I’ve always enjoyed walking, but I started doing longer hikes more frequently during my two years in Australia, in the outback, the bush and, most often, along the many coastal paths around the country. This year was my first summer back home in the UK, and, living in London with easy rail links to many spots along England’s South Coast, I decided to go and experience some of the coastal walks in my own country during the hot and sunny weekends.
I started off with one of the most popular coastal walks in Southern England; the Seven Sisters walk along a section of the South Downs Way between Seaford and Eastbourne, two seaside towns in East Sussex, which takes in the spectacular Seven Sisters white chalk cliffs and the famous Beachy Head lighthouse. The route is around 13 miles long and internet opinion suggests that it’s best to start in Seaford and walk towards Eastbourne; having now done it myself, I would agree – the views in this direction are spectacular, plus you get the toughest part of the walk out of the way first.
I decided to head out bright and early one Saturday morning. The train from London Victoria to Seaford took just under two hours, with one change at Lewes (I believe you could also go to Brighton and change there). Upon arrival, it was just a short walk down to the seafront (past a Morrisons supermarket for anyone who needs snacks for the hike), a quiet, pretty pebble beach like most of those in this part of Sussex. Here there was a cafe, where some groups of people in walking gear looked to be a having a coffee before starting the trail, and, importantly some toilets – there were no more bathroom opportunities for the next few hours (as a seasoned traveller, I know that you should always go when you get the chance!).
It was easy to get onto the South Downs Way; I simply walked along the seafront, with the water to my right, and followed the path up onto the cliffs to begin the walk. After a steep initial climb, I reached the top, with a lovely view of Seaford behind me, and the route levelled out a bit into an easy walk along the clifftop. It was a peaceful couple of miles, with not many other walkers around yet. The only sounds were the crashing of the waves below and the cries of the seagulls, and the view over the sea was uninterrupted; blue water stretching all the way to France.
The path then took me downhill, past some cute little houses which gave me massive home envy, to the pebble beach at Cuckmere Haven. Here the official route diverted about a mile inland, to the nearest bridge to cross the river which cuts through the beach into the sea. However, when the water level is low, it is possible to paddle through the mouth. Several walkers in front of me were already taking their shoes and socks off and doing exactly that, and when I reached the river to assess the situation myself, I could see that it wasn’t much more than a stream, so I decided to do the same (I’d brought a small towel with me, just in case). I am not advising that anyone else doing this walk should follow my lead; sometimes the water will be higher, and if you’re at all unsteady on your feet then it’s not a good idea. It’s up to the individual to decide whether it’s safe to cross. The stones are painful and the water is fast-moving. If in doubt, make the detour inland; it’s not worth the risk of getting hurt or worse.
Feet dried off and back in my walking boots, it was time to begin the toughest part of the hike; the Seven Sisters themselves. The Seven Sisters are so named because they rise and fall in seven distinct hilltops; this means that it’s not simply a case of a steep climb up and then a stroll along the top – walkers have to go up and down seven times as they traverse the cliffs! It was hard work, but completely worth it for the stunning views of the white chalk cliff faces and the little stony bays beneath. There are safety fences on some parts of the walk but on other parts there are none; despite multiple warning signs along the route stating that the cliffs are eroding, I still saw plenty of people getting far too close to the edge to get that Instagram-worthy shot. A fall from here would inevitably be fatal; stay back and enjoy the view from a safe spot.
With the seventh slope summit-ted, the path wound down to Birling Gap, where there was a cafe and information centre run by the National Trust. It was now past midday, so this seemed like the ideal spot to stop for a brief lunch and toilet break. This appeared to be a popular spot to visit, with plenty of families about in the cafe and along the beach.
Fed and watered, I started off again; being back down at sea level there was now another cliff to climb, but once at the top it was quite an easy walk for the remainder of the trail. I enjoyed more gorgeous sea views, eventually reaching the Beachy Head Lighthouse which sits in the channel beneath the cliffs.
At this point I guessed that I couldn’t be too far from Eastbourne, by the sudden increase in the number of people out and about on the clifftop, taking pictures of the lighthouse; I assumed that they had driven up, or come up for a short walk. I was correct; soon I spotted the roofs and pier of the seaside town, and I was on the descent through some pretty fields of flowers into the western end of Eastbourne from where I followed the promenade into the main part of town and the end of my walk.
I didn’t find Eastbourne to be anything particularly special on my walk through the town to the train station, but if you’ve not spend much time in English seaside towns then you’ll want to go for a walk along the beach and the pier. There are also plenty of cafes, restaurants and pubs if you want to take a refreshment break before hopping on the direct train back to London Victoria, which takes around an hour and a half. I did stop off at the RNLI (Royal National Lifeboat Institution) shop to have a chat to the staff and drop a tenner in the donation box, as I always do when at the seaside in the UK; the RNLI is a charity entirely funded by donations, and the people who go out and risk their lives at sea to rescue others are volunteers. If you are visiting somewhere coastal on your UK trip, please do pop into the RNLI shop there and give something if you are able to.
The Seven Sisters walk was a brilliant scenic hike which I’d recommend to anyone with a good level of fitness (it is taxing on the legs with the multiple slopes). The guidance online suggests that you should allow six to seven hours to complete the route; I managed it in four and a half, with plenty of photography stops, but I don’t like to take too long a sit-down break on these kind of walks – I think most people would have stopped longer for lunch. With the ease by which both Seaford and Eastbourne can be reached by train from London, this is a perfect day trip from the capital for someone wanting to see a bit more of the country and enjoy the outdoor opportunities here.
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