‘Eastbourne to Alfriston’ – walk, South Downs Way

Birling Gap with Seven Sisters wending westward

A dingy December day, a milky sky hanging over London, time on my hands. No reason not to hop on a train to Eastbourne and a bus up the hill and take in the rolling Seven Sisters cliffs, Beachy Head, some river views, wonderful downland and a village pub in Alfriston before a quick bus ride to festive Lewes to take in the atmosphere before catching the London train home.

I took an early train to Eastbourne from Clapham Junction in order to make the most of the short Winter day, this being a 11.5 mile walk taking about six hours with 2,500 ft of ascent – so a decent stretch (map at foot). Arriving at Eastbourne I took the 12 ‘Coaster’ bus which leaves from Gildredge Road (stop G1) around the corner from the station and heads uphill and westward to the point where the South Downs Way (SDW) crosses the A259 at the conveniently named ‘South Downs Way’ bus stop. I opted for the longer southern SDW route but there is also the northern route from this point which takes in the Long Man of Wilmington and offers a shorter 7 mile walk to Alfriston. I have yet to walk this but it looks like a great option (you could also add another 7 miles of the SDW to this and make this a long 14 mile walk to Southease station).

I have tried for most of my walks around London to use public transport where I can. I recommend it. It’s quite easy and with a little planning is cheap, environmentally sound and far more relaxing than sitting in a car for hours. With a rail pass my return fare using trainline.com and a bus fare cost £22 in total.

Arriving on top of the downs it had a moorland feel – dank and breezy in the low morning cloud/mist; cold and murky. The level route heads roughly S/SE for a couple of miles accompanied by roads along the edge of the hills overlooking Eastbourne (when it’s clear). I started walking in a base layer and lightly insulated jacket and as I got going I warmed up quite quickly.

As the sea came into view, merged with the grey sky, a pink tinge on the horizon, the route heads SW, still following the curve of the road before meeting the cliff top at Beachy Head (you can take a lower hilly route but I wanted to stay high to get some decent walking in). From here, a great deal of the first half of the walk is on view. The precariously perched lighthouse of Belle Tout, Birling Gap beyond, then the rollercoaster, chalk-faced ‘Seven Sisters’ undulating westward towards a hint of the river Cuckmere. The walking is lovely here, it’s a 500 ft downhill with a couple of climbs before arriving at Birling Gap where there is a cafe and toilets. Past this point the coast road thankfully heads N and leaves you in a more peaceful setting as you walk westward over the Seven Sisters cliffs and dry valleys which form its rollercoaster contours. It’s hard work as the ascents and descents are quite steep and seven of them make it a workout. There is a small monument with a seat at the 6 mile mark where I stopped for lunch, the masonry providing a kind wind shelter while I rested at this halfway point of the walk.

Looking West across the Seven Sisters a mile or so West of Birling Gap, monument with seating in the distance.

Having climbed ‘Cliff End’ the torture eases and the route descends towards the river Cuckmere where the path turns roughly N back up into the hills before crossing the busy A259 and climbing up to the Edge of Friston Forest with views of the Cuckmere and coast below. The path descends steep steps to the hamlet of Westdean before continuing NE upward through the woodland and turning NW before another climb into open farm land beyond Charleston Manor.

From here it all goes downhill in a good way. The last couple of miles are almost at sea level and flat. Passing through the hamlet of Litlington on the road for a hundred metres or so, the path takes a sharp left towards the river. It can be really claggy here and was the least pleasant stretch of the walk but after a hundred metres or so the path follows the raised levee which is drier and easier going into Alfriston. The village is a joy. Several pubs, a 14th c. church, large green, a few of shops and masses of character. I was here in 1975 when I walked the SDW as a teen and can clearly remember drinking Guinness in the evening in Ye Olde Smugglers Inn with my two mates having nearly completed the length of the walk.

The bus to Lewes (for me to pick up the Eastbourne train back to London) left at just after 4pm so I had nearly an hour to sit by the open fire of the medieval George Inn and relax over a pint. The bus leaves from the village car park two minutes from the village centre and takes about 20 minutes or so to reach Lewes. Another hour or so before my train departure gave me time to have a wander around this lovely town and visit another lovely pub.

This is a great walk. Hard work – and I think a breezy warm day of blue skies and clear views would make it better still and more worthwhile in terms of views, nature and simply soaking up the atmosphere. I’ll come back in late Spring to do this again with a longer day to linger in a few of the amazing landscapes it offers.

One bonus of having walked this before is to see how footwear and clothes compare. The last time I made this walk a couple of years ago W to E, my feet really suffered – though I was on tarmac for the last couple of miles trudging through Eastbourne. I have recently started using Footactive Sports Innersoles which can be picked up for half price at about £14.00.  The difference (compared with using Salomon’s branded insole in my X-Utras) has been amazing, the same boot but the forefoot and heel are just better protected from impact and a gnarly surface underoot. Innersoles in general (I used to use Superfeet Green but found them too rigid) and these in particular, have had the most beneficial impact on my enjoyment and comfort on longer walks.

The route – East to West or vice versa

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