Disembarking from the train at Eastbourne, it is easy to have doubts about the validity of this area as a hiking destination. The dated façade of the buildings, not to mention the over-abundance of charity shops on the high street, is enough to send hikers back on the train. But head out of the town and towards Beachy Head, and the South Down Trail and Seven Sisters Country Park awaits exploration.
Gasping between breaths and munching on some blackberries from the brambles that covered the hillside, we eagerly strode up the side of Beachy Head. Even through the grey haze of clouds and drizzle, the cliff stood luminous white against a thunderous backdrop of tumbling waves and green hills. Upon reaching the summit, we were greeted with a watercolour-painting scene of a striped lighthouse at the foot of the cliffs, continually hit with sea spray and waves. The sun peeked out of the clouds for a brief moment, causing an eruption of light on the tips of the waves.
Zigzagging a trail down the side of the cliff, we struggled against the wind as it tried to veer us near the cliff edge. Head bent, I noticed the groups of petite wildflowers that dotted the hillside. Beachy Head and the surrounding region contain many rare types of flowers, along with the commonly-found British types such as honeysuckle. The purples and pinks and whites varied in size from a long, pink mullein-type to delicate five-petal flowers barely larger than the size of a pinhead.
As we reached the crest of the hill, another lighthouse sat perched on the top. More modern in design, with mud coloured brickwork and a sturdier construction, the Belle Tout Lighthouse was constructed in 1832 to stop ships wrecking against the sea cliffs. After being partially destroyed in WWII and rebuilt in the 50s, today it stands as a hotel and a reminder of the area’s nautical history. From there it is possible to make out a brown smudge in the distance, Birling Gap, the start of the Seven Sisters Country Park.
A huddle of buildings painted autumnal colours of red, cream and grey moss, these denote the Birling Gap and the start of the Seven Sisters. However it is more likely your eyes will first look at the seven hilltop cliffs that loom out from behind these buildings. A metal platform provides great views of this panoramic seaside landscape, where fishermen stand on the bank, gently snapping their rods to and fro in the water, children gaze intensely into rock pools, and surfers bob along the waves. Approaching the buildings the aroma, a mixture of firewood and fish and chips, wafts through the air.
The Seven Sisters is managed by the National Trust, and the seaside cliffs and surrounding grazing lands are free to visitors to wander. Undoubtedly the Seven Sisters and its rocky shores is the most popular attraction here, but a nearby Neolithic enclosure and the area’s diverse flora and fauna make heading further inland a worthwhile excursion. With the sun breaking through the clouds, we paced up the steep incline to the top of the highest Sister, the Haven Brow. The sea stretched off towards the horizon, with sail boats bobbing steadily in the distance. From our vantage point it was possible to see the rest of the Sisters, their cliffs shining brilliantly against the sea. Every year, approximately 30-40cm of the cliffs fall into the ocean due to erosion, turning the gurgling sea foam that crashes into the shores a unique mixture of chalk and salt water. This erosion also creates the opportunity for visitors to scour the shores and cliffs for fossils that have become loosened from the chalk.
Stopping for an improvised picnic, we laid out our raincoats and absent-mindedly snacked on apples and sausage rolls, watching seagulls call to each other overhead. Nearby, groups of people wrote their names using piles of chalk stones that littered the green field, and herds of cattle and sheep cried to each other in their herds as they grazed in the fields. This and the sound of the wind and waves were all that could be heard. Eastbourne and its crowds of people seemed dozens of miles away.
After a long interval, we reluctantly packed our bags and headed off, away from this quiet slice of the coast. Meandering down the hill, we followed the South Downs Way along the winding Cuckmere River and towards the medieval village of Alfriston.
Trains from London Victoria can be taken to Eastbourne, which will take approximately 1 1/2 hours transport and cost around £20 depending on advanced ticket purchasing. For more information on transport and things to do at Seven Sisters, log on to the National Trust website here.
To follow the route we took from Eastbourne to Alfriston/Berwick, follow the walking instructions on this website here.
For more information on the South Downs Way, please read this website here.