ON FRIDAY night I decided that I needed to boot up Cleopatra, the old Windows 98 machine that lives in a corner of my bedroom, because I needed something on her hard drive. Perhaps because she is ancient in computing terms, or perhaps because she is still sulking over her replacement, Pandora, she repeatedly refused to boot up. But I am a stubborn mammal, and helpful, and eventually I got my way.
By the time I had managed to get her to boot, accessed what I wanted and had done what I had planned to do, it was about five in the morning.
‘Ah,’ I thought. ‘This may not be all that compatible with my catching the first train possible (at five thirty) and walking from Eastbourne to Newhaven. I will need some sleep after all.’
Will I hell? I managed quite well once before…
Returning by Train
As it happened I actually caught the half six train because I spent an hour having some breakfast, having a shower and generally grabbing my walking things together. Stubborn and Helpful, yes, Organised Mammal: Not so much.
An hour and a half’s catnap on the train from London to Brighton, and another twenty minutes from Brighton to Eastbourne counts as sleep, right? I mean, that’s almost two whole hours. It’s not like I planned to walk a potentially exhausting 16 miles including Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters, now is it?
Anyway, I soon arrived
bleary eyed bright eyed and bushy tailed at Eastbourne Station, which was built in 1886. The third station built for Eastbourne, it was designed by FD Bannister, who as far as I know isn’t famous for anything but seems to have been a civil engineer and architect working for the London, Brighton & South Coast Railway.
The LBSCR served Sussex and part from Surrey from 1846 to 1923, when it was incorporated into Southern Railway, which itself became part of British Railways in 1949.
Given that I’d just arrived from Brighton on a train operated by (modern day) Southern. I was once again amused by the manner in which today’s post-privatisation train-operating companies hark back to their pre-nationalisation counterparts. The modern Southern Railway Ltd even incorporates the original SR’s malachite green livery into its own corporate colours.
From the station, I made my way back through Eastbourne town centre passing, as I did so, an aged shopping mall which still proudly labelled itself as an ‘Arndale Centre’, which I also found darkly amusing. Perhaps I’m easily amused, sleep deprivation can do that for you, but still.
Arndale Centres were the first attempt at ‘American-style’ shopping malls in the UK. They were built in the 1960s, 70s and early 80s by the Arndale Property Trust (proprietors Arnold Hagenbach and Sam Chippendale), which bulldozed all sorts of interesting buildings to build some of the drabbest, grimmest architectural disasters in British history. If US malls had a kind of anodyne inoffensive blandness, the UK’s Arndale Centres just robbed you of your will to live.
Brutalist concrete is never a clever architectural style in a country where it rains all the time and the sky is grey more often than it is blue.
All in all they built twenty-two (plus two in Australia) with the first opening in Jarrow, as if that town hadn’t had enough hardship. Most of them have since been renamed and usually massively revamped in an attempt to make them at least merely dull rather than shockingly horrible.
The idea that somewhere as otherwise pleasant as Eastbourne not only still has its Arndale Centre but still calls it that too came as a bit of a surprise. It’s a bit like visiting a nice restaurant and finding spam fritters on the menu between the duck and the venison.
Soon enough, though, I was back on the sea front in sight of Eastbourne Pier and the horror of the Arndale Centre (with which I refused to sully my camera) was well behind me – quite literally behind me by several hundred yards and a couple of streets. Here, on the promenade, Eastbourne was revelling in its appearance as a typical Victorian seaside resort.
I wandered merrily along the promenade, past a large bandstand, hoping vaguely that the weather forecast would prove right and that the thick sea fog that had blanketed the area at first light would dissipate by the time I mounted the chalk cliffs ahead. I glanced at my phone to check the time and realised, not for the first time, that its power level display is utterly meaningless.
I really don’t understand my phone and its battery levels. One day it’ll be happily on three bars of power then drop to one bar and then die within the space of ten minutes without my so much as sending or receiving a text. Other days, like yesterday, it will annoyingly drop to two bars just as I start my walk, then fall to one bar by midday and yet be able to send texts, take photos and generally eat power all day but still be working just fine by the time I get home late at night.
It’s random, I tell you, just random.
Slightly further along than the bandstand I spotted a building that proclaimed itself an RNLI museum. Now, I’ve sung the praises of the RNLI before, so I shan’t do that again just now but beyond the museum and visible over its roof was another structure, which had a strangely familiar design. Yes, once again keeping the UK safe from Napoleon Bonaparte, a Martello Tower guarded the coast.
This is Martello Tower 73, known as the Wish Tower. It narrowly escaped being demolished and replaced with a sun lounge in 1959 but that was fortunately seen for the madness it was. It used to be a museum but now seems closed and empty. There is a restaurant next door named after it.
Secure in the knowledge that any time-travelling soldiers from the Grande Armée would be suitably deterred, I picked up my pace and trotted along, watching some big white cliffs loom up out of the greyness ahead. As they got closer I became slightly worried that my path was in no way rising up to meet them and that a huge number of steps seemed horribly likely at the end.
Onwards and Upwards
As it turned out, the path from promenade to road level was more a series of steep slopes than steps, but then I had to enter a park and climb another hugely steep hill of wet grass and mud. Now, the thing about both wet grass and mud are that they are inherently slippery. And the thing about me, or at least one of them, is that I have no sense of balance at all.
Why, yes I did fall over, thank you asking. And yes, the two small children passing by with their parents did point and laugh, although they were gently chastised for such rudeness.
When I finally made it to the top, embarrassed and breathless, I realised two things: Firstly, the view over Eastbourne was quite cool….
…And, secondly, I’d pulled my left calf muscle. ‘Ouch,’ I said.
Given that I’d pulled my calf muscle on my way up, the only sensible course of action was now to go back down the hill and try again another day. After all, that would make the Seven Sisters altogether more difficult. No, I’d have to go home.
Yeah, like that was going to happen.
So, from the top of this lovely green hill, I started to follow the line of the coast, although not too closely as I had no wish to fall off. At this point I had joined the South Downs Way, which loops down from the hills to the north and follows the coast across the Seven Sisters. The path whisked me along past an area known as Cow Gap, although why it’s called that I have no idea.
A View to Die For
Soon enough, I made my way around the corner of the headland so that the cliffs no longer faced south-east but directly south and then south-west. At that corner is Beachy Head itself, which allegedly has excellent views – you can see as far back as Dungeness and ahead to Selsey Bill, although not when a bank of sea fog is stubbornly refusing to evaporate.
At 162 metres or 530 feet above sea level, Beachy Head is Britain’s highest chalk sea cliff. It is also a world-famous and popular suicide spot for those so unhappy that they absolutely have to leap off the tallest thing for hundreds of miles.
It is, in fact, the third most popular suicide spot in the world, beaten only by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge and Aokigahara in Japan. A number of small crosses placed at the cliff edge attest to the continuing misery of those left behind by the jumpers.
Beauty and the Breeze
The ‘Beachy’ in ‘Beachy Head’ does not derive from the word beach but from the French beauchef meaning ‘beautiful headland’ and, while it is quite spectacular, it’s hard to quite accept the scale.
Admittedly, there are taller cliffs elsewhere but still, this is high. But you see a cliff and your brain interprets it in light of how tall you expect a cliff to be. It doesn’t help that the vastness of the sea is not a useful frame of reference. No, what you need, is something else your brain understands the size of, in order to make sense of what it is seeing.
Not being the greatest fan of high places, I backed slowly away from the edge of Beachy Head with my face no doubt a rictus of terror. Not that anyone could have seen it amid the billowing gusts of white fog that obscured the general greyness of thinner sea mists. By now the sun was finally starting to make inroads on dispelling the fog however, and a howling gale of a wind also helped move it along.
Belle Tout Lighthouse
The terrain was already undulating a fair bit and I hadn’t even reached the Seven Sisters yet, which lay on the far side of Birling Gap. Before that, my next immediate destination was Belle Tout Lighthouse, which sat on a headland directly ahead.
Belle Tout lighthouse was built in 1832 and became operational in 1834. Originally powered by thirty oil lamps it consumed a staggering two gallons of oil every hour.
Unfortunately, although numerous shipwrecks had shown that a warning light was sorely needed, Belle Tout turned out to be a bit flawed when it came to actually seeing it. The root of the problem was its location on the cliff top; ships close to the cliffs couldn’t see it because the cliff itself blocked line of sight. And even ships further out couldn’t see it because – and this is a major surprise – this whole section of cliff top is prone to being shrouded in fog.
It was because of these issues that Beachy Head Lighthouse was later built at the cliff base, at which point Belle Tout was decommissioned and sold off for private use. It’s now someone’s home.
Belle Tout is a Grade II listed building, which I doubt surprises anyone, and was moved 17m inland in 1999 to prevent it being lost to coastal erosion. That’s such an easy thing to say isn’t it? They moved the lighthouse. But not brick by brick. No, they used hydraulic jacks to move the entire 850 ton structure in one piece. Given that where they moved it from is now more or less in mid air, that seems not only awesome but wise.
The Way Ahead
I was in pretty high spirits as I left Belle Tout behind me and headed off in the direction of Birling Gap. Suddenly, the mists parted and I could see much of my day’s walk laid out in front of me, which was an inspiring, and slightly intimidating, moment.
Mind the Gap
It was coming up to midday when I reached the tiny coastal hamlet of Birling Gap, which sits, as one might guess, in a gap between the cliffs. Formerly the hamlet comprised a row of fishing cottages, several of which have since fallen into the sea and the remainder of which are derelict and owned by the National Trust. Bits of pipes stick out of the cliff nearby, testament to the plumbing of houses that long since went for a swim.
Tea and Cake
The rest of Birling Gap comprises a café, bar and visitor centre, a hotel and some holiday homes. I availed myself of the chance to have a nice cup of tea and a slice of Victoria sponge because, as everyone knows, while the NT claims to be in the business of preserving the national heritage, its primary purpose is really to serve tea and cake to people on a day out.
While I sipped my tea and ate my cake, I thought a bit about toponyms, as place names are technically termed. Principally, I thought that if it had been in Kent then Birling Gap would be Birlingate, à la Margate and Ramsgate.
No such ‘gate’ nonsense for Sussex, I thought, they call a gap a gap. Only sensible place names here. Amusingly, a brief study of the map shows that East Sussex also rejoices in such place names as Upper Dicker, Crapham and Filching so perhaps that’s not so clear cut after all.
Fortified with tea and cake, the real challenge of the day now awaited in the form of the famous Seven Sisters.
The Seven Sisters
The What Now?
The Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven, which represent the eroded remnants of ancient chalk valleys and they’re quite exhausting to walk. It’s not so much that they’re high because they’re not particularly, in the scheme of things, but they are pretty steep. After you’ve done the first one or two they seem okay. if a little tiring, but by the time you’re onto the last one you’ve definitely had quite enough up.
The hills are chalk, as can be seen from the sea, and their startling white cliffs are often used in films and on TV as a stand-in for the White Cliffs of Dover on account of being both whiter than Dover and less encumbered with modern development.
The chalk is topped with a thin layer of mud and short grass, or so it seems from a distance. When you get closer you realise that it’s actually mostly topped with a mixture of sheep and rabbit droppings making a sort of poo cocktail that no doubt does the grass a power of good.
Okay, So it’s Seven Hills?
Allegedly the name ‘Seven Sisters’ actually refers to seven actual sisters who owned land here rather than the hills, which are (in order): Went Hill, Baily’s Hill, Flat Hill, Brass Point, Rough Brow, Short Brow and Haven Brow. The latter terminates with a dramatic sweep, diving into the flood plains of Cuckmere Haven, where the River Cuckmere meets the sea in the only undeveloped river mouth on the Sussex coast.
And when I say ‘undeveloped’, I mean it – there’s not even a bridge.
At this point it becomes necessary to traipse inland along the Cuckmere Valley for a mile and a half, towards the tiny village of Exceat (pronounced eks-seet). Exceat was once an important and prosperous village but raids by the French, the silting of the river and a bad case of the Black Death all led to its virtual abandonment by the fifteenth century.
These days it amounts to a tiny hamlet, home to the Severn Sisters Visitor’s Centre, which just brushes the edge of Friston Forest, and a pub called the Golden Galleon. It also possesses a small iron bridge – the lowest crossing point of the river – which is why I had gone there.
Just next to Exceat Bridge was this sign:
Cuckmere Haven Again
The path from Exceat back to the sea followed the Cuckmere Valley floor. Given that Cuckmere Haven is a flood plain and that it had been raining pretty solidly for two days before, you can imagine the sort of sticky quagmire that this involved. On the other hand it was nice and level. Before long, I had reached the pebble beach of Cuckmere Haven, which was heavily used by smugglers in the sixteenth to eighteenth centuries.
A history of smuggling is typical for this whole stretch of coast, as I have mentioned on previous walks, and I wasn’t exactly shocked and amazed to learn that Cuckmere Haven saw a pitched battle between smugglers and customs men in 1783 involving hundreds on each side.
The smugglers won, by the way.
At low tide, one can apparently see the rusted remains of the Polynesia, a German ship that ran aground laden with sodium nitrate in 1890. However the tide was well on its way in when I got there and Polynesia‘s carcass was safe from my prying eyes as I’d neglected to bring any scuba gear (and wouldn’t know how to use it even if I had).
From Cuckmere Haven I climbed up to the top of Seaford Head where, looking back, I could see the Seven Sisters in all their glory.
It soon became apparent that if I thought the ups and downs had finished with the Seven Sisters then I had another think coming. Seaford Head also comprised number of eroded hills, which were no less dramatic.
I was starting to feel a little tired now and while my left calf had somehow sorted itself out my right knee was now starting to protest at all the hills. Fortunately, I could take my mind off it by thinking thoughts of unbridled hatred and contempt for the pointless mutants that had chosen to build a golf course marring this beautiful scene. I loathe and detest golf courses with a vengeance.
Not long after that, I found myself gazing down upon Seaford:
Seaford was a major port in the Middle Ages but suffered badly from a combination of French raids and the silting up of its harbour. The French burned the town several times in the fourteenth to sixteenth centuries, while in the seventeenth it would become more infamous for wrecking.
Wrecking, for anyone who doesn’t know, is the setting of false harbour lights to lure ships onto the rocks so that you can loot the wreck. Needless to say, this didn’t help its status as a badly declining port.
Another thing that didn’t help Seaford was that the River Ouse, which used to meet the sea there, changed its course following a major storm in the sixteenth century, to emerge at the village of Meeching instead, which subsequently became known as Newhaven.
Seaford languished until the nineteenth century brought first trains and then holidaymakers, creating a renaissance for the town as Victorians flocked to its lovely sandy beaches. Unfortunately a combination of longshore drift and the effect of a new breakwater at Newhaven had stripped the town of its beaches by the 1980s.
A major and expensive operation to dredge up a new beach was carried out in 1987, moving a million tonnes from sandbanks further out to sea only to see most of it washed away again in the unusual hurricane-strength storm that struck later that year.
As I made my way down towards the current beach of sand and shingle — the product of a later less-doomed attempt — I passed some mysterious ruins clinging to the edge of an eroding cliff. These turned out to be the remnants of Seaford Head Battery, an eighteenth-century fortification defending Seaford Bay.
Later, the battery also acted in support of this:
It turns out that Seaford is no stranger to martial prowess and claims connections with no less than seven recipients of the Victoria Cross in addition to having hosted troops in both world wars.
Insufficent Cake Error
All this military hoohah was all very well but what I was in need of at this point wasn’t an old fort or a war hero but rather somewhere to get a cup of coffee and a bite to eat. Unfortunately, Seaford appeared to be shut. No, really, I wandered its streets for a good twenty minutes (starting at about half past four) and then gave up. Forlornly, I sat on the sea front and downed a bottle of lemonade I’d been carrying since Birling Gap, while I did some mental maths.
Right, I said to myself. It’s ten to five now. The sun sets at ten past. I’ve got maybe half an hour of twilight, more like twenty minutes of actually useful light. How far is it to Newhaven Town Station? Two and a half miles. Ish. Well, that’s easy enough at a fresh walking pace but right now, tired and hungry and having just done the Seven Sisters? It’s going to be a challenge.
And so, finding myself in the familiar situation of racing against the daylight (and secure in the knowledge that I’d actually brought a torch with me just in case) I charged off along the beach as fast as I was still able to manage.
The path soon stopped being a beach promenade and turned into a poorly maintained footpath that had clearly been made by pouring concrete between the rails of an old, disused railway track. This took me into the eerie remains of Tide Mills, a derelict village shown only by its foundations and a few low walls. I watched as the sun set and slowly dipped beneath the sea, squinting at my map in the twilight as I realised I’d missed the path I needed to take some five minutes back.
Tide Mills was a village centred around a tide mill — who’d’ve guessed, right? — comprising the mill, a number of cottages, a hospital and other buildings, including a railway station (hence the tracks).
The mill, which had been built in 1761, ceased operating in 1900 and the village was condemned as unfit for habitation in 1936. Three years later the last residents were forcibly removed and the village itself was levelled during the war to provide clear fields of fire for the coastal defences.
It’s pretty spooky in the failing twilight and I’d have taken some more pictures except they would never have come out.
From Tide Mills the path became a muddy track along the banks of the Ouse, which eventually ended, after what seemed like an eternity of ankle-deep mud, at a pedestrian bridge over the railway. This led to what appeared to be an industrial estate and I followed the road past Newhaven Harbour Station until I started to see houses and a pub. I could have stopped at Newhaven Harbour, and it was now properly dark, but I figured I was aiming to get to Newhaven Town Station and so that’s what I’d do.
Ten minutes later I had found it, a strangely small station sited where the LBSCR had once kept its locomotive depot.
A brief scenario of catch 22 hilarity ensued in which a sign on the ticket office indicated that it was closed (and could I please by my ticket from the machine) while the ticket machine had run out of tickets and so directed me to the ticket office. I stuck a quid in the Permit to Travel machine, which was working, and resolved the issue at Brighton when I got there.
Permit to Travel machines are usually only turned on when the station is unmanned and, if you can’t otherwise buy a ticket, they allow you to pay something towards one to show willing in the expectation that you’ll sort it out later. The key thing here is that if you have a permit to travel then you can’t be charged the £20 penalty fare for travelling without a valid ticket. Whereas if you don’t have one, you will be. A fellow passenger — a teenage girl who had snottily declared: ‘if they won’t sell me a ticket, I’ll travel without one’ — found this out the hard way. The fare from Newhaven Town to Brighton was £3.60, a bargain compared to the penalty fare.
When I finally made it home, I remembered to do a bit of stretching and had a nice hot shower. The stretching really works, I feel less stiff and achy today than after any of my previous walks!
This time: 16 miles
Total since Gravesend: 196½ miles