‘Alfriston to Eastbourne’ – walk, South Downs Way

Looking E towards the Birling Gap having left Cuckmere Haven

Another trip to Sussex on a bright, cold blustery day to complete another section of the South Downs Way (SDW), an accidental inspiration borne of having completed a couple of sections in the last few months. The object is to use public transport where I can to get there and back (home in London) in a day and complete a decent walk in between. This walk is the last leg of the South Downs Way (SDW) heading West to East.

The walk is 13 miles in length with nearly 3000 ft of ascent so allow 5.5 hours plus to complete it, particularly in the Winter when the going can be muddy and slow in places. The train to Lewes takes about an hour from Clapham Junction followed by a 40 minute bus ride leaving Lewes either at 09.30 or 12.30 to Alfriston Village. At the end of the walk from Eastbourne Station there is a direct 1.5 hour service back to London via Lewes, which is worth a visit if you have time to break your journey.
I use Trainline.com for my tickets. If I book well ahead and am sure I will be able to catch specific trains outside of rush hour this return train journey can cost as little as £10.00 or if you have a rail card £7.00. Potluck with the weather but as we get in to Spring it can only improve. Nothing can compare with the muddy wet of this Winter.

Alfriston Church and flooded meadows from the E bank of the Cuckmere

The walk (map below) begins by crossing the river Cuckmere over a footbridge to the left of Alfriston Church. Having crossed this join the river bank following the yellow sign for the SDW heading S. The path follows the raised levee and is muddy but manageable. After about a mile the path leaves the river and head into the village of Litlington which has another beautiful downland church of flint and stone, a white painted weather-boarded wooden belfry tower which supports a broach spire covered with wooden shingles. The path crosses the minor road 100 yds S then branches at 45 degrees up through a small field. Look for the small concrete waysign.

The path gains height until the view opens up back to Alfriston and beyond. Continuing up the hill to the S, Friston Forest fills the view with Charleston Manor in the fold of the valley you walk into. The path then rises up a flight of steps into the wood which in turn becomes a ride with pleasant walking through the wood into the Hamlet of Westdean before climbing a hundred or so steps up to a hill overlooking The National Trust’s Cuckmere Valley, a salt marsh where the river meets the sea at Cuckmere Haven. Cuckmere Valley is a haven for wildlife, from over-wintering wildfowl to colourful wild flowers.

The Cuckmere Valley salt marshes

The path crosses the Busy A road then appears to join the valley walk before climbing the side of the hill before descending to the valley where the path then cuts back SE uphill some 270 ft to the amazing walk along the chalk cliffs. Once on the top the wind was bracing, out of the NW. The views are stupendous, from Cliff End you can see the major part of the cliff walk, to the lighthouse above the Birling Gap and beyond to the high point of Beachy Head at 538 ft. At this point a WW2 Spitfire, sporting D-Day black and white stripes on the underside of its wings, flew along the Cuckmere Valley before wheeling round the cliffs and heading inland. Quite a sight given where I was and an amazing sound from its Rolls Royce Merlin engine – unmistakeable.

The view looking across the Seven Sisters beyond Birling Gap from Cliff End

The ‘Seven Sisters’ cliff walk is a real roller coaster and forms the main part of the walk. It is a ‘Country Park’ managed by East Sussex Council and there is real effort to maintain habitat for wildlife, I saw a Rock Pipit and heard Skylark’s in the fields and scrub to the North. It’s a nice workout for the Quads having already put in 4 miles and the path is kind of obvious so you can enjoy the ever revealed cliff views – but don’t get too close to the edge. The chalk cliffs are eroding about 22 to 32cm a year but occasionally there is a big rock fall. However these falls do help to protect the base of the cliffs from further erosion.

Having climbed Went Hill, the last of the Seven Sisters, the path descends to the Birling Gap where there is a National Trust shop and cafe with toilets, drinks, hot and cold food. The walk continues to the Belle Tout Lighthouse described by the owners who run it as a B&B as ‘Built in 1832 and decommissioned in 1902, a tea-shop, a home, part-destroyed during the second world war and lovingly rebuilt in the 50’s’. After the lighthouse the walk becomes less roller coaster and rises steadily towards Beach Head passing the distinctive Beachy Head lighthouse.

Looking W back to the Belle Tout lighthouse and beyond
The Beachy Head lighthouse

The path winds round the point below the trig point and you get your first view of Eastbourne, beyond the wooded slope that sits above the lower cliffs. The walk continues through the woods on a narrow path until it enters a wide ride with the town below. The path becomes steeper heading down toward the road on the edge of town and finally picks up the coast road. It’s a 2 mile walk to the the Railway station via the pier which I chose as my end to the walk. You can use the path that runs next to the beach, there are various steps down.

Eastbourne from the edge of the wooded section of the path
The pier at Eastbourne. By 1914 more than 100 of these structure adorned Britain’s coastline

I have the SDW sections West of Amberley to look forward to in the coming months. It will be a relief to have drier, warmer, longer days to look forward to, particularly as the Western end is the muddier! My kit performed brilliantly. I think I have found the sweet spot for me in terms of footwear and the various crucial layers. It will be interesting to see how useful these layers remain as the weather improves.

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