April and October 2005
If you only do one coast walk in South East England make it this one! In fact in my opinion this is the best walk in all of South East England, not just the coast (and yes I know the Chilterns, North Downs, South Downs, High Weald etc are lovely too). It really is an excellent walk in every respect. Stunning and spectacular scenery, mostly fairly easy terrain, a good well signed footpath throughout and easy transport links.
I actually did most of this walk twice. In April I was nearing the end of a walk on the South Downs Way, which shares much of the route. When I got as far as Seaford on my coast walk, rather than miss it out, I wanted to do this walk again. And I’d previously done it back in 2003 (and several times since), so I like this walk, a lot. I drove down to Seaford and parked in the town centre near the station and returned to the sea front at the same point I finished last time.
I turned left and headed along the promenade past what were now mostly flats but I suspected were once hotels. These soon ended and I was soon passing a Martello Tower.
I’d be seeing a lot more of these on future walks, but it is a sign I am getting close to the coast of France and hence the area where the threat of invasion was highest. These days it is a museum, but I didn’t stop to visit it.
Beyond this are rows of brightly coloured beach huts but the real star is the looming white chalk cliffs of Seaford head, ahead.
At the end of the promenade is a large jetty of some sort, perhaps coastal defences. Past that on the beach itself are some odd concrete structures. I am not sure if their purpose is defensive or to keep the public off the beach (or both).
From here a path heads, quite steeply up onto Seaford head.
Most of the cliffs now are chalk and the good thing with chalk is that it is porous, meaning that the paths on the cliffs tend not to be wet and muddy most of the time (though they can be slippery). The wide path heads up the cliffs, alongside a golf course and soon I get fine views back around the bay, to the cliffs at Newhaven and over Seaford itself.
A short distance up the cliffs and I’m passing what I suspect are further remnants of World War II, and old brick built fort that seems to be both crumbling away and crumbling off the cliff. The path continues to climb and there a chalk stacks, now separate from the main cliffs below, reminding me a little of the Needles on the Isle of Wight.
Thankfully the cliff edge just has a few warning signs here rather than the ugly chain link fence I found west of Newhaven.
Soon a sign welcomes me to Seaford Head Nature reserve and ahead I have that famous view.
You may never have been here but you have surely seen this view on countless calendars or photographic exhibitions. It is even one of the background pictures included with Windows 7! Yes those chalk hills known as the Seven Sisters, because there are seven chalk hills all one after the other, leading to the last and most famous, Beachy Head.
I soon pass a valley called Buckle Church burrow, which is a lovely name. The path levels out and then levels out for a while, so you can enjoy the stunning views ahead.
I can see almost as far as Eastbourne already and it is only the fact that it is behind the chalk cliffs that I can’t see it. The path now gently descends back down almost to sea level where there is another valley and access down to the beach, at a place called Hope Gap.
Here I headed down the steps to explore the beach. The beach is in fact mostly the remains of the base of the chalk cliffs – rock pools surrounded by lumps of chalk and pebbles. The cliffs are interesting as their are narrow lines of darker rock within them.
At the far end of the beach, towards Eastbourne the cliffs turn from white to orange, though I’m not sure if this is simply that the cliffs at this end erode less or that they are made of different rock.
It is a short climb back up from the beach and again on the path, as the cliffs briefly rise again. It is here you get the most famous view of all. Those magnificent Seven Sisters cliffs with a row of cottages in front.
This is the view you’ll likely have seen countless times. The cottages are remote. The edge of Seaford is about a mile away and there isn’t a road as such though I think the residents (assuming they are any, they might be holiday cottages) are I think permitted to drive along a track. What they get though is one of the best views of the countryside, but I suspect it is tempered a bit by the fact they are so close to the cliff edge and can’t survive forever.
Beyond the cottages the track descends down to the adjacent beach, Cuckmere Haven.
Here you can look back to those cottages and see just how close the nearest one is to the edge. Indeed you can see that a concrete wall has been built into the cliff face presumably to try to keep them here a bit longer. However on day when the see is rough as I have seen on other occasions you can see the sea splashes right up to them.
The beach at Cuckmere Haven is lovely too. There is some sand at low tide, though further back it is all pebbles. The standout feature though is the river Cuckmere. This is one of (in fact, I think only) river whose course has not been altered by man as it reaches the coast. Instead the river is allowed to meander around the valley creating S-bends and (one day) Oxbow lakes (see I was listening in Geography lessons at school!). This does however present a problem – you need to get over the river, and there isn’t a bridge at the coast.
There are two solutions that I’ve used. The first, and most obvious, is to head inland A footpath follows both banks of the river inland to the first bridge, at Exceat. This is about a mile away and carries the A259. Thankfully here it does have a pavement and in fact the bridge is narrow enough that it only allows traffic to pass in one direction at a time, so it is a bit of bottleneck for traffic.
The other option, is to ford the river, but doing so does require care. I would not do it in winter when the water is likely to be very cold. I also wouldn’t do it during or after heavy rain, when the river is likely to be much deeper and flowing harder. However I have done it in the summer months and found the water only came just above my knees and the base of the river seemed to pebbles and stones rather than mud, so it didn’t appear to be likely you would sink.
On the first occasion I did this walk I walked inland. The path along the river bank proved very easy as it is raised up and a mixture of gravel and (in some places) a bit of mud.
It is an easy and flat walk of about a mile but there is the bonus that just before you reach the road you come to a pub, which makes a handy place for refreshments before the harder part of the walk, over the Seven Sisters. Here I walked to the road and followed the pavement alongside the stop-start traffic. It was a bit of a shock after the peaceful and rural walking I had had so far.
The road runs alongside part of the river on the right and this ends at the point the cliffs start to rise. Here on the left is the Seven Sisters Country Park which has toilets and a visitor centre and oddly, a green rather than red telephone box (which I’ve never seen anywhere else in the UK).
Here once again there is a choice of routes (I’ve taken both), one is to head up on the cliffs on the other side of the river, following the South Downs Way which you can follow all the way to Eastbourne. However there is also a permissive lower level path that sticks close to the river bank, which you can follow and then reach the cliff top via a (very) steep path back at the shore.
But if you can spare the time before continuing along the coast I do recommend a brief diversion onto the South Downs Way going in the other direction (towards Alfriston), as it climbs up away from the river and gives you a wonderful view of all those S-bends of the river (though you need to come back the same way).
My preferred route though is to take the lower path just along the base of the cliffs. It is wide and easy to follow and soon you pass over the marshes at the mouth of the river and onto the shingle beach at the other side.
This too is a good beach and the fact you can’t park near it means it is rarely crowded, too.
From here I turned left and followed the path along the back of the beach to approach those amazing cliffs.
Before starting up them I had a quick wander along the base of the cliffs and upwards at that wall of chalk.
The downside of taking this route is that the initial climb is very steep, and the path is eroded. Once up though the path gets gentler and the views back make it all worthwhile.
From the top, looking over the beach, you can barely see the river at all but you can see the change in colour of the cliffs on the other side.
In places the angles of the cliffs means you can see close up the cliffs ahead and here again I can see those thin lines of darker stone.
On reaching the top of the first “Sister” Haven Brow, you can see all the remaining sister up as far as Beachy Head and see the coast rising and falling like a roller coaster.
The first descent takes me down a bit (but not to sea level) to Short Bottom and then up from there to Short Brow. The views inland are nice too.
This path is busy (it always is) but the people give perspective and scale to the photos – so you can see how tall the cliffs are.
The next valley is called Limekiln Bottom (I can hazard a guess why) and this climbs up to Rough Brow then descends to Rough Bottom. Then it is another climb to Brass Point. None of these climbs are steep enough they have steps so they are not too hard.
This descends down to Gap Bottom and back up to Flagstaff Brow, where there is a memorial for William Charles Campbell who made a donation to the Seven Sisters Preservation fund which was used to buy this area and preserve it for the nation (you can just see it near the left of the photo below).
Good on him. There are stunning views in both directions now.
I continue into Flagstaff Bottom and then up to Flat Hill (which isn’t flat). From here I descend to Flathill Bottom and then Baily’s Hill. This is the last hill before the small village of Birling Gap ahead.
Here there is a row of cottages, though it has got shorter over the years! When I first did this walk there were 5 cottages. Now there are 4, though I believe they are all owned by the National Trust and a couple are empty, so the tennant moves from the cottage nearest the coast to the next one along. The coast is eroding here at a rapid rate.
Birling Gap is a busy place there is a large car park and a cafe, as a road reaches the coast here. However in the summer months some of the buses are routed this way, so you can also cut the walk short here. The cafe used to be independent I think but these days it is owned by the National Trust and has a lovely terrace though it is now getting very close to the coast and I suspect the cafe has only a year or two left. There are also steps down to the beach here so the beach is popular too.
At Birling Gap the walk follows the road past the few houses to the main road and then turns off to the right back onto the cliff top and over the last of the Seven Sisters I could see from Seaford, Belle Tout.
It is a steep climb up but once up the views make it worthwhile. I had been able to see the lighthouse on the cliff top here for some time but now I was up close.
Unusually, this one is a private residence. Even more unusually a few years ago the residents of the lighthouse were becoming concerned about how close it was becoming to the cliff edge and so had the whole structure moved a bit inland (I suspect at great expense). Descending from here the road again came close to the coast and ahead I could now see the famous lighthouse at Beachy Head.
This one is still in use and located in the sea just off the base of the cliffs. I suspect this is because the lighthouse at the top of the cliffs is prone to being covered by fog, hence this lighthouse at the base of the cliffs.
It was a gentle climb up to the cliff top where I could look down on the lighthouse far below.
Despite being such a good view, Beachy Head is famous for more than just the view as sadly it is a common suicide spot. I can’t imagine what would bring someone to such a beautiful spot and still feel they had no alternative than to throw themselves off the cliffs. In fact I passed a coastguard van parked on the cliff top here. I hoped it was here keeping an eye out rather than attending to a suicide.
Beachy Head is a stunning spot though.
Ahead the cliffs were not quite vertical but more angled allowing you appreciate the scale of them better from the top, and the contrast between the white chalk and the blue sea below.
In fact the sea nearest the cliffs was discoloured from all the chalk in the water. A reminder of how quickly the coast erodes here. I admired the lighthouse from all angles and then continued up to the top of the headland itself. Just beyond this there is a junction of paths.
The South Downs Way that I had been following sticks to the highest route, a few hundred metres from the cliff edge. But another long distance path, the Wealdway continues along the coast, so that is what I followed. Ahead I could see my destination, Eastbourne. The pier was an obvious landmark, but so too, unfortunately, was a very ugly and tall block of flats that stuck out like a sore thumb.
Still the coastal scenery continued to be magnificent as the cliffs undulated, not quite as much as before, though. Looking ahead I could see how the chalk cliffs gradually descended to the promenade, where they became green, covered with vegetation as the sea wall protected the cliffs.
The path soon descended, for the last time, into a park with a putting green. I followed the path around this and after a brief stretch along the road I could descend down to the promenade, below the cliffs.
I could now follow this all the way into Eastbourne.
The beach at Eastbourne was all pebbles and there were few people on it, though the promenade was busy. With the cliffs still to my left I recalled my grandparents who always took a weeks holiday by the sea at Eastbourne every year. They always said they liked it because “it’s flat”, but it’s anything but, as I had found. I think though they meant because the promenade is flat, which is true.
I liked the town. There was even a thatched shelter along the sea front which added a bit of class I thought! There was also one of those mini “dotto trains” running along the sea front still. Soon I was nearing the bandstand. My grandparents had spoken of this and how they liked to go there and listen to a band concert. It was much larger and grander than I had expected.
Soon I had reached Eastbourne pier. It was a lovely pier. It still had the real granduer it must have had when first opened. The buildings were ornate, with numerous towers and turrets and looked like a labour of love. It was good to see they were still well kept.
I couldn’t resist walking to the end of the pier, as I always do, and enjoying the views back over the town and along the coast I had walked. I was pleasantly surprised by Eastbourne.
This was quite a long walk and I was very tired, so I finished in Eastbourne.
From here I headed to the road and took one of the very frequent buses back to Seaford. I was pleased to see it was a double decker bus, so I could sit upstairs and trace my route back along the coast for much of the way.
This was a wonderful walk in every respect. Stunning scenery, beautiful beaches and villages, an unspoit river estuary, an excellent path that stuck right to the coast, the beautiful lighthouse at Beachy Head, a nice town to end in and a couple of pubs and a cafe on the way. What more could you want from a walk?
Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk :
Brighton and Hove Buses route 12/12X (Coaster) : Brighton – Rottingdean – Saltdean – Peacehaven – Newhaven – Seaford – Seven Sisters Country Park (Exceat) – East Dean – Eastbourne. Every 10 minutes Monday – Saturday. Every 15 minutes on Sundays. It takes around 30 minutes between Eastbourne and Seaford.
It is also possible to travel between Eastbourne and Seaford by train, but you will need to change in Lewes, there are no direct trains. Overall the bus is usually quicker and more reliable (at the time of writing, the trains are often on strike).