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.
The hostel had seen better days. It was an large property, old and rendered with flint, making the most of local materials. Sadly it had the unfortunate air of being neglected and unloved, despite the wardens best efforts. Our room – a basic two berth bunk bed – was cold, the airs of the coldest night of the season so far creeping their way through the single glazed window that overlooked a tatty, unkept weed filled courtyard area at the back of the hostel. The house was large and old, and wouldn’t be out of place in a murder mystery novel, but it was in need of more than just a lick of paint. Small areas of mould and walls peeling their historic paint were the standout features of our shared bathroom space. I can’t blame the warden or reception staff entirely for the condition. The YHA offer basic and budget accommodation, and we had paid a accordingly price and expected basic accommodation – a bed for the night. I’m a YHA member and also a big fan, generally favouring to stay in a £20 a night hostel rather than be waited upon in a hotel. However, the YHA seem to have shifted their focus away from countryside hostels, such as Alfriston, used by walkers and outdoor lovers and put more emphasis towards city centre hostels catering for tourists and urban backpackers. I’m not saying its right or wrong, as I would certainly look at using a city hostel when staying in a town or city, and realise a budget can only be spread so far. However, the hostel is situated almost right on the popular South Downs Way, in the heart of some amazing countryside – it deserves to be loved a bit more.
Retracing our steps from the following evening, we rejoined the South Downs Way past the Plough and Harrow pub, still nearly full from our excellent meal the night before, supplemented by a few locally brewed beers by the Longman Brewery. We passed through the flint lined houses of picture postcard Litlington, before climbing a small hill and out into open farmland. Awaiting us was a view of the meandering Cuckmere river valley and the White Horse carved into the adjacent hill we has passed along the day before.
The weather was greyer than the day before – the cold, clear blue skies had been replaced by a mild and grey dampness, with drops of light rain flicking around us as we headed down into some woods, up and down into a small river valley containing a quiet hamlet, Westdean, before finally climbing a set of wooden stairs bordered by a small stone wall. At the summit of the small hill, the woods opened out, revealing the panorama of the flat Cuckmere Haven beyond, highlighting the slow curves of the river it all of its former natural wonder. It make me stop to think of the time and forces at work to create such a landscape – thousands, if not millions, of years of constant change – and what would it look like in the future?
We kept high, following the route of the South Downs Way around the meanders and through the floodplain. The landscape around the river mouth is grassy, full of grazing sheep blissfully ignoring the high winds coming in from the sea, buffeting us and our attempts to quickly reach the first of the Seven Sisters, Haven Brow.
The famous cliffs were formed over the passages of slow moving time – the snow on ancient hills melting to form the river valleys into the chalk, defining the peaks and troughs of the undulating landscape that are now over the clifftops. These rolling hills fell gently into the sea beyond, with weathering over time from the waves of the sea causing the erosion of the land ahead, slowing forming the majestic cliffs, receding still at a rate of 30-40cm per year.
With the wind constantly attempting to slow our progress along the dramatic cliffs, we navigated the but steep ascents and descents of each brow, only passing one or two other groups of walkers in the hour it took to reach Birling Gap.
Historically, once a thriving destination for newly upwardly mobile daytrippers and tourists, the area is one of the more dramatic examples of the power of the sea, highlighted no more obviously by the retreat of a row of terraced Victorian cottages. Slowly demolished one by one, either by the sea or removed by diggers before the inevitable, the row stands reduced to four from being more than double that number a century ago. The area is still thriving, with a busy National Trust cafe and shop also teetering on the edge of the cliffs. If I leave it another fifteen years to visit the region, these remnants will be gone – the cliffs here are eroding at a rate of up to 0.7m a year.
We restocked our energy levels with a quick refreshment in the cafe, before heading off round the back of the inevitably ill-fated houses to rejoin the footpath towards Beachy Head, where the erosion from storms in March 2014 is still fresh and evident.
About halfway along this section, between Birling Gap and Beachy Head, stands an odd looking lighthouse, with an interesting history. The Belle Tout lighthouse was built in 1832, when Britain was on the verge of the Victorian era. With a working life running almost exactly parallel to an era that saw rapid industrial changes across the country, it was decommissioned in 1902, not due to the advances in technology, but because of the erosion of the cliffs reducing it’s effectiveness. The lighthouse was partially destroyed during World War II, not by enemy fire, but Allied forces training. Rebuilt again in the 1950’s, it changed ownership a number of times over the next fifty years, including being in the hands of the BBC, and is now a working bed and breakfast available for private hire. In 1999, perhaps even more incredibly than the history the preceded, the entire lighthouse metaphorically stuck two fingers up at the erosion process, and was moved 50ft inland by raising the building from its foundations, and sliding it further back inland.
Shortly further along the beaches, the replacement lighthouse built in 1902 comes into view – now fully automated, grandly traditional, and in my eyes almost stereotypically a benchmark of what a lighthouse should look like.
Continuing still along, and with the wind still strong, we reached the high point of Beachy Head – a headland standing over 160m tall, and the highest chalk cliffs in England. Its height and notoriety as a suicide spot sadly make the landmark equally well known for these reasons, rather than its distinctive beauty and almost 100 million year worth of history from the formation of the chalk and the subsequent ongoing erosion.
We arrived into Eastbourne hungry for a traditional portion of fish and chips, descending from the cliffs to join the seafront promenade and unintentionally timing our arrival to co-incide with the towns annual Santa run – a fundraising run where, yup, you’ve guessed it, participants have to dress as Santa. We dodged the masses of red and white finishing their run along the seafront – the final Santa walking slowly with a couple of kids into the sunset beyond. We headed towards the pier, our adventures over for the time being.