Walking the South Downs Way with children: part 4 Lewes to Eastbourne

It’s taken me three months to write up the final section of our 100 mile South Downs Way walk. Perhaps I left it this long so that I forgot about the decidedly autumnal weather we encountered.

In theory it was an easy 25 miles, split over three days, from Housedean Farm to the trail finish at Eastbourne. Rather than booking accommodation at either end of the route we based ourselves in a Premier Inn in Eastbourne. This gave us the opportunity to bribe the kids with big breakfasts each morning.

Watching the rain approach from Eastbourne pier
Watching the rain approach from Eastbourne pier

Unlike its hip neighbour Brighton, Eastbourne has a genteel feel, particularly out of the summer season. It was raining as we arrived but after a wet and windy wander around Eastbourne Pier and beach we discovered the great advantage of staying in a tourist town. Lots of different places to eat out!

Eastbourne Pier in the rain
Eastbourne Pier in the rain

The forecast for the next day was dry and sunny with rain and mist the following days so I decided we’d walk the last, most picturesque stretch, of the South Downs Way first. In some ways this was a great decision as we got to enjoy the fabulous coastal scenery between Alfriston and Eastbourne. On the flip side, it meant we finished our overall South Downs Way walk in horrible weather in Alfriston. A lovely village but not the grand finish I’d envisaged.

Day 1: Alfriston to the end of the South Downs Way at Eastbourne (10.5 miles + 1.5 miles to the Pier)

At Alfriston the South Downs Way splits with an inland route for cyclists and horse riders, and a rollercoaster cliff top route for walkers. Whilst the inland route offers the impressive Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure there was no chance I’d miss out on the coastal walk.

St Andrew’s church, Alfriston
St Andrew’s church, Alfriston

We set out from Alfriston following the river through the Cuckmere Valley towards Litlington. With the wind behind us and the sun shining it was perfect weather for a walk. Overhead we watched some late swallows who showed no signs of leaving for warmer climes.

Despite missing out on the Long Man we spotted an alternative chalk figure, a white horse carved into a hill across the valley. We walked through the picture perfect hamlet of West Dean with its duck pond and laboured up 200 steps through Friston Forest. From here we descended to the Seven Sisters Country Park and our first cafe stop.

River meander, Cuckmere Haven
River meander, Cuckmere Haven

We’d arrived at Cuckmere Haven, a geography teacher’s idea of heaven with its meandering river and oxbow lakes. We’d visited with good friends several years ago and I even wrote about it in one of my earliest blog posts so despite its beauty we didn’t hang around longer than it took to drink a coffee.

Overlooking Cuckmere Haven
Overlooking Cuckmere Haven

We ignored the flat path to the beach and headed up onto the cliffs. The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs, with peaks and dips between each. The walking was easier than I expected, undulating rather strenuous, although I did stop for a lot of photo breaks. It’s incredibly beautiful but all my photographs look identical – blue sea, white cliffs and green hills.

Walking the Seven Sisters
Walking the Seven Sisters

As we neared Birling Gap a crane loomed beside the cliffs. This section of coastline has suffered severe erosion over recent years, indeed thousands of tonnes of chalk collapsed last year between Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap. The crane was helping to move beach access steps which have been affected by the erosion. Sadly there’s not much that can be done for the remaining coastguard cottages, which are slowly being lost to the sea.

View from Birling Gap
View from Birling Gap

Birling Gap is on the tour bus circuit and we saw a lot of tourists on the cliffs either side. I watched in disbelief as one man crawled under a fenced off section of collapsing cliff to take photographs over the edge. There are plenty of signs around advising of the cliff dangers but they obviously didn’t apply to him.

Walking the Seven Sisters, South Downs Way
Walking the Seven Sisters, South Downs Way

Our onward route took us past Belle Tout lighthouse. In 1999 this lighthouse was moved, with hydraulic jacks and concrete beams, 56 feet back from the cliff edge. I remember seeing it on TV at the time, what an incredible feat of engineering! That said, the lighthouse wasn’t good at being a lighthouse (too prone to fog) and after a variety of lives is now a bed and breakfast.

Belle Tout lighthouse
Belle Tout lighthouse

Belle Tout was replaced by the better positioned Beachy Head lighthouse, although it was harder to see this from the cliffs. In 2013 it was the subject of a ‘Save the stripes’ campaign after Trinity House announced they could no longer afford to paint its red and white stripes and would be leaving the building to return to its natural stone colour. Campaigners successfully raised £27,000 and the lighthouse had its distinctive markings restored.

It’s not far from Beachy Head to the metropolis of Eastbourne. The South Downs Way route finishes at the bottom of a hill on the outskirts of Eastbourne. There’s an information board about the trail and a conveniently sited cafe but we decided to walk on into the town, pleased to have completed the walk in good time.

Day 2: Housedean Farm, near Lewes to Southease (7.5 miles)

The idea of walking over three days rather than two was that we could split one long day into two  two shorter ones. Useful in case of inclement weather. After all, how wet can you get in an afternoon? The answer? Very, as we found out.

With only a 7.5 mile walk planned for our second day we had plenty of time to spare. We ate a leisurely breakfast before driving to Southease railway station. The hourly train pulled in just as we arrived and we managed to jump on. Phew. It was only as we departed the station that we realised the train was going in the opposite direction to Lewes. Whoops!

Walking towards Southease, South Downs Way
Walking towards Southease, South Downs Way

After an unplanned visit to Newhaven we eventually arrived in soggy Lewes. I hoped the rain would ease off in time for our walk but it showed no sign of abating so we ate a quick lunch and decided to head out. Boarding the bus towards Brighton we disembarked at Housedean Farm, where we’d finished after our walk from Truleigh Hill YHA.

Crossing the meridien line!
Crossing the meridien line!

I can barely remember the walk. With our hoods up we focussed on the ground in front of us. It was wet, windy and misty.  There were supposed to be views. I didn’t see any. I attempted a few photographs but my phone got wet and gave up on me. It didn’t want to be outside either. My memories from this walk? The time we stopped for a chocolate break, a large field of pumpkins and crossing the meridien line. That’s it.

We perked up as we walked into Southease village. I’d parked in the YHA car park so it was only fair to give their cafe some custom. Despite being soaked the kids decided to stay outside and watch some cows being herded down the lane. I preferred to peel off my wet layers and drink coffee instead.

The day had one last sting in the tail. In my haste to return to the hotel I didn’t stop at the multi storey car park entrance barrier. I drove straight through and knocked it down. I have no excuse, I literally didn’t see it. The kids thought it was hilarious. The car park attendant wasn’t at all amused. I was the second person that day to knock it off. I retreated to my room with my tail between my legs.

Day 3: Southease to Alfriston, and on to Berwick (6.5 miles + 2.5 miles)

The downside of staying in a Premier Inn is that there’s no drying room for wet gear. Our waterproofs (I use that word cynically) and wet clothing hung from every hook and item of furniture. The kids had even attempted to dry their boots with the hairdryer. Still, it was our final day on the South Downs Way! Time to put on our walking gear for one last time.

Returning to the car park I hoped to avoid the attendant I’d upset the previous day. As I stood at the pay machine looking for my ticket I realised I hadn’t collected one the previous day. After all, I’d driven straight through the barrier, no ticket required. Oh the shame. I had to return to the attendant’s office, remind him about my misdemeanour and ask to be let out of the car park. Unlike the previous day he now found it hilarious. As did my children. Three months on they still comment on every car park barrier we approach.

Crossing Southease railway
Crossing Southease railway

We left our car at Berwick Railway Station and boarded the train back to Southease via Lewes. Fortunately the heavy rain had passed through but we were left with a misty drizzle and, at times, a fierce wind.

As we headed up Itford Hill we discovered the over-riding theme for the day. Cows. There were cows in almost every field. Huge beasts suddenly appearing in the mist on the path ahead of us. I’m not keen on cows but at least these were docile animals, more interested in grass than chasing walkers.

Misty walking on the South Downs Way
Misty walking on the South Downs Way

One benefit of the mist was that we didn’t see the radio masts on Beddingham Hill until we were almost next to them. I bet they stick out like a sore thumb on clear days.

Annoyingly the mist also meant we missed out on views down to the Seven Sisters and Cuckmere Haven. Instead we had to content ourselves with guidebook descriptions of all the things we couldn’t see.

On Bostall Hill we suddenly found ourselves buffeted by a strong wind. The kids had great fun being blown around with their jackets unzipped and arms up in the air like bats.

Horses near Alfriston, South Downs Way
Horses near Alfriston, South Downs Way

Just before reaching Alfriston we passed a large field full of horses. I mean full. Maybe fifty horses and ponies. All of whom hoped we had something to eat. They were out of luck.

Before long we were walking the final section of the track down into Alfriston. The end of our epic walk. I’m not sure what I expected. A congratulations banner strewn across the street? A welcoming party? Perhaps we should have told them we were coming. Instead we hung around the village centre for a while, hoping a bus would magically arrive and take us to our car at Berwick. It didn’t so we went for a celebratory cake and cream tea before walking back to our car at Berwick ready for the long drive home.

The end of the South Downs Way!
The end of the South Downs Way!

And there ends our South Downs Way walk! Click on the links to read my earlier sections from Winchester to Buriton, Buriton to Amberley and Amberley to Housedean Farm.

More info:

  • The great thing about staying in Eastbourne has to be the evening meals out. Over the course of our stay we ate at Pomodoro e Mozarella, Toreros Tapas and Half Man Half Burger and I’d happily recommend them all.
  • We stayed at the Town Centre Premier Inn in Eastbourne. You know exactly what you’re getting with a Premier Inn and this delivered it.
  • Trains and buses. There’s a lot of public transport options along this part of the trail which was great for us. We made use of the stations at Berwick, Southease and Lewes, along with buses from Eastbourne and Lewes.
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My top 10 highlights of 2017

As is my blog tradition I like to review the year in passing.

Of course, nothing is ever perfect and this year has had its share of sad times, frustrations and grumpy children. But there were plenty of great times too and I ticked off a few things on my UK bucket list. Without further ado here are my top 10 of 2017 (in no particular order):

1. Watching the sunset at Newborough beach, Anglesey

Brent geese flying from Newborough beach
Brent geese flying from Newborough beach

This was the most perfect sunset of the year, possibly because it was so unexpected. The weather in Anglesey was, let’s say, mixed.

Newborough beach is a long sandy beach backed by dunes and forest. From the car park it’s a half hour walk out to the tidal island of Llanddwyn Island for more spectacular views. Just keep an eye on the tide otherwise you might be spending the night there.

Newborough beach sunset, Anglesey
Newborough beach sunset, Anglesey

2. Bryan Adams at Cornbury Festival

I was never much of a Bryan Adams fan and I hated the over-played ‘Everything I do I do it for you’ song back in the 1990s. But guess what? Bryan Adams was completely and unexpectedly amazing. He’s one of those performers that commands the stage and it was a revelation how many songs I knew and could sing along with. I’m sure he appreciated my contribution.

3. Walking the South Downs Way

View from Rackham Banks
View from Rackham Banks

Back at the start of January I decided the family needed a challenge. A 100 mile walking challenge to be precise. Split over four weekends we’ve now walked the South Downs Way from Winchester to Eastbourne. Logistics and weather weren’t always on our side but the views, evening meals and sense of achievement more than made up for the sore feet and wet clothing. Not sure I can persuade them to walk the Pennine Way though.

View from Birling Gap
View from Birling Gap

4. Wereldband at Edinburgh Fringe Festival

We spent three days at Edinburgh Fringe Festival, watching an eclectic mix of musicals, comedy and theatre. All of us had our individual favourites but the one act we all agreed on was Wereldband. This Dutch group is best described as a collection of slapstick musicians but this understates their talent, imagination and energy. Sometimes there was so much going on it was hard to decide who or what to watch. If you ever get the chance, go see them!

5. Worbarrow Bay walk

Pondfield Cove, Dorset
Pondfield Cove, Dorset

Whilst in Dorset we walked from the MoD village of Tyneham to the coast at Worbarrow Bay. The path passes through land used for military practise so there’s plenty of warning notices and unusual sights to keep an eye out for.

Worbarrow Tout, Dorset
Worbarrow Tout, Dorset

The bay itself, and particularly Worbarrow Tout, is picture perfect. Although the water is freezing in May. You have been warned.

6. The Ardnamurchan Peninsula

Portuairk, Ardnamurchan
Portuairk, Ardnamurchan

We spent four days exploring the Ardnamurchan Peninsula, and it’s now one of my favourite areas in Scotland (except the Isle of Eigg, nowhere beats that). Ardnamurchan is remote, empty of tourists and stunningly beautiful. But you’d probably hate it so please don’t go!

Ardnamurchan Point
Ardnamurchan Point

7. Highland Games, Skye

Dancers at Skye Highland Games
Dancers at Skye Highland Games

There were more tourists than locals at the Skye Highland Games but the traditional mix of sports, piping and dance lived up to my expectations.

I’m still in awe of those competing in the heavy events, I really must practise my tree trunk lifting.

8. Running the Oxford half marathon

I need a challenge to keep me running regularly. There’s no way I’d ever run a marathon again but I quite enjoy running half the distance. The conditions and route for Oxford half marathon were perfect and I was pleased to run a PB. I might even do it again next year.

9. An inaugural music festival

I’ll keep quiet on the location of this as it was a private festival held over midsummer. Camping out in a friend’s field, watching a hilarious tribute act (performing 30 different musicians in an hour) and then rocking to a 90s tribute band. The kids roamed free, returning occasionally with tales of misbehaving grown ups. An excellent night and already in the diary again for 2018.

10. Twixmas walking break in the Lake District

Heading to the summit of Sergeant Man, Lake District
Heading to the summit of Sergeant Man, Lake District

I’ve previously managed to miss my yearly Twixmas walking breaks off my top 10 posts, usually because I’m more organised and have written the blog before the end of the year. But this year I’m less organised so it takes its rightful place.

Descent off of Lingmoor Fell
The traditional way off Lingmoor Fell

This year’s trip, as always with Country Adventures, was based in Ambleside in the Lake District. Our first day was spent enjoying a sunny, albeit icy, walk in the fells above Grasmere. The weather was more interesting on the second day (snow, then rain) but there was still fun to be had in the form of tobogganing and snowball throwing. A great sociable break as always.

The quick way off Lingmoor Fell
The quick way off Lingmoor Fell

How about you? What were your highlights? And what does 2018 hold in store?

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An athletic afternoon at the Skye Highland Games, Portree

I’ve wanted to visit a Highland games for years. It was on my ‘must do’ list before I’d even written my UK bucket list. So perhaps it’s no surprise that I planned our trip to Skye to coincide with their Highland games.

Field events at Skye Highland Games
Field events at Skye Highland Games

What are Highland games?

Highland games take place throughout Scotland between May and October. Although each event is slightly different they usually encompass piping, dancing, field and track events. It’s thought the games originated as a way for clan chieftains to choose their best bodyguards and fighters. Seems logical, I wouldn’t mess with someone who could toss a tree trunk at me!

The Skye Highland Games are held at The Lump. This aptly named area is a wooded promontory with a natural amphitheatre overlooking Portree harbour. It’s a great location and, although busy, it was easy enough to find a space to watch. Those more organised than us bought along picnic blankets and camping chairs. Why didn’t I think of that?

Piping

Most of the piping competitions took place the day before the main games. A fortunate coincidence from my perspective as I’m not a huge fan of bagpipes. Despite this we somehow managed to position ourselves next to the remaining piping competition. Perhaps that’s why there was a space!

Band at the Skye Highland Games
Band at the Skye Highland Games

That said, I enjoyed the interludes when the Isle of Skye Pipe Band marched through the games field. I couldn’t fail to be moved by the spectacle of the band members dressed in traditional clothing, combined with the sound of massed pipes and drums, parading through the grounds.

Dance

The dance competitions took place on the opposite side of the arena. Children of all ages, and a few grown ups, danced the hornpipe, Irish jig and reel.

Dancers - and tug of war - at Skye Highland Games
Dancers – and tug of war – at Skye Highland Games

I have two left feet so feel unqualified to report on the dance competitions. Suffice to say there was lots of jumping up and down on the spot, pointed toes and outstretched arms. I can only apologise to the Highland dancers for this simplistic description of their celebrated dance.

Track events

The track events were a mix of running laps around the arena and a longer hill race.

Whilst some of the runners looked like they’d trained hard for the races there were a smattering of tourists too. I almost wished I’d brought my trainers. Instead I contented myself with working out who I’d have beaten. And who would have beaten me.

Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games
Men’s track event, Skye Highland Games

The main running event was the hill race. After leaving The Lump competitors ran down to the beach and up the hill opposite. Runners collected a token to prove they’d reached the marker flag before racing back to the arena. It’s just under three miles in total, assuming you take the direct route. The hill climb wouldn’t have bothered me; I’d be more worried about getting lost en route!

Field events

The quintessential Highland games events are the heavy ones. Hammers, tree trunks and stones are flung varying distances and heights. It’s rather ironic this display of manliness takes place in a kilt.

Indeed, Highland Garb is compulsory for these events. An understandable, albeit somewhat bizarre, requirement given that most of the open event competitors weren’t from Scotland!

Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games
Putting the stone, Skye Highland Games

There were some seriously impressive competitors in the field events. I couldn’t lift 56lb, let alone throw it several feet in the air. There must be some very sore backs after these events.

Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games
Tug of war at the Skye Highland Games

The penultimate field event was tossing the caber. Surprisingly it’s not the distance the trunk is thrown that counts. Instead, contestants have to toss a tree trunk so that it turns end over end.

Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games
Tossing the caber (or considering it) at the Skye Highland Games

One moment will remain engraved on my mind forever. The hill race runners returned for a final lap at exactly the same time as one of the caber competitors managed to lift and toss. As the tosser (yes, seriously) staggered towards the runners with his caber I had visions of it going seriously wrong. I could hardly bear to watch. Fortunately all ended well and no runners were impaled with a caber!

I’m glad to report that my first Highland games lived up to my high expectations. Have you been to the Highland games? If so, what did you think?

More info:

  • The Skye Highland Games are held in Portree at the start of August. Tickets cost £10 per adult for the main event day, there is a reduced fee for the earlier piping competitions.
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Walking the South Downs Way with children: Part 3 Amberley to near Lewes

After a summer break we returned to walking the South Downs Way with the children. We’ve already completed the sections from Winchester to Buriton and from Buriton to Amberley. This time our walk took us from Amberley to near Lewes, with an overnight stop at Truleigh Hill YHA.

Amberley to Truleigh Hill YHA (14 miles)

As with our other South Downs weekends the logistics of linear walks take some organising. This time we had an early morning drive to Three Bridges railway station where we left the car for the weekend. From Three Bridges we took a half hour train ride to Amberley, our starting point.

Unlike our previous visit the sun was shining and our feet and shoulders were fresh and ready for the walk. Amberley is evidently the prettiest village on the South Downs Way but it was too early in the morning to get distracted by tea rooms so we skirted the centre and headed steeply uphill to join the crest of the Downs.

View from Rackham Banks
View from Rackham Banks

The path continued upwards, passing the fenced off trig point on Rackham Hill. A while later we decided to take the diversion which avoids crossing the busy A24 dual carriageway and enters Washington instead. Although longer it allowed us a quick drink in the pub and the chance to refill water bottles.

Walking towards Chactonbury Ring
Walking towards Chanctonbury Ring

Suitably refreshed we climbed again up to Chanctonbury Ring whose beech trees mark the site of an Iron Age fort and a Roman temple. Sadly much depleted by the great storm of 1987 there are several legends connected to them. Did you know you can summon the devil by running anti-clockwise round the clump seven times? Or that women can increase their fertility by sleeping beneath the trees for a night. Needless to say we didn’t try either of these.

Looking towards Steyning Bowl
Looking towards Steyning Bowl

Onwards towards the amphitheatre of Steyning Bowl, nicely framed by a field punctuated with sunflowers. In the far distance we saw the radio masts on Truleigh Hill, reminding us how far we still had to walk that day. We were also treated to views of the derelict Shoreham cement works. There are grand plans afoot to convert the works into an eco or holiday village, depending on which report you read. Until then it’s a blot on the landscape.

As we made our way down Annington Hill we were distracted by the sights and sounds of hundreds of pigs and piglets. Row after row of pigsties, full of sows lazing in the sun and piglets squeaking.

We crossed the road and climbed Beeding Hill, our last hill of the day. We met a couple of cyclists heading in the same direction and rather embarrassingly passed them on foot. In their defence it was a steep hill and perhaps easier to walk than cycle up!

Arriving at Truleigh Hill YHA
Arriving at Truleigh Hill YHA

The last mile or so was a long slog along the road to the Youth Hostel. Taunted by other guests arriving in their cars, and the cyclists overtaking us again. It was a relief to finally arrive at the YHA!

Overnight at Truleigh Hill YHA

This was the perfect location for our overnight stop. The building design was nothing to write home about but the hostel is right on the South Downs Way so no extra mileage required.

Truleigh Hill YHA
Truleigh Hill YHA

After a short rest we were picked up by friends for an evening meal and discovered that even though a pub is a couple of miles away as the crow flies it’s a whole lot further when you need to use the roads! After a twenty minute drive, via Shoreham, we arrived at the pub and decided the menu wasn’t for us. Fortunately the pub in the next village was more promising and, surprisingly, had availability on a Saturday night. An excellent evening of catching up with old friends ensued.

Back at the hostel we had a good night’s sleep and a reasonable breakfast. Although I do wish the YHA would stop offering powdered scrambled eggs at breakfast. Yuck.

Truleigh Hill YHA to Housedean Farm, near Lewes (15 miles)

After a short walk we finally got to pass the radio towers which we’d seen from far away the previous day. The site is a former air defence radar station and underground there’s a nuclear bunker and tunnels. From the looks of the web it’s a favourite for urban explorers, which always sounds like an exciting, if slightly scary, hobby.

Wonder which way the winds blows on the South Downs Way?
Wonder which way the winds blows on the South Downs Way?

From the escarpment we were able to look down to Fulking and realise just how close the pub was to the South Downs Way. If you’re walking that is.

View from Fulking escarpment
View from Fulking escarpment

Our route took in a couple of major attractions, the first being Devil’s Dyke. It’s a deep V shaped valley and, given its name, unsurprisingly home to more legends about the devil. It was a huge attraction for the Victorians with thousands of daily visitors at the peak of its popularity.

Devil's Dyke view
Devil’s Dyke view

After Devil’s Dyke we stopped for a drink at the WildFlour cafe. Located in a small walled garden at Saddlescombe Farm I was surprised to find that the current tenants of the farm had until recently farmed just a couple of miles away from our home. Small world.

Jill windmill, near Clayton
Jill windmill, near Clayton

I had shown remarkable restraint at the cafe so whilst walking through the village of Pyecombe I bought some brownie treats from a street stall. We ate these whilst walking up through the golf course, keeping an eye open for stray golf balls.

At Clayton there’s the chance to detour slightly off route to see the Jack and Jill windmills. Jack, a tower windmill, is privately owned and unusual because of it’s male name. Evidently windmills are usually given female names.

Jill windmill was another casualty of the Great Storm when she caught fire as a result of her sails moving whilst the brakes were applied. Fortunately members of the local Windmill Society came to the rescue. Nowadays, Jill is owned by Mid Sussex District Council and open to the public on summer Sunday afternoons (although it was also open when we visited in the morning). Visitors can buy stoneground flour, or just sit and enjoy the sound of the sails moving in the wind.

Braving cows on the South Downs Way
Braving cows on the South Downs Way

Onto Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex. It’s a popular destination, evidenced by the overflowing car park and ice cream van. There were plenty of cyclists too who had struggled up the steep road from Brighton. Rather them than me!

The final part of the walk was a bit of a trudge into the drizzle. That type of rain that gets you wetter than you realise. We quickened our pace to escape the rain, trotting through the woodland and down the steep hill to Housedean Farm, and the bus stop. I was relieved to discover there were frequent buses on Sunday as I really didn’t fancy walking beside the busy A27 into Lewes.

From Lewes we hopped on the train to Three Bridges, and returned to our car. Only 25 miles left of the South Downs Way!

Fast forward and read about our final walk on the South Downs Way into Eastbourne.

More info:

  • Visit the National Trails website for further information about walking the South Downs Way.
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