Tuesday, 17 February 2009

South Downs Way Day Nine Berwick - Eastbourne via Exceat

Berwick Pond
I know what you’re thinking; Berwick isn’t on the SDW. No, it isn’t but the station makes for a good staging point for the day’s walking, being only a couple of miles north of Alfriston. When I set aside today for walking the weather forecast promised a sunny day with a little cloud. What I got was the opposite, with steely grey skies greeting me at Berwick station. The cold weather had returned too, although in a different form from the other week. This cold snap was windy with snow forecast for the next couple of days as a weather system was tracking across from Siberia.

Hindover Horse
It was certainly cheerless as I made my way across the fields and through Berwick village (about a mile south of the station) to regain the path at Alfriston. As I approached Alfriston I could see a very large heron watching the river carefully for fish. It must have very good eyesight as the river looked particularly brown and muddy today. It spotted me quite early and flew off, its huge wings showing what large birds these are. I followed the same heron some considerable distance downstream as it made efforts to put distance between him and me while he went about his business.

East Dean Church
I didn’t enter the village today, continuing instead along the riverbank as far as Litlington. As I continued the wind was definitely getting colder and the tick grey clouds above me threatened snow. It was definitely more wintry than my previous walk along this stretch, which felt positively spring like in comparison. I left the river at Litlington and passed through the village and over the hill into Charleston Bottom. Here I got a good view of High and Over opposite, complete with its white horse carved into the side. In Charleston Bottom I could see the size and extent of Friston Forest, through which I would pass a small corner. There were also glimpses of Charleston Manor although better views are available off route.

Cuckmere View
I climbed up the steps and out of Charleston Bottom and passed through the edge of West Dean village. As I entered the village there seemed to be a lot of activity with what looked to be an army cadet training course going on. I had a quick squint at the church before heading off up another set of steps. When I got to the top I could now see the flavour of the walk that would be ahead of me. A glorious view down the Cuckmere valley greeted me, magnificent even on a day that was stubbornly overcast. The meander loops that give the valley its unique character are now just ox-bow lakes having been cut off as the main body of river by canalisation in the 1800s.

Haven Brow View
I passed through what is now the visitor centre for the Seven Sisters Country Park, doing brisk business even on a fairly unwelcoming day. When I crossed I took the ‘official’ SDW rather than the concrete road that I have done on previous occasions. This was a good call as although it was a lot of additional effort and distance, I got some further views across the Cuckmere Valley both up and downstream.

Burst of Sunshine
Eventually I reached the base of Haven Brow, the biggest and first of the Seven Sisters and began my ascent. As I got towards the top, three things happened. Firstly the wind became a lot fresher as I climbed. The views across Cuckmere Haven got steadily better and above me small gaps in the cloud started appearing suggesting that there might be sunshine today after all. At the top the wind blew quite hard offshore so I kept well away from the edge of the cliffs. While I really enjoy the exhilaration of a clifftop walk, I am getting increasingly nervous about the height of cliffs. It’s an odd thing, since I am not generally fearful of heights.

Birling Gap
I lingered for a bit at the top to catch my breath and enjoy the view before embarking on the rollercoaster that is the Seven Sisters (actually I think a half sister also sneaks in there!). After Haven Brow, there is a steep descent and quick ascent into Rough Brow, the second Sister. As each Sister passes there is a slightly longer gap and less climbing to the next one until Flagstaff Point, approximately in the middle, which is another big one. Along the cliff tops were a couple of monuments to landowners who had bequeathed their land to the nation for the enjoyment of everyone. One of the monuments was to a soldier who died in the First World War, giving his land to the National Trust on his death.

Belle Tout
The Seven Sisters are one of the great coastal walks in ths country and are a pleasure even on a cold grey winter’s day. If anything the power of the sea is more appreciated in the winter, for there was evidence of recent cliff collapses and huge cracks in the turf close to the edge where freeze/ thaw processes had assisted the sea in eroding the chalk.

Beachy Head
Eventually I reached Birling Gap. This is an interesting place that was once planned as a resort. It didn’t work for a number of reasons; it was on top of a cliff, making access to the beach a bit tricky and a long way from a train station, a big deal for Victorian trippers. Now the power of the sea threatens its very existence, with great lumps of chalk disappearing every year. This is the subject of intense study by Sussex University, but for some residents it’s already too late as at least one of the coastguard cottages that once stood at the edge has now disappeared.

Entering Eastbourne
Above Birling Gap was once an iron age hill fort, and can be clearly seen from a distance. However, the dominating structure on the cliff ahead is now Belle Tout, a former lighthouse that has been a private residence for some time and which has recently been sold again. This was once famously moved away from the cliff edge at great expense, but one has to ask how many times this will be done as the structure is perilously close to the edge once again. In fact the access road is too close to the edge of the cliff for me to be comfortable using it.

Eastbourne Seafront

I have to admit the walk down over Beachy Head was a real struggle as the combination of the wind and the rollercoaster nature of today’s walk had sapped my energy. There was some sunshine out by now, which gave the views a lot more vibrancy. I clambered wearily over Beachy Head and descended into Eastbourne, which was a surprisingly long way. By the time I dropped down into the Meads the weather had closed in once again and the last stretch of walk along the seafront was through heavy snowfall.


  1. Loved reading about your SDW walks. I walked quite a bit of it from east to west a few years ago, but still haven't finished the last 24 miles to Winchester. Now I've read your blog, I feel inspired to walk it all again this year, but this time I'll start in Winchester to make sure I do the bits I haven't done before!

  2. That's exactly what prompted me to do the SDW again - I'd never done that 'early' bit. It was very enjoyable and it felt good to be walking what I consider to be my 'home' route once again after such a long time.

    Having finished on the Seven Sisters section, it has inspired me to walk the length of the Sussex Coast. Off-piste in terms of an official route but I think it'll be good to explore my home coast. Read about it here soon!