After a lovely breakfast we set off on a scenic coastal ride via Beachy Head, the Birling Gap and the Seven Sister Country Park, our stalwart coach driver Jim, deposited us safely in Alfriston village. Non walkers were headed for the dizzy heights of Brighton town.
Both A and B walking groups then enjoyed a brief opportunity to sample the delights of the charming location of Alfriston.
Alfriston is known to be ‘possibly the oldest village in England‘. There are neolithic long barrows nearby as well as clear evidence of occupation in Saxon times, the village being referred to as Elfricesh-tun in the Domesday Book. One building of historical importance is the Star Inn. Originally a religious hostel built in 1345 and used to accommodate monks and pilgrims en route from Battle Abbey to the shrine of St Richard, patron saint of Sussex, at Chichester Cathedral, it became an inn in the 16th century. In the front is a one-time ship’s figurehead representing a red lion. (See Gallery)
The Alfriston parish church, dedicated to St Andrew, also has Saxon origins, although most of the building dates from the 14th century: it is known, because of its size, as The Cathedral of the South Downs
The plan was for the party to split into two groups. The A Walkers to tackle the more challenging coastal section, whilst the B group embarked on the inland bridle way route.
So after both parties had crossed the White Bridge over the Cuckmere River, we waved farewell and went our separate ways.
A Walk – A short climb through fields led us to a ridge with a view across the valley, where on the opposite hillside a White Horse is carved in the chalk. We then undertook a stepped climb through Friston Forest, the gradient a sign of things to come perhaps? A further downhill stretch led us into West Dean. This is a tiny collection of beautiful cottages, complete with a duck pond, nestled in a wooded fold. Another steep stepped climb through trees followed and we found ourselves looking down over the Cuckmere Valley to Exceat, which is the gateway to the Seven Sisters Country Park.
A descent down a sloping grassy bank through a gate next to a concrete path and a tea-break at this point. The flat concrete path follows the banks of the river out to the coast and beach at Cuckmere Haven.
Smuggling of wool, brandy and gin, was rife along the Sussex Coast, with Cuckmere Haven and Birling Gap, being favoured places for gangs of smugglers to load, and unload their contraband in the late 18th and early 19th centuries. One of the most infamous groups was the ‘Alfriston Gang’, who would smuggle goods to and from Cuckmere Haven along the Cuckmere River. The leader of the gang was Stanton Collins, who owned the now aptly named ‘Ye Olde Smugglers Inn’, from where the group plotted their exploits. These included a raid on a Dutch ship wrecked at the Haven. The figurehead of the ship, as mentioned, stands next to the Star Inn in the village. Stanton Collins was eventually arrested in 1831 for sheep-rustling, and was shipped off to Australia.
The more ambitious walkers in this group followed the higher Coast Path to find the less ambitious ‘path walkers’ waiting at the gate below the hill. 5 miles into the walk now and here the weather turned against us, a roaring thunderclap and the promise of rain by 11am but in the event, sharp though it was, the squall seemed to move out to sea and we were relatively spared.
After a short stretch on the concrete path, the route bears left up through a field, to reach the roller coaster which is the Seven Sisters, a series of chalk cliffs which form part of the South Downs in East Sussex, and are remnants of dry valleys in the chalk Downs, Barry tactfully advised here that due to coastal erosion, there were now Eight of these dear sisters to negotiate. The challenge began!
The views from here are far reaching as the group climbed and descended in sequence. Eventually, the National Trust owned Birling Gap was reached and a breather welcome. Another climb followed up to the Belle Tout Lighthouse, now a bed and breakfast facility. The way then goes down Frost Hill before beginning another ascent to famous Beachy Head, which is the highest point along the whole of the SDW. A perfect spot for a group picture – we may never come this way again! We were all counted out and counted back in after Beachy Head – thankfully all present and correct.
The route progressed alone Peace Path where there are War Memorials to Bomber Command. From this point the splendours of Eastbourne come into sight. A relief to aching limbs after this most wonderful walk where we defeated not only eight considerable inclines but even the threatening clouds moved out to sea for us and the cool breeze was totally welcome. Perfect walking weather.
More meandering along the coastal path, before the track descended sharply into Meads and the official finish of the South Downs Way.
A challenging walk without doubt, but an excellent opportunity to experience the delights of one of the best stretches of coastal footpath in the whole of the British Isles. We were blessed today, for 12.5 miles.
Well done to all the tough walk-walkers today, a great group in high spirits, everyone pulling together – a true achievement which will go down in Club History as one of the most stunning walks ever completed.
B Walk – After a short field crossing, 17 Ramblers joined the bridle way path, which climbed steadily for a time, to reach the ridge at the top of Windover Hill. Here there were panoramic views of the valleys and countryside surrounding Alfriston, including a covered reservoir. We enjoyed a coffee break here, where the location lived up to its name! On recommencing the walk along the chalk paths, the sight of the carved white horse appeared across the valley, which is situated on the hillside above the hamlet of Litlington.
Soon we passed through woodland, which was awash with garlic, the aroma of which was rather pungent. A downhill section followed into Jevington, the four mile point, and our lunch spot. The weather, which was good at the outset, had deteriorated somewhat by this point, so we were glad to take shelter in the porch of the Church of St Andrew. Some brave members of the party however, sat under the trees in the grounds.
After our refreshment, and a brief look inside the Church itself, the sun put in an appearance once more, and we continued on our way, and down into the village itself. Here we passed the now closed Hungry Monk Restaurant. There is a plaque on the wall of this building, informing travellers that the well known dessert, Banoffi Pie, was created here in 1972.
Leaving Jevington, the track took a gradual ascent between valleys for just under a mile, and then emerged on a grassy hill top, with far reaching views to be enjoyed. There was a trig point here, and our first sighting of Eastbourne in the distance. The coast and a view to the Seven Sisters was also possible at this point, plus on the distant horizon, many wind turbines were visible.
Soon we passed by the first of two concrete Dew Ponds we encountered today. Shortly after this the sky became extremely dark, and it was necessary for everyone to don wet weather apparel, as the heavens opened, and we all got rather damp! The path then wound across Eastbourne Golf Course, and then after crossing a road, we continued along a track before seeing our second trig point and Dew Pond. The rain eased and before long we began the descent into Eastbourne itself, and the completion of our journey along the inland section of this final stretch of the SDW. The route officially ended at the Kiosk here in Meads Village. At these premises a small number of the group took advantage of the delicious cakes and liquid refreshment on offer. Very indulgent, but thoroughly enjoyed.
A few of the remaining walkers caught the bus back into Eastbourne town centre, whilst those still with the energy and the enthusiasm after our 8 mile jaunt, strolled another mile plus along the traffic free Holywell Promenade back to the Palm Court Hotel.
The route was very well signed with the National symbol of the Acorn, and although this bridle way section can also be used by cyclists, those we encountered on our trip, caused us no inconvenience. However, we only saw two horse riders, and those we saw as we began our walk over the White Bridge from a Alfriston.
Thanks to back markers Mike J and Hilary for keeping us all in check, and also a very personal thank you to all my very amicable walking companions on Saturday. You all managed extremely well, and should be very proud of yourselves. Everyone of you helped to make the day so very memorable, and I hope you enjoyed the experience as much as I did personally. I must however apologise for not getting the weather 100% correct, and I will endeavour to do better in the future should the opportunity to lead you on another occasion present itself. Take care and happy rambling.