Tuesday, 3 September 2019

Friston Forest, The Seven Sisters and Cuckmere Haven

Cuckmere Meanders
This is one of the classic walks in Sussex and it would have been seriously remiss of us not to do it while staying in the Cuckmere Valley.  It is a walk that has pretty much everything - beautiful forest, dramatic cliffs, an unspoiled river valley and a rustic village.  It is another of those parts of Sussex of which I am particularly fond.  This walk can be found in volume 67 of the Pathfinder Guides East Sussex and The South Downs.  Doing this walk during the summer months is probably best done early morning or in the evening because parking at the Seven Sisters Country Park can be at a premium on a weekend day.  We were fortunate enough to be able to avoid the weekend and go quite early in the morning.

West Dean Church
From the car park we crossed the busy A259 - this has become monstrously busy and it isn't easy finding the best spot to cross.  It doesn't really matter whether you decide to park by the river or in the forest either as they both entail crossing this road.  Possibly easier first though as we found for the traffic was lighter early in the morning.  We walked up the small grassy slope to the gap in the wall at the top.  It certainly pays to look back at this point as the view towards the sea is one of the classic Sussex views.  The meander loops that are very evident in the valley are unnatural ox-bow lakes that were by-passed when a cut through was made.  I'm still not clear why this was done for the river is almost unnavigable along its entire length by all but the smallest of vessels.  When you see the oxbow lakes up close you realise how shallow they are in the absence of water feeding them from upstream.  There have been various proposals to re-instate the meander loops but they have so far come to nothing and as a result the landscape still looks pretty much the same as it has in my whole life.

Colourful Field
Once in the forest the surroundings could not be more different.  Almost instantly we lost the relatively modest height we had gained, this time down some steep steps into the small village of West Dean.  This little place has always exuded money but having not been here for a few years it somehow seemed more opulent than I ever remember.  I wonder how it would have looked one hundred years ago before the forest came into existence or it became so accessible by car?  I'll wager it was a forgotten backwater with most of the residents on very low disposable incomes.  The character of the village must have changed considerably when the forest was established in the 1950s.  I can remember as a child that most of the trees surrounding the village were once conifers but they have gradually been replaced by beech trees and it looks like a much more natural woodland these days as a result.

Friston Church
The church in West Dean is of particular note as it is Saxon in origin and as such is by far the oldest in the Cuckmere valley.  It is certainly worth taking a short detour off the advertised path to take a closer look.  It is surrounded by some flint buildings of genuine antiquity but showing signs of gentrification and renovation in recent years - the new looking mortar is a giveaway and they certainly cannot be described as rustic any longer.  Having taken a deserved look at the church we continued up the hill noting that cars seemed to be allowed up here but only if you had a key to the gate.  It seemed a little strange until we realised that not much further on were some cottages deep in the forest that probably once stood in open downland.  I'm not entirely sure I would like to live in such a location - it must be quite scary being surrounded by so many trees on a wild blustery night when the trees wave about and limbs break off.

Friston Pond
We kept right at the next path junction and walked a fairly lengthy section through the trees, dropping down into a valley and continuing straight on up the hill on the other side until we reached an area that we always referred to as The Gallops when I was a child.  I imagine that race horses must have trained here once upon a time.  I'm not sure if that is still true but what is undeniable is that seeing such an expanse of grassland after so much forest is quite surprising.  We skirted along one side of it and dropped down into the next dry valley where we had to take a dog-leg detour around Friston Place.  This 16th Century house was once owned by Sir Hartley Shawcross, Attorney General in the Attlee Government shortly after World War II.  He was the British representative in the Nuremburg Trials.  There are some nice glimpses of the house as you go around the perimeter wall - apparently the gardens open occasionally for charity if you want a closer look.

Departing Ferry
We climbed up and away from the house, crossing some pastures as we did so.  We came upon a sheep trapped in a thorny branch and once we had done so the hapless creature ran away at a rate of knots.  I caught sight of a beautiful field beyond, full of poppies and various yellow flowers and especially ragwort.  Perhaps they could have been considered weeds to anyone wanting to use the field for grazing but they did make for a colourful sight.  Sadly I couldn't get a very close look for it was beyond the private drive to Friston Place and I had to make do with my distant view.

Crowlink Cottages
We climbed up to the tiny village of Friston with its squat church and small pond at the heart.  Sadly the church is anything but peaceful these days as it is passed by the busy A259.  We crossed the road and I took a closer look at the pond which appears to have been taken over by a conservation group.  There is an observation platform and some interpretation boards and it looks like a habitat that is full of life.  Beyond the church and the landscape changed once again as we entered the Crowlink estate.  The forest was replaced by open downland full of grazing sheep.  Beyond them and we could see the Newhaven to Dieppe ferry leaving for the morning sailing.  It was a journey that we would be making ourselves not long after completing this walk.

View Across Seven Sisters
The path continues down through the beautiful Crowlink Estate all the way down to the cliff edge of a valley between two of the Seven Sisters.  Long time readers of this blog may well remember me coming this way on previous walks, notably when I completed the South Downs Way and then later the Sussex Coastal Walk.  For the first time though I would be walking in the opposite direction, so that the highest of the Sisters, Haven Brow, would be last.  We actually climbed Brass Point first and then in turn we went across Rough Brow, Short Brow and then Haven Brow.  

Closer Look
The views along the Seven Sisters are quite magnificent, for my money they are the finest chalk cliffs  in existence bar none and are far nicer than the more celebrated White Cliffs of Dover.  They appear to have caught the attention of Japanese and Chinese tourists and we passed several groups of them as we walked westwards.  They appear to have far too little fear of the height of the cliffs as many of them got far too close to the edge - we hollered at one group who were practically on the edge looking down.  They clearly have no understanding of how crumbly these cliffs are - we had visions of We lingered at the top of Haven Brow for some time admiring the view across the Cuckmere Estuary - it's rare I get to see it from this angle more's the pity as it is just as magnificent from this side as it is from the other side.

Cuckmere Estuary
The path doesn't go straight down the side of Haven Brow to the beach  below much to our relief.  A path as steep as that is a little hard on the knees.  Instead we headed inland on a much more gentle path that dropped down to the side of the river valley much more slowly.  It's a path that allows for the view to be extended for a much longer time and is definitely easier to negotiate!  At the bottom of the hill we joined the concrete road that once was the course of a tramway that took gravel from the beach to a station where the car park is that we used.  The line was open from 1930 to 1964.  The concrete road is a useful way for cyclists and all manner of non-powered transport to get to the beach, ideal for disabled people and people with pushchairs.  We didn't follow the road all the way back - at Foxhole the path takes the line of the South Downs Way up and over the small ridge to the right hand side.  We got a good view of the wildlife in the ox-bow lakes and especially a number of egrets that were busy fishing.  I wasn't sure that fish lived in this brackish water but I guess there must be plenty judging by the number of fishing birds.

As we returned to the car park there were plenty of visitors heading out for the day.  We felt a little smug knowing that we had already had the best of the weather and the countryside mostly to ourselves.  This is a fantastic walk and it is hard to believe that it packs in so much to its relatively modest 6 mile length.  I cannot recommend it highly enough if you find yourself in East Sussex.
Picnic at Exceat Barn

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