139b. Seaford to Birling Gap

September 2015

Although I have walked this stretch of coast before, this was quite a different route, hence the second post. I had been staying with some friends at a campsite near Lewes for a long weekend, but whilst my friends were either heading straight home or home via a childrens farm, I was in no hurry to head home, so I decided to make the most of the day (it was lovely weather) and take a short trip to the coast for a walk.

My favourite bit of coast in the area is around Seaford and the Seven Sisters, so I decided to drive down to Seaford (via the Sainsbury’s on the edge of town to buy lunch) and headed on to the town centre. I managed to get a little lost around the 1-way system, so parked in the first car park I came to which turned out to be only a couple of minutes walk to the sea front.

On reaching the sea front I had a fine view back to Newhaven along the shingle beach. I digger was on the western end of the beach and although not working the shingle beyond it was a different colour, so the beach is obviously replenished with gravel sourced from elsewhere.

View from Seaford Head

Ahead I took the familiar path heading up Seaford head. There is a on old red-brick building here, I think a World War II structure and last time I was here the path went along the coastal side of it. Now it heads inland.

View from Seaford Head

Sadly on reaching the coast the weather had clouded up a bit but it was still a good day, warm, dry with little breeze. The path continued to climb alongside the golf course and soon I reached the top of the headland. I remember walking this the first time I did it (I think around 2003) and finding it really hard-going, I’m obviously fitter now as it was not too bad a climb.

View from Seaford Head

Ahead I had a fine view of the Severn Sisters. I still rate this as the finest view to be had in East Sussex, it is such a classic and beautiful landscape.

The Severn Sisters from Seaford Head

The path soon descended down to a little beach I remember at Hope Gap. Helpfully here on the Ordnance Survey maps, access to the beach is marked with red arrows – something I haven’t seen elsewhere but would certainly be very welcome. I headed down to the beach for a quiet lunch spot and had a nice lunch overlooking the beach sitting on a rock. As I did so, the weather began to clear with the sun beginning to make an appearance once more.

The Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven

The Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven

Whilst having lunch I noticed that the tide seemed very low and so decided that rather than return to the coast path I would see if I could walk along the beach to Cuckmere Haven. This proved to be fairly easy as the beach is shingle but not too soft so it was quite an easy walk around to Cuckmere Haven, passing below the metal sheeting erected to protect the cottages above. These cottages make for the iconic view of the Severn Sisters and it is quite amazing that they have survived so long.

Cuckmere Haven

I was quite surprised how busy the beach was at Cuckmere Haven. When I have been here before it has been quiet, largely as a result of the lack of nearby parking – the nearest car park is at Exceat around a mile away.

Cuckmere Haven

The beach here is shingle and the River Cuckere flows out to the sea via a series of S-shaped bends over the flood plain. It is I believe the only estuary in the south east of England that has been left in it’s natural state, and it is very beautiful.

Here I have normally headed up the coast inland to the first bridge (at Exceat) to cross it but as the weather was quite warm and the river looked low so I decided to wade through it instead. The pebbles in the river bed were a little painful in places (I had taken my shoes off) but it was fairly easy as the water didn’t quite reach my knees.

Once safely across I dried my feet and put my socks back on, pleased to have been able to cross without heading up to Exceat. I decided to see if I could walk as far as Cuckmere Haven along the shore line, rather than on the coast path above the cliffs. From memory I think the sea got too close to the cliffs around Beachy Head to be able to make it all the way to Eastbourne and in any case with the tide so low I suspected it would soon be coming in. I knew there was access from the beach to the cliff top at Cuckmere Haven, so if I could get that far I would not have to turn back.

This route below the cliffs is a very different perspective on the Seven Sisters and one I was keen to explore.

Seaford Head

I set off initially along the shingle beach.

The Seven Sisters

The cliffs quickly became high and are seriously impressive and I really appreciated them from this close quarter.

The Seven Sisters

I was initially followed by another man who stopped to take plenty of photos like me, and made it along to the second little bay, but then gave up and headed back. I carried on, but a problem soon became apparent. The cliffs here are very soft and prone to erosion – the reason for the white colour is largely due to frequent cliff falls. There was evidence of many of these at the base of the cliffs. If I walked nearest the cliffs there was a beach much more of the time, but I would be walking right under these unstable cliffs. In places, the base of the cliffs had been undercut a bit, meaning I would be, quite literally, walking under the cliffs. Any cliff fall that happened could prove fatal, albeit it very unlikely to happen. So I tried to keep close to the shoreline, but that was a lot of mud and sea-weed covered rocks, making for very difficult walking.

The Seven Sisters

Nevertheless I made it over the sea-weed covered rocks carefully and managed to do so without falling. The views down here were stunning. You can certainly appreciate the soft cliffs, with the sea having eaten out lots of little caves at the base of the cliffs. I’ll let the pictures do the talking here but suffice to say it was beautiful.

The Seven Sisters

The Seven Sisters

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

After about 40 minutes of careful walking over the rocks and around the various little sticking out bits of cliffs I stopped for a rest. I looked ahead and could see some other walkers. I assumed I was nearing Cuckmere Haven, but a stop to check the map suggested otherwise. As they got closer we stopped for a chat and they were walking the other way to photograph the cliffs, like me. At least we could both re-assure each other it was possible to get through, even if it was difficult (you can see them heading off below).

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Just past this point unexpectedly there was a stretch of hard sand, free of rocks, which made the going easier.

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Part way along here I came across a rock arch. It was beautiful and perhaps against my better judgement, I couldn’t resist walking through it, after all the chance it would collapse at just that moment seemed rather remote.

Ahead as the beach had a bit of sand and smooth rocks I could head right out to the shoreline and view ahead to Cuckmere Haven. I had not checked the tide times on the way out and there was still plenty of beach and rocks ahead, but I could also see the little gullies between them were beginning to fill – the tide was coming in, so I needed to crack on. A particularly large rock fall ahead pushed me out almost to the waters edge and reminded me that even where I had been walking, a large cliff fall would be seriously bad news!

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Just past this it was again back to the flatter rocks and here a large amount of debris had been washed up – obviously a wrecked ship, with many riveted metal panels. I wondered how long ago it had been wrecked and where it had come from.

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Ahead now I could make out the crowds on the beach at Birling Gap, reassuring me that there was access to the beach here and a group right at the end of the shingle beach from the steps at Birling Gap.

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

This part soon proved the hardest, as there was no beach to speak off, so I had to walk over the mud and sea-weed covered rocks which had gaps between them and made going hard.

I was relieved to reach the beach where the first few people I could see were students of some sort doing some filming.

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Walking over those rocks was tiring so I sat on the beach for a while and at one point whe looking left I realised the next person walking along towards me, some distance away, was naked (perhaps the remote location made it appealing for nudists)!

Between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven

I continued and was soon passing other at least partly clothed people until I reached the bottom of the steps at Birling Gap and the crowds.

The beach at Birling Gap

The beach here is owned by the National Trust and the steps up to the beach are built in a way to they can easily be repaired in the event of the frequent landslips. The steps go up a vertically on the beach to reach a platform which you walk along to the cliff top, so the steps can simply be moved back and the platform rebuilt when the cliffs give way. It probably makes more sense with this photo!

Birling Gap

I headed up the busy steps to the cliff top, where there is a National Trust Cafe and visitor centre. The row of cottages looked shorter than last time I was here (and later checking photos I had taken here in the past confirmed there is now one less cottage). The tables at the cafe are now also close to the edge and sadly I suspect it won’t be long before the cafe goes too.

Birling Gap

Walking along the beach had proved tiring. I knew that the tide was now coming in so trying to continue along the beach would be stupid (looking back above, you can see how close the sea now was to the cliffs). So my choices were either to continue along the coast path to Eastbourne or head inland to the village of East Dean, where the buses run along the main road.

I settled on the latter option but when I headed to the road I discovered a bus stop. From the timetable here I found that during the summer (which it still was), there was a bus from here every half an hour, even on Sunday (albeit I had just missed one). So I decided to end the walk here and the wait for the bus gave me time to head back to the cafe for an ice cream and a drink. The visitor centre, cafe and shop were lovely inside and had a stunning view of the sea. It will be a shame when they eventually go over the cliff and I hope the NT can be persuaded to build new facilities when it does.

I headed to the bus stop about 5 minutes before the bus was due and found it was now quite crowded. The first bus to come was not the public bus but turned out to be an Eastbourne “City” Sightseeing bus which didn’t go to Seaford but Eastbourne (and for £10, it was not cheap). But a few minutes later the ordinary bus to Seaford came. It was very busy, with just a couple of seats left upstairs and later, it was standing room only – I guess the good weather had bought people out! It took a little over 20 minutes to get back to Seaford, where I walked back to the car park and drove home.

I enjoyed this different take on a familiar walk. These chalk cliffs are impressive from any angle, but down below they were even more so, where you could see how the sea erodes them, forming caves, arches and overhangs which, as I saw, eventually collapse. You can also see the old base of the cliffs where they have eroded and are now the beach and the interesting rock pools that form between them. Having said that, the walk was hard work with nothing but slippery sea-weed covered rocks to walk on in places and pebbles for much of the rest. You obviously need to be very careful with the tide to do it safely though and also aware that walking under rapidly eroding cliffs like this is always dangerous. Nevertheless I’m very glad I did it, as it was very enjoyable and highly scenic.

Here are details of the public transport needed for this walk :-

Brighton and Hove buses route 13X : Brighton – Rottingdean – Saltdean – Telscombe Cliffs – Peacehaven – Newhaven – SeafordSeven Sisters Country Park – Friston – East Dean – Birling Gap – Beachy Head – Eastbourne. During the winter this runs on Sundays only, 3 times a day. During the peak summer months it runs daily and more frequently (hourly I think now).

Here are the complete set of photos for this walk : Main Link | Slideshow.

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5 Responses to 139b. Seaford to Birling Gap

  1. simonjkyte says:

    the seaweed slippy bit is not fun – many a sprained ankle there – but still one of my fave walks

  2. snowgood says:

    Not a stretch I’ve ever attempted, but I must give a try this summer. Good photos.

  3. What a wonderful walk. Brave to walk beneath the cliffs and glad you made it through OK. I remember climbing over the last of the Seven Sisters and suddenly seeing Cuckmere Haven below me. Thought it was absolutely beautiful. (Of course I was too timid to wade the river and walked up to cross at the bridge!)

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