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:

lewes

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.

newhaven

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.

skylark

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).

south-downs-ponies

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.

goldfinch

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.

alfriston-1

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).

cuckmere-haven

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:

Seven Sisters (6)

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;

Seven Sisters

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;

Seven Sisters (1)

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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22 thoughts on “The South Downs Way: Day 6 – Southease to Eastbourne

  1. I have loved reading this account- thank you so much. This last weekend, I completed the South Downs way, which I have been doing in sections through the summer- west to east (I live in Winchester). it has been a revelation and a joy- I did not realise how very beautiful it is. Most days I walked on my own, as I have a slightly lazy husband! Over the weekend, it was my birthday, and I cannot think of a better way to spend it- when the weather forecast was so good, I thought I’d go for the final push in 2 days- so I did a 6 day itinerary in total, like you. One of the joys is how unpopulated it is- so much of the time on my own, with birdsong, endless views, cows and sheep- great company! I love all your observations. Thank you. I came across a tiny church, The Shepherds Church, in the village of Pyecombe, and just want to mention their hospitality- there is a room they have set up in there, where you can help yourself to hot drinks, and leave a donation- it’s open every day- there are long stretches of the SDW with no refreshments nearby, and I really appreciated this hospitality and generosity on a long, tiring day of walking.Thank you, Pyecombe Church- and thank you David.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hello Cathy, I agree with you absolutely about walking on birthdays. Most years, I go to the Lakes for mine and weather allowing try to ensure I’m on top of a mountain on the day. Even though mine falls in November, it’s the only thing I really want to do (and have a celebratory pint or two afterwards).

      The SDW can still be remarkably empty of people for long stretches. I mention in my account that I live near the path and I’m still surprised that I can have the Downs to myself mid-week. Sounds like you timed it pretty perfectly too.

      I’m really pleased you liked my account and thanks for letting me know. I didn’t know about The Shepherds Church – I’ll look out for it next time I’m in Pyecombe.

      Best, David

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  2. Oh, what beautiful countryside, especially in the sunlight. Ponies, too—for some reason this post called to mind almost every British children’s book I’ve ever read. Thank you for that, Dave, and for your wonderful photos as always. xS

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Unfortunately, I was a little distracted by your rare sighting of a lesser spotted Southern train as I read your post. But those shots of Beachy Head are incredible. I know I’ve been there, but so long ago I have no recollection of it at all. The annoying thing is that extreme beauty equals lots of people and I’m so much happier wondering along without crowds (and was spoilt rotten with this in Australia and New Zealand). I’m thinking we might start in Northumberland for our first big UK walk but I’ll be much slower than you. How you manage 20 miles in a day is beyond my comprehension!

    Liked by 1 person

    • My sighting of a Southern train made the national news actually. But it was a fluke and I’m not sure I’ve seen one since.

      The crowd thing is a problem (being an anti-social old git). But it wouldn’t be so bad in term time, mid-week. I’ve walked the Southease – Alfriston section on a mid-week morning and not met a soul (admittedly on a non-sunny day). Oh and do let me know about your Northumberland plans – I’ve been toying with St Cuthbert, so to speak.

      D

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      • Gosh, just about to start typing a response and my phone starts blaring, telling me to take cover from a tornado. All a bit exciting (I arrived in Texas last night)! Anyway, apparently that’s over now, so what I was trying to say was that we’ve not yet found a slot in Paul’s diary for it, but I’m hopeful for the autumn. Will let you know. This storm reminds me just how safe and easy and familiar walking in England is by comparison. The tornado brings back memories of bush fire warnings in Australia. The issue is unless you’ve grown up there, as happy as you are to take the right and responsible action, you have absolutely no idea what that action is!

        Liked by 1 person

        • Gosh indeed. My main worries whilst walking in England are over the imminent likelihood of a pint, pie or cake – or all three. Certainly a tornado or bush fire would spice up my walks a bit. But possibly too much. It sounds terribly dangerous where you are, Janna. Remember, you’re not in Kansas anymore. D

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  4. Another lovely post. I love the way you weave just enough of the personal into your writing (That said, why no shot of you in the natty green titfet?). And I love your photos and your knack for noticing the small things (So many padlocks? I thought you were about to tell us about a local rules love locks thing going on) Ceri

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks Ceri – and titfet is a word I must use in a future post. Jim was quite happy to have a photo of his hat-wearing made public, I was less so with mine. Editor’s prerogative. My latest walk wasn’t a great success, and I’m mulling over how to handle it re posts. Head-scratchingly yours, D

      Liked by 1 person

        • Ah, well titfet is the better word imho. As for my ‘latest’ walk – sorry, I meant an attempt of The Ridgeway a couple of weeks ago. My walking blog always takes me an age to write up – so the SDW is almost a year old! D

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          • Yes, I’m beginning to think you’re right re titfet.

            Sorry to hear that the Ridgeway walk was not a success. Hope that tea and pies were located at some point along the way to lift the spirits though. As to writing the walks up – do what pleases you. Post them immediately in great depth or later in lesser, it’s your blog and your combination of words and images will make for a good read whatever and whenever.

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            • No! A cruel deficiency of tea and pies made The Ridgeway less than perfect. And thanks very much for the encouragement. Especially re how long it might take to write up a walk. I’m thinking of posting one that is almost two years old!

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  5. Charles has learned, so must you! Please include a warning before any close to cliff shots! Don’t know why as I used to regularly walk miles along clifftop paths in my younger days, often taking silly risks, but now have totally lost my head for heights. Even a photograph can induce something like a panic attack!

    But now, in my dotage, when anything more than a mile involves a lot of pain and a lot more pauses, it’s nice to be able to let someone else do the walking whilst I sit comfortably and enjoy the view. So thanks for that. Carry on please. Inland! 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

    • Hehe, I’m exactly the same re heights. In the Lakes, I can’t even watch Jim scrambling up rock faces or standing by a sharp drop and constantly have to tell him off (not that he listens). I don’t actually know the Seven Sisters walk very well as for years we had dogs and cliff-side walking with them gave me palpitations (even on leads). So, I know the safe Jevington alternative very well but it is boring by comparison (with no likelihood of panic attacks).

      I’m always worrying about people getting too close to the edge of the Sussex cliffs – and then, looking at some old slides of the SDW, found a picture of me aged 21 sitting right on the crumbly edge myself. The folly of youth, I guess, but I quite miss it. Dave

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  6. Cheers for sharing this with us over the past few months David, really enjoyed these instalments and very much looking forward to the next lot. Such a gentle read that makes you proud of the English Countryside. Inspired to get outside! Hope other people are inspired by this too.

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for that, Jack (I didn’t even know you read this blog!). Things (comments and such) are much more quiet over here than on The Anxious Gardener. I quite like that as the pressure is off and I feel I can write as often or as little as I like. The posts are simply a record of my walks – as much for my benefit as anyone elses – but if people like them too that is a huge bonus. So, thanks again, Dave

      Liked by 1 person

      • Both of your blogs are brilliant, so I wonder why that is ? Perhaps just a bigger community of Gardeners on the net? Been following this since you first mentioned to me that you had walked the Cleveland Way. Although I’d love to I’d never get time to do the full thing in one go ( I hope I’m wrong about that.) and therefore dip in and out of it. Having been inspired by the coastal section of your walk on this post we’re going to do a bit of it on Saturday – Staithes to Saltburn along the cliff side path (I wonder if this was part of what you did on the Cleveland Way?) , Fish and Chips then back again. According to a Google about 17 miles, although I’m not sure if it is that far.) Will be the furthest I’ve walked in years but can not waitn

        Liked by 1 person

        • Well, if I’ve inspired anyone to walk anywhere that’s pretty good. I reckon 17 miles sounds about right and I’m fair jealous. Beyond Staithes toward Runswick and Whitby is more scenic still, mind you! It’s been six years since I last walked the Cleveland Way – may be time for a re-visit. When I do, I’ll let you know. Btw is there not a coastal bus service you could use to get to somewhere and walk back to Saltburn? Might be more fun than a there and back again walk? Just a thought.

          I did expect more of a crossover between the two blogs when I started the WG but, as you say, the gardening reading fraternity is bigger I think than the walking. And also I don’t do what I should do i.e. comment and link to lots of other walking blogs and build up the readership that way. But doing that for one blog took up enough time without doing it for a second.

          Enjoy those fish and chips. I liked Saltburn a lot.

          Dave

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          • Yes I hope you do get to do it again , I’m glad you enjoy it – did you know the whole of the Way is now on Google Street View? If I was to ever do the whole of it in one run then from the comfort of the settee is definitely appealing.

            Runswick and Whitby are both lovely. I like Runswick as it’s sort of undiscovered – not ruined by tourism, yet. As soon as they open a chippy they’ll be done for.

            Oh I never thought about buses, will look into it, it would be a lot better than there and back. Cheers for the suggestion.

            Perhaps you are doing this the right way then, I can imagine there is a certain level of pressure to get posts out over on the AG due to it’s success – to have that pressure on two blogs would only take the fun out of it.

            Cheers, soon be the weekend, enjoy it whatever you’re getting up to.

            Jack,

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