Tuesday, 29 June 2010

Sussex Coast Walk Day 11 Exceat Bridge - Eastbourne

Cuckmere Haven
I feel a sense of déjà vu again today as I finally get around to walking the next section of this route along my home county coastline after a break of seven months.  Actually this was a deliberate move on my part as when I last came this way in February 2009  (http://worthingwanderer.blogspot.com/2009/02/south-downs-way-day-nine-berwick.html) it was an exceptionally cold day and I vowed that I would not come here again until it was a warm and still day.  Well I definitely found the right day, although the stillness of the air meant that a rather annoying cloud sitting above me for the first couple of hours of walking time didn’t actually move and spoiled my pictures somewhat!
Watching for the Enemy

This is probably the finest coastal walk in the whole of the South-East of England (run pretty close by the south-west coast of the Isle of Wight) and should therefore be savoured in as good a weather as you can manage.  An evening walk across here is particularly special, but not on offer today.  Rather than replicate my South Downs Way walk along here (which almost completely duplicates the route from Exceat), I decided to stick as closely as possible to the shoreline.  The SDW takes a route down the valley along the sides to show as good a view of the valley as possible, but today I followed the canal cut of the Cuckmere River to its mouth.  This gave me a rather different perspective of the valley, since the sounds in the air were dominated by the calls of wading birds rather than the flocks of sheep higher up.  Lapwings in particular seemed to be quite common along here, although I also watched an extended family of geese swimming on the river itself.
Heading Along the Sisters

The canal cut of the river takes the main flow of water through the valley these days, although it is mooted to restore flow through the former meander loops to help with coastal protection and flooding.  This will undoubtedly change the character of the valley, into what is hoped to be a more natural environment (see http://www.sevensisters.org.uk/rte.asp?id=82 for more details).  Walking along the straight channel though is undoubtedly a much quicker way of reaching Cuckmere Haven.

Happy Birthday!

The tide was on its way out when I reached the beach and for walkers attempting the full distance between Seaford and Eastbourne it is worth noting that at low tide it is perfectly possible to ford the Cuckmere River at its mouth as the water level drops very low.  Given the speed of the current at high tide though it should not be attempted at any other time.  If you manage it though it will save a couple of miles of walking.
Halfway Along The Sisters

I wandered along the shingle beach, which was completely deserted.  This is probably as natural a beach as you are likely to find in Sussex and I have always had a special fondness for it ever since I first came here in my childhood.  Walking along the shingle was a bit hard going, but I soon came across a sight that I hadn’t expected to find – a World Cup football.  Surely not a stray pass from Cape Town that had drifted here?  I suspect it was a ball that had been kicked too far into the sea, which returned it to the beach later.  My good fortune I suppose.
Birling Gap

At the edge of the beach where it once again gave way to headland in the form of Haven Brow, I couldn’t help notice the collection of pillboxes protecting the beach.  I had already been past a set of tank traps, suggesting that the MoD had concerns that this unpopulated estuary posed a big security risk during World War 2.  Luckily these structures don’t detract from the scenic beauty of Cuckmere Haven but serve a reminder of what might have been needed if things had gone differently all those years ago.
Looking Back to Cuckmere

From here I started the rollercoaster that is the Seven Sisters.  Fittingly perhaps, the highest one is first and from the beach Haven Brow is a stiff climb, more than I imagined for last time I approached via the South Downs Way, a much more gentle ascent almost with the contours.  As I neared the top I paused to regain my breath and enjoy the view across to Cuckmere Haven.  This is a view almost ignored by photographers who invariably point their cameras at where I was standing from the opposite side of the valley. That view is undeniably one of the most famous coastal views in Britain, but from the top of Haven Brow the view is pretty special too!  After a brief pause I continued on my way across the Seven Sisters and enjoying them far more than the windy and cold trip I had last time!  The only annoyance this time was the cloud above more, which was thinning but almost at the same rate as I was walking, so that the cloud line seemed to be above me all the time!
Wave Cut Platform

Being such a beautiful day there was a lot more activity across the cliffs than last time, underlying what a popular walk this is.  Yet, there was still plenty of room for solitude and the presence of everybody else didn’t detract from my visit.  I soon became intrigued by an unusual form of graffiti when I noticed that many of the previous day’s visitors had spelled out messages from pieces of broken chalk on Short Brow, the second of the Sisters.
Looking Back to the Sisters

I am always surprised at how short the walk is from the top of Haven Brow to Birling Gap, which takes only about 45 minutes to an hour (depending on how long you want to admire the views for!).  The trouble is that I always think that the hardest part of the walk is done, but the truth is that the next couple of miles over Beachy Head are much harder, partly because I always think that by the time I reach Birling Gap that I have mostly completed the job! 
Belle Tout

As it was low tide and still going out when I reached Birling Gap I decided to explore the wave cut platform for a bit.  I had ideas of walking around the base of the cliffs to Eastbourne since I still had three hours before the lowest tide would be reached.  However after a couple of hundred metres of some pretty tough walking across rockpools I thought better of it, especially as I know how far it actually is around Beachy Head!  The shingle soon runs out just beyond Birling Gap and there are some pretty big rockfalls at the base of the cliffs to remind you how active this coast is.  The effect of the rockfalls is to force you out even further into slippery and tougher terrain still.  I soon decided that the nice turf of the clifftop was a much friendlier surface to walk on, even if it meant that I would have to puff and blow my way up Beachy Head!
Beachy Head Lighthouse

A little further on from Birling Gap I was pleased to see that the Belle Tout lighthouse renovations were complete and the scaffolding had been removed.  I couldn’t help but smile though when I saw that the road that I had considered to scary to walk on last time had been abandoned and replaced by another concrete road about 50 metres further inland.  I wouldn’t mind betting that the original road will be gone within 20 years, leaving no trace whatsoever.  At this point last February, I had lost interest in my surroundings courtesy of a sharp easterly Siberian wind but by now the annoying cloud above me had finally shifted and all was still and warm.  Far from being the struggle I thought Beachy Head would be, getting up to the top was a much easier prospect today.  I was rather nervous about how close some of the other visitors got to the edge, especially a Japanese couple hell bent on getting the perfect shot of the lighthouse below and taking some incredible risks in the process.
View From Beachy Head

The top of Beachy Head was thronged with foreign students, mostly German judging from their appearance and the little conversation I actually overheard.  I mostly tried to block them out so that I could enjoy the view in peace, but there were instances when I winced at the risk they were taking too.  Don’t these people realise how high up they are?  And how many people die at this spot?  A little past the top of the cliff I had an opportunity to take a diversion from the South Downs Way once again and drop down into the undercliff walk into The Meads.  The path down was incredibly steep but once I was at the bottom it was enjoyable to have this short stretch of countryside all to myself once again.  After all the views behind me looking back to Seaford, Newhaven, Brighton and beyond I was now faced with a whole new set of views across to Hastings and across Pevensey Bay, courtesy of changing direction at Beachy Head.
Approaching Eastbourne

I soon came to The Meads, marking the eastern end of Eastbourne Seafront.  I took a quick look at Helen Gardens, which were pleasant but not one of the best of parks in Eastbourne.  Sadly there was no access to the Promenade from here, so I pushed on along the seafront road a little further before dropping down into Holywell Gardens, a hidden gem along the seafront.  From here it was a rather dull walk along the prom alongside mostly older people full of boring conversations about work, what their neighbours had been saying and what offers were on in the shops.  It once again made me realise how obsessed by the humdrum so many people are and perhaps why I like walking alone so that I can just enjoy my surroundings without worrying about conversation.
Wish Tower

Eastbourne is a town I have a soft spot for, probably because of visits made as a child.  It is perhaps my favourite town in Sussex, with an understated grandeur in places and perhaps the only town along the Sussex Coast that truly celebrates its seaside setting.  The gardens along the front, even in these cost conscious times, are wonderful and seem immune from cutbacks.  Sadly this is not true of the once beautiful gardens in Old Steine, Brighton that no longer sport swathes of different coloured tulips in the spring as they did twenty years ago.  My favourite gardens in Eastbourne are the Carpet Gardens, next to the pier.  I had saved this walk for the summer principally as an excuse to see them in full flourish, but sadly it seems I misjudged a bit since they were not quite at their best, probably because of a recent change in planting.  Still the floral tributes to the Battle of Britain and the centenary of the Girl Guides were adequate compensation.
Carpet Gardens

There was just time to admire the pier before getting the bus from right outside.  There could scarcely be a more convenient spot to catch it for the short journey back to Exceat!  Eastbourne seems a rather strange climax to this walk, after the clifftops and sweeping views across the South Downs.  Nevertheless this is a truly great walk, perhaps the best in the County and definitely along the coast.  It would be tempting to do more than I did, but in truth this would be a mistake as although the distance is modest at eight miles, it makes for a comfortable trip and allows for plenty of pausing time to just admire the view.  Any more mileage and it would turn into a slog, which wouldn’t do at all.  This is a walk to be savoured!
Eastbourne Pier

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