The colours were vivid. Our surrounding views dominated by blue, green and white as we rolled up and down with the ebb of the grassy, coastal landscape. The air was cold as condensation exhaled from us; our eyes squinting through the winter sun, hitting the glare of the reflection from the blue-grey English channel to our right.
We were walking on the edge of England; undertaking a two day walk along the clifftops of the south coast of Sussex, starting from the port of Newhaven to a hostel in the pretty village Alfriston, via the mouth of the River Cuckmere. After an overnight stop, our walk would continue along the South Downs Way, along the tops of the Severn Sisters chalk cliffs to finish in the seafront town of Eastbourne.
We arrived into Newhaven – a small coast port town just over an hour from London by train, early on a Saturday morning. Our plan was to escape the bustle of London for fresh country air, leaving Victoria station to make the most of the rare combination of an excellent winter weather forecast and free time; the conditions seasonally cold, but bone dry, calm and without clouds – absolutely perfect walking conditions we were eager to make the most of.
Unfortunately, a thick blanket of black smoke enveloped Newhaven upon our arrival, emanating from an industrial fire in a recycling centre, the plume dominating the town and slowly drifting out to sea. We didn’t linger in the town, quickly joining the Vanguard Way footpath running in between a channel to the sea and the railway line to Seaford, the next town along the coast to the east.
After a mile of walking through avian populated marshlands, the path reached the large stretch of shingle beach running between the two towns – we were at the edge of a flat marshy landscape adjoining Seaford’s concrete promenade, the soothing sounds of breaking waves reaching the loose stones as we passed rows of pastille coloured beach huts. The tranquil sounds of water running over stone (is there a better sound in nature? Let me know!) were quickly replaced by the heavy machinery from Environment Agency contractors reshaping and adding to the shingle as part of storm defence work, as we passed by the town, and starting to gain height as the path rose up to Seaford Head, and first sight of start white chalk cliff formations beyond.
The thin layer of grass on Seaford Head suddenly comes to an abrupt conclusion, the pure white facades of the chalk dropping down to the sea below, the forces constantly pounding at the base, wave after wave, causing the erosion over time and slow retreat of the cliff inland. We reached the high point of the headland, pausing the look at the views both beyond and ahead of us.
The grassy path spread out, following a gap between the edge of the cliffs and the golf course before sloping away, leaving a perfect gap for the epic view that awaited. Ahead of us, we spotted our first sighting of Seven Sisters cliffs – an iconic stretch of picture postcard natural landscape we would be walking along the next day.
After a quick pause to admire the views of the incredible cliffs, set perfectly against the blue sky, we headed towards the mouth of the River Cuckmere, passing the row of pretty, picturesque Victorian coastguard cottages set dramatically upon the sloping ends of the Seaford side of the coastline.
The Cuckmere Haven is a fantastic example of a slow, meandering riven basin; an area of flat in an otherwise hilly landscape; the last reaches of the river making its slow approach to the sea beyond. I say it is a fantastic example, as the area is now almost preserved in time – the carvings and erosions of the river replaced in the 19th Century by a straight lined channel from the road about a mile inland, in effect making the gently curving river a still body of water not affected by the effects of moving water. We would get a higher perspective of the floodplain the following day. I had last visited the area at least about fifteen years previously as part of a geography class school trip, and I’m fairly sure it was partly this trip that helped to inspire my love of the natural landscape.
Leaving the coast and heading inland, we kept the artificial channel to our right and towards the busy road cutting across a slightly higher portion of the valley. We were stopped by a man in the pub car park, asking us directions to the nearby village of Litlington – coincidently the location of a pub and our destination for the evening, a five minute walk from the YHA accommodation. The OS map was in my pocket, hidden from view, so presumably we must have looked like we knew what we were doing!
After crossing the busy road, we entered a field and into silence, the drone of the road muffled by thick hedgerow. Dropping down to the river, we followed through a tunnel of trees, continuing along the raised river bank footpath, and following the natural curves of the river, onward, without seeing another soul.
Upon reaching a couple of footbridges, we detoured quickly to join the South Downs Way in the village of Litlington, a small village of flint lined buildings. Outside the pub, we bumped into the family from the earlier advice, who presumably found the pub – the excellent Plough and Harrow – and they recommended it to us for later.
In the meantime, we headed back up the hill to the hostel, finding it shut until 5pm. It was 3pm. As all decent people would do in the situation, we decided to go and find a pub in Alfriston, a short walk up the road, and entered to warm, Tudor timber framed old George Inn, complete with wooden beams, and the smell of smoke from the wood burning fire. The heart of the historical and quaint village centre was really was like stepping back in time, and felt a world away from London. I loved it.