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.
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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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!
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.
I can barely remember the walk. With our hoods up we focused 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 meridian 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.
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.
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.
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 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.