South Downs Way: Eastbourne to Southease
Unable to sleep I got up early and headed off for the first train from London Bridge to Eastbourne, it was a Bank Holiday Monday, so my local train station was operating, and I arrived in Eastbourne around 8:25. It was early enough that few people were up and about, I made my way down the high street looking for somewhere to buy some lunch, eventually find an M&S, buying a sandwich and some oat bars. The walk starts to the west of Eastbourne and I headed off along the promenade to get to the start, the day was shaping up to be a warm one, lots of people were out walking their dogs. I got to the start of the walk around 9:15 am, and spent a few minutes eating a few oat bars and setting up my walking poles. I’d learn’t from my earlier attempt at the South Downs Way and had slimmed down what I was carrying to be lightweight, using my super light Granite Gear Virga 2 rucksack and only carrying food and 2 litres of water, expecting to be able to refill my water at water points on the route. There is a small café called “The Kiosk” at the start of the walk, I could have done with a cup of tea but the café was still being opened up while I was there so rather than wait I set off.
The path starts with a steep climb along a well-marked path before heading off to the western, looking back there were great views over Eastbourne and out to sea, it was a beautiful day with a lovely blue sky. The path heads off west, following the line of the cliffs passing Cow Gap on the way to Beachy Head which is soon reached with it’s famous lighthouse, which despite being fairly tall itself is dwarfed by the cliffs which are around 160 metres high at this point. Unfortunately this height is why Beachy Head a popular spot for those unhappy individuals who want to commit suicide, when I was here a few years ago there were a number of memorials dotted along the cliff but these were removed in 2018. There were a lot of people on the walk by this time, not all walking the South Downs Way, mostly they were people coming to Beachy Head, walking their dogs or enjoying the scenery. From Beachy Head the walk starts a sequence of up and downs, with some fairly sharp descents and ascents, and on the next ascent you reach the old lighthouse, known as Belle Toute which was decommissioned in 1902 and is now a luxury (and very expensive) bed and breakfast.
The next major landmark you reach is Birling Gap and the spectacular Seven Sisters (a series of chalk cliffs), owned by the National Trust, There is a café, a shop and some toilets here, and to say the place was busy would be an understatement, it was rammed. There were people queuing for the toilets as social distancing was still in force, I’d wanted to fill my water bottle here, but it looked like the water point was not in use, so I queued up for a cup of tea instead. I got my cup of tea and a fruit scone, slightly annoying the sales assistant who insisted on giving me a plastic box for the scone and refusing just to hand it to, so I just took it out of the box which I left on the counter. It seems madness to use so much plastic when there is no need, I don’t really understand why when we are told we should be reducing our use of single use plastics that so many places insist on using so much of it, especially when a paper bag would be just as good. I set off again and found somewhere to sit in the shade and ate my scone and drunk the tea, remembering coming here as a child on a wet and windy day, I insisted on staying in the car as I didn’t want to get wet, while everyone else went off for a swim.
There were a lot of people on the route as I walked on towards Cuckmere Haven, the path continuing in a series of up and downs each with names such as Rough Brow and Rough Bottom, or Flagstaff Brow and Flagstaff Bottom, once passing a memorial to two brothers killed in the Battle of the Somme during World War 1. Reaching Haven Brow there are great views of Cuckmere Haven and the Cuckmere River, bringing back memories of an O’level geography trip, studying the river from one of its sources to the end. Lots of people were on the beach or walking up from the beach. I think I was the only person not dressed for the weather, wearing a shirt, long walking trousers topped off with a sun hat, rather than a t-shirt and shorts, but I prefer to keep as much of my skin away from the sun. I did however sit down for a few minutes, taking off my hat and relaxing while I drank some water and studied the map, here the path turns away from the coast and heads inland towards Alfriston.
The route passes through the Seven Sisters Country park, you are mean’t to climb back up on to the downs once you have descended from Haven Brow, but I missed the turning and kept along the path by the side of the river. The river is managed here and the natural course has been improved by the addition of a man made channel, but there were a lot of people messing about in the water on a variety of paddle boats etc. At the small group of building known as Exceat, where I joined up with the correct route once again, you have to cross the A259, which was pretty much gridlocked to the West and heavy with traffic coming from the East. The crowds here made those at Birling Gap look like amateurs, angry drivers, people wandering around eyes glued to their mobile phones, dangerous road crossings, it was like being back in London. Taking my life in my hands I crossed the road and headed towards the public toilet hoping to fill up my water bottle at the water point, but again it was closed, this was worrying as I had a lot of miles to go and only a litre or so of water left.
Getting back on the route, ascending away from the madness and reaching a stone seat at the brow of a hill, where I stopped to take in the views and grab a drink, before heading on to the small village of Eastdean descending via a nice cool track in a wood and continuing on passing by an usual looking cottage, (no photo), before starting what looked like a long ascent but luckily the path turned towards the North West and contoured round the hill, mainly keeping within a wood before descending steeply via some steps and again ascending through a large field of young wheat. Looking to the West from here you can see the Litlington White Horse which seemed to be very popular with paragliders, around a dozen were buzzing around the horse, it looked fun. At the top of the field you descend to the small village of Litlington, passing through a swinging gate, where a group of mountain bikers kindly let me pass through first and head towards the right down the road, past the busy looking Plough and Harrow pub, after which you turn left back to the River Cuckmere which is followed all the way to Alfriston. Once you near St Andrews church in Alfriston, the path crosses the river and takes you right and then left to the centre of the village, coming out opposite the village shop, where I purchased a large bottle of water and a beef and horseradish pie. I sat down on a bench near the shop and ate the pie, while sipping the water and generally relaxing. There are a number of pubs and cafés in the village, I considered getting a cup of tea, but dismissed the idea, preferring to rest in the sun for a while.
The day was getting even hotter and there were still quite a few miles to get to Southease station, about 8 according to my map, so I set off again, the path out of the village was easy to find, and involves another semi-steep ascent on a road and then a trackway. I found this part quite eye scorching as the track was white chalk which dazzled in the strong sun. Looking back the views were great, and the path continued on gently upwards for quite a long way, pass grasslands with wild flowers and once passing a field of Shetland ponies and some lovely looking foals. You climb up to around 180 metres above sea level where you are on the top of the downs, the path continuing in a series of up and downs, passing the occasional tumuli and car park. At Bostal Hill there were a number of paragliders sitting round, only one of them actually in the air, I got the impression from listening to them that this wasn’t the day to be paragliding at this location, I guess they should have gone to the white horse.
There were a number of people walking in both directions, a lot of them now sporting the signs of sunburn, with their necks or calves looking quite red, I’m glad I covered up for the day, otherwise I’d be in for some pain tomorrow. Reaching Firle Beacon I sat down for 10 minutes and admired the view, it was only another hour or so to Southease, so I felt like the day was nearly over, or at least the walking part of it. A family of 4 walking the South Downs Way over the half-term asked me to take their photo, they were staying at Southease YHA tonight, I thought it was a nice type of family holiday, though I don’t think I could have ever convinced my wife and daughter to do something similar. After Firle Beacon the route continues directly West, whereas from Alfriston the direction of it is generally to the North West.
It was about 5 kilometres to Southease station, after 3 or so kilometres you pass some radio masts at Beddingham Hill, before descending Itford Hill, where there are fine views towards Lewes and Southease church can finally be seen. Last time I’d walked this route, I’d arrived at this point to see the hourly train departing from Southeast station, so was stuck with a long wait, hopefully the same thing wouldn’t happen again. The sun was pretty relentless now, it was the hottest part of the day, and on the chalk ridges there is no escape from the weather, if it’s raining you’re in the rain, if its sunny you’re getting the full amount of sunshine. As I got to the bottom of the hill I was passed by a group of tired looking mountain bikers, most of whom were pushing their bikes, the last rider had sunburnt legs from her thighs to her calves, it looked painful. I reached the station with 20 minutes to go till the next train, I briefly considered continuing on to Juggs Lane and then onto Lewes but having done around 18 miles already, I decided it would be better to leave it till the next time.