South Downs Way Day 8 – Alfriston to Eastbourne

Published 21 May 2010

Bunk beds. They’re dead exciting when you’re a kid. When you’re an adult, they’re not quite the same. You realise how much they creak every time you move. And when you’re on the bottom bunk, you feel the whole thing shudder when the person on top moves.

Nearly at Birling Gap

Needless to say, I didn’t have the best of nights in the bottom bunk at YHA Alfriston. Still I had no problem complying with the warden’s advice to get an “early breakfast as we’ve got a big group in.” Mind you given how many teenage rugby players filled the dining room not long after I sat down, she’d clearly given the same advice to them. Still, they had black pudding on so it wasn’t all bad, although the sausage wasn’t up to my exacting standards and the baked beans looked rather over done.

Enough! Enough of this triviality! For it’s a big day! It’s the day I would finish the South Downs Way, and, funnily enough, complete my first National Trail ever!

I was going to finish in real style. My one remaining segment of the South Downs Way would see me head to Eastbourne, walking along the glorious chalk coastline and over the mighty Seven Sisters. For my money it’s the most beautiful place in the South East of England. And even better, I had four friends to share it with and the weather looked absolutely glorious.

The Wanderers

But first there was something else to see…

Alfriston is where the South Downs Way divides. As a National Bridleway, the SDW is accessible throughout for cyclists and horse riders as well as walkers. There’s a few sections where the footpath diverges slightly, however it’s not generally significant – except for the Eastbourne to Alfriston segment which is completely different for each mode of transport.

Whilst riders and cyclists don’t get to enjoy the Seven Sisters, they do get to see the Long Man of Wilmington. And I wanted to see it too.

Looking on the map in the hostel entrance way, we formulated a plan that would see us initially take the bridleway, see the Long Man and then loop back to join the footpath section at Littlington – about half a mile away from Alfriston – to take us off to Eastbourne.

So after posing briefly for the inevitable group shot, we were off back up the road to Alfriston to pick up the bridleway and a rather steep climb to get up to the top of ridgeway. It didn’t take us long, and after briefly getting lost, we were soon towering over the Long Man.

The Long Man of Wilmington

Quite why the Long Man was drawn on the side of a hill is an interesting question and one of many debates. Indeed there are debates as to whether it’s even a man. Until 1874 it was only visible after a light dusting of snow and even then, only in certain lighting conditions. It was then marked out with bricks, and has been visible ever since.

Some speculate it’s actually a woman, and then there’s claims that its male genitalia were removed by the Victorians. Whether it’s some giant fertility symbol, or a representation of an Anglo Saxon god, we’ll never know. What I can tell you is that looking down on it from above is probably not the best view of it you’ll get.

The Litlington White Horse

Better visible was the White Horse of Littlington over on the other side of the valley. Not quite as historic, it was cut in the chalk in 1924, it was made during a full moon so that its sudden appearance would startle locals and make the people who cut it, famous. It was originally a standing horse, but is now a prancing one in order to help prevent the chalk rubble slipping. For the South Downs Way walker, it’s a much more dominating landmark and was ever present as we completed our near-circuit.

As well as admiring local landmarks, we were also treated to some great views of Alfriston and some interesting conversation from Simon who proclaimed he’d heard on Radio 4 that you can eat gorse flowers. But that when they’d tried them on air, they hadn’t mentioned what the said flowers tasted like.

Alfriston hides behind a Gorse bush

Well dear readers, I can exclusively reveal that gorse flowers taste litterally of… not very much. And I can bring you this exclusive news having tried some from the ample gorse buses of Windover Hill. They do have a sort of chive-esque consistency and maybe, just maybe you’ll get a tiny hint of citrus when you eat one however that’ll be about it. Believe me, it’s worth a try if only to see how like eating nothing eating a gorse flower is.

After the earlier very steep climb up, our chosen path sloped so gradually down to Litlington that when we finally got there there was much confusion in the ranks about how we’d even managed it as wee rejoined the South Downs Way footpath section towards Exceat. Leaving the village, and pausing for biscuits in the late morning sun, we also got to enjoy the sight of watching a large group of Scouts with very full rucksacks, struggling through a narrow kissing gate.

Casually watching them try and climb up the railings to stop the packs getting stuck in the gate, I rather unfairly I elected not to suggest to them that they might be better off just taking the rucksack off. Mean I know, but it didn’t actually occur to me until most of them had got through, and I didn’t want to make them all feel stupid. See – I’m all heart really.

Panoramic view of Cuckmere Haven

After a little more downhill along a field, the Way took us through a wide forest path and then through the hidden village of Westdean, before depositing us with a fantastic view of Cuckmere Haven.

Our original lunch plan had been to visit the pub at Exceat, however it being warm we opted for a lighter lunch at the Exceat Farmhouse tearooms. At least that was the plan.

Preparing to eat the huge baguette

Simon ordered the Brie baguette only to find a monster of a sandwich, whilst the ploughmans that Jacko, Catherine and myself ordered were some of the largest I’ve ever seen. Only the hungry Tal seemed let down. After ordering a full main meal to stave his hunger, his meal seemed the smallest of all!

Another lesson of the day was that when all you want to fill up a water bottle from Exceat Farmhouse, don’t try and use the small water fountain – it’s so small that I ended up having to fill my large Sigg bottle using a smaller plastic bottle. Instead look for the cunningly camouflaged tap right next to it!

Water bottles filled, sun tan lotion re-applied, it was time for what was for me, the highlight of the whole thing. Our afternoon walking would take us along the top of the chalky white cliffs of the Seven Sisters and beyond, all the way to Eastbourne. For my money it’s the most beautiful part of the South East of England. I’d fallen in love with it when I’d visited it a few years before and that was a cloudy and miserable weekday.

Cuckmere Haven

Whilst you could walk along the flat path of Cuckmere Haven to close to the sea, the South Downs Way actually diverts slightly to go up a small hill which gives you a good view of the meandering river and the Haven, before sloping back down to the main path. However the flat walking is over all too soon as whilst most of the visitors head off to the beach, as an SDW walker, you’ve got hills to climb!

We were now on the Seven Sisters – a series of chalk cliffs and eight (yes, eight) undulating hills which follow on from each other. Each has a slightly different style – some are steep and high, some are gentle and low.

Switzerland

The first two – Haven Brow and Short Brow – were also filled with chalk written messages from visitors. Chunks of chalk had been used to spell out a number of messages ranging from declarations of loyalty to their home nation, through to messages of love. Or merely that Kilroy woz ‘ere.

Enjoying the Seven Sisters

Whilst such wanton vandalism carried on, others were making use of the short green grass to sunbathe – curiously the preferred place for many seemed to be as close to the cliff edge as possible – or just to admire the fantastic views of the Haven. There seemed little let up in the numbers of people joining us on our stroll as we meandered along.

One of the sources of the people proved to be Birling Gap – originally a hotel complex, it boasts a large car park and access to the beach. The car park was rammed. The hotel itself was not doing a roaring trade, due to it having recently being taken over by the National Trust when the previous owner retired.

The beach at Birling Gap

The National Trust owns a significant amount of the local coastline and had promptly started a project to refurbish the building. During the works, a catering van had been parked up next to the building, and despite the hot weather, seemed to be doing a roaring trade in sausages and burgers, whilst we opted for the more obvious ice cream.

The sheer number of people there meant it wasn’t somewhere to linger in, and we quickly headed up towards Belle Tout lighthouse.

Belle Tout lighthouse

Now replaced, Belle Tout started shining its beacon in 1834 and carried on until 1901 before eventually becoming a private residence. Perched near the cliff edge, it was under threat due to erosion for some time before being moved back 17m in 1999.

It’s not safe for ever though and will probably need to be moved again in about 25 years time. In the meantime, it’s just re-opened as a B&B and you can stay there, whilst the South Downs Way runs through its grounds and past a conveniently sited ice cream stand.

Beachy Head Lighthouse

Belle Tout’s replacement was Beachy Head lighthouse which was built down at sea level. With no nearby beach access, it was a location that must have been incredibly difficult to build on, and apparently required stone to be winched down from the cliff face.

We were now on the home stretch and just a few miles to go. Passing by the Beachy Head visitor centre (and another ice cream van which made Mr Jackson very happy), we got a glimpse of our destination – the end of the South Downs and the large seaside resort of Eastbourne.

First glimpse of Eastbourne

It was all nearly at an end, but in some ways couldn’t come soon enough. Whilst it is a beautiful looking area, the constant ups and downs of walking along the cliffs had taken its toll and left everyone rather weary as we finally descended to the end of the South Downs Way.

Welcome to Eastbourne

For me, it was a real end. Over a hundred miles of walking were now complete. In celebration, we headed to the promenade and walked along the top of the beach.

In my mind I’d originally had a few visions of celebratory pints, however as we sat and listened to the sea, the long journey home sank in and we stumbled towards the railway station to board a busy train back to London.

Eastbourne beach

As the train hurtled through the landscape, I pondered the achievement. I’d successfully completed my first ever National Trail, and the first of four long distance paths I intended to complete in 2010.

It had been a good walk through some lovely scenery and countryside, through some of the finest parts of the South East of England. I’d been lucky and had had some pretty good weather and bar a rather long walk to Lewes, it had been a nice walk. There’d been lovely villages, top pubs and lots of nice scenery. What more could anyone want?

Well a bit less mud perhaps…

Your Comments

andy

29 October 2013 at 7:35 pm

Really did enjoy reading about your SDW adventure.Me and a mate are doing Winchester to Exton then onto Buriton.Gonna try copying your trip if work allows,never done anything like this before so although a little aprehensive were really looking forward to it,cheers again.Andy

John

8 July 2014 at 10:49 am

I did the SDW in May 1999 east to west (camping) when I was sweet 44.
A great walk, weather was dry; I remember meeting a guy (66 years and just retired!) walking the opposite way, he was wild camping!.
I’m going to try and do it again next year B&B and this time west to east.
Great site, keep up the good work.

William Connock

11 July 2014 at 5:07 pm

Well done for taking the time to write about your experience on the South Downs Way, very useful for those of us researching our own trips. I will be doing it the other way round as there is one very good reason for making Winchester the destination: it is home to two of the best breweries in the country, in Bowmans and Flowerpots, a fact which will definately make my feet a bit lighter on the final few miles!
William

Andrew Bowden

19 July 2014 at 8:58 pm

I sense a need to spend more time in Winchester then!

Aleithia

4 February 2015 at 10:02 am

Hey! Thanks for a great read on the walks! Would you recommend doing Lewes to Eastbourne in early Feb?

Andrew Bowden

4 February 2015 at 1:40 pm

I did most of my South Downs Way walking in February and March. It’s a good time as long as there’s no rain or snow!

Wayne Wharton

30 July 2015 at 9:53 pm

Very informative read. Looking at doing the SDW West to East next year. This will be the first long distance walk for me has I hope to aspire to the Pennine Way at some point. Thanks for the blog.

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