.