I walk up a long, sloping promenade, taking me westward from Eastbourne. I remember coming here as a child with my grand parents and I swear there were formal gardens here – with bright flowers planted in intricate patterns. Now there are a wonderful plants growing alongside the walk, looking entirely natural, but I am sure this apparent random arrangment was by careful design.
Ahead, in the distance, I can see the South Downs rising up. And there is a steep path winding up the side of the green slope. (You can see it in the photo.) I wonder if that is where I am heading.
I check with a gentleman who is standing admiring the sea: is this the way to Beachy Head? Yes, he says. Then he looks me up and down as if measuring my ability.
‘But it’s a steep climb. You have to be tough.’
Obviously, I don’t look tough enough.
When I reach the green hill, footpath signs point straight up – along the path I could see from the promenade below. This marks the beginning of the famous long distance foot path, The South Downs Way.
Feeling a bit of a coward, I decide not to head directly up the steep slope. Instead, I choose to walk around the edge of the slope, keeping close to the sea. I justify this to myself. After all, my quest is to walk around the coast.
I can’t escape the incline and find myself climbing higher. From here there are wonderful views back towards Eastbourne. I stop to catch my breath and take some great photographs.
Up here the landscape opens out into a natural bowl. The grass is green and the sky blue. All around are beautiful wild flowers. High above me is the ridge of the South Downs. I can see the shapes of people, silhouetted against the blue sky, high up on the crest of the downs. It looks busy up there and I am pleased to be down here. Apart from a couple of solitary dog walkers, I am alone.
Somewhat to my surprise, I find a cricket pitch, with the boundary marked out in chalk and a score board.
Now I reach a section called ‘Cow Gap’ on my map. This is rather an ugly name for a beautiful place. Here the slope rises steeply and the cliff is crumbling. I am forced to turn uphill and end up climbing a very steep slope, up to the top of the Downs, joining the other sightseers at the top of the ridge. I hear excited voices and realise I am scrambling up towards a group of Italian children on a school outing. As I climb up to meet them, I have to climb over a fence. On the fence are signs telling visitors not to go down (the way I have come up) because the cliffs are unstable.
There are a lot of people around. I am surprised to see so many. Usually, few people stray more than 100 yards from a car park. Then I realise. There is a road up here – and a car park. That explains it.
I meet other walkers, women of a certain age – even older than me. They tell me on a clear day you can see the Isle of Wight.
I get out my binoculars. Looking back to the east, through the binoculars, I can see the white cliffs of Hastings, where I walked with my husband a few weeks ago. Beyond I can just make out the squat, grey shape of Dungeness Power Station. Looking eastwards, in the direction where I imagine the Isle of Wight to be, I can make out some land on the horizon. But I have no idea if this is the Isle of Wight or Worthing or Selsey Bill.
The land around is owned either by the National Trust or by the local council. There is free right to roam. This is an incredible place.
As I walk along the top of Beachy Head, following the well trodden path, I notice how little protection there is from the sheer drop. In places there is a rudimentary wire fence. In other places, there is no barrier between the path and the cliff edge.
I come across a poignant sight. Shivers go up and down my spine. Here, along the crumbling cliff edge, are tributes to people who have died. There are bunches of flowers and little crosses – 5 or 6 little memorials. They are sited where the path comes very close to the edge of the cliff.
Perhaps this is where people scatter the ashes of loved ones? I hope this might be the case. But I know I am wrong.
I think back to my arrival at Eastbourne station. One of the things that struck me was the sign at the station exit with an advert for The Samaritans and a signpost. Usually access to the Samaritans is via a phone line but here they have an actual physical office for people to visit. There are signs up here too, with the Samaritans’ phone number.
On a beautiful day like this, it is hard to imagine anyone wishing to end their lives. But it happens. And this place is a magnet for the sad and desperate. Beachy Head – with cliffs towering 530 feet above a shallow sea – is the 3rd most popular place in the world for suicides. There are, on average, 20 a year.
From Beachy Head, the path continues along the top of the cliffs, dipping down a little and then rising again towards the old Belle Tout Lighthouse. The function of this lighthouse has been replaced by the newer lighthouse – the red and white one in the previous photo, perched in the sea just below the towering cliff face. The old lighthouse is in use as a residential building.
I read a signboard and learn of an amazing feat of engineering. In 1999, due to continual erosion of the cliffs, the old lighthouse was in danger of being lost. So it was picked up and moved 50 feet further inland. Sadly, as this cliff continues to be eroded at a frightening pace, it may need moving again soon.
The path detours around the lighthouse and ahead of me stretches a long, undulating walk. Naively, I believed once up here the walking would be flat. I had forgotten about the Seven Sisters. Dimly, I remember my grandfather telling me about the seven chalky cliffs that accompany Beachy Head. Here they are.
But first, it is lunch time. Down in a dip is Birling Gap. Here there is a car park, a small collection of houses, a visitors centre and a cafe. The houses look perilously close to the cliff edge. I wonder how long they will last.
Access to the beach is provided by one of those scaffolding type steps, the sort I first came across in East Anglia. The gangplank connecting the steps to the cliff can be moved as the cliff becomes eroded. There are school children (Italian I think) on the steps, coming up from the shingly beach and about to board their coach.
In the cafe, I have a surprisingly good meal, sitting in a small room with large windows overlooking the sea.
I meet a few walkers, but no tourists. There is no easy access to the Seven Sisters – you have to walk – up and down.
One walker is resting at the bottom of the dip between two of the ‘Sisters’. He is taking medication and swilling it down with his water bottle. Pain killers, he tells me. For his knees.
The peaks become progressively higher. It is like descending a giant roller coaster, but in reverse.
I mount the last ridge (I don’t realise it is the last ridge – I have lost count) and see a beautiful bay ahead of me.
This is Cuckmere Haven. I wasn’t expecting it to be so magnificent. There is an extensive shingle beach and, on the other side, chalk cliffs again, stretching towards Seaford and Brighton beyond. All around is the rolling green of the South Downs. Perfect view. Perfect scenery. Perfectly English.
Japanese tourists are making their way up the slope towards me. The women are wearing thin soled ballet-pump shoes. They are, obviously, not serious walkers. Below, people are out on the exposed beach, enjoying the sea and this beautiful bay.
My intention is to leave the South Downs Way, which turns inland, and to cross over the bay, joining the Vanguard Way (another long distance footpath) as it heads over the cliff, following the coast to Seaford. But, as I suspected, a river intersects the bay. From up here the channel of water looks narrow. The tide is out. I wonder if I can walk across?
I see a man with a dog by the edge of the river mouth. Taking out my binoculars, I watch the man. He removes his shoes and wades into the river. He walks gingerly, hands outstretched for balance. The dog splashes at the edge of the water, but doesn’t join him. I watch for some time. He doesn’t make much progress across.
I want to scramble down the cliff and walk towards the river mouth, to judge for myself whether a crossing is possible. But the cliffs here are steep and warning signs tell me not to attempt the direct path down. I would have to go inland for a few hundred yards, descend the slope and then head back out to the shore again. I am reluctant to expend energy on a fruitless quest and, deciding the river crossing looks improbable, I turn inland.
Following the valley, I am heading for the Exceat Bridge. This is the nearest crossing point to the river. The whole area is part of the Seven Sisters Country Park and there are a number of serious walkers and not-so-serious ramblers out, enjoying the sunny afternoon.
I walk along the raised river bank. Progress is difficult because of vast amounts of sheep droppings. The sheep are cropping the grass nearby and a lamb bleats mournfully from beside a water bowser. I think it is calling to its mother, but another walker has stopped to watch and, in her opinion, the lamb is distressed because it can’t drink the water in the trough – the water level inside is too low for the lamb’s short neck to reach. I pause for a while. It has been very dry. Apart from the showers yesterday, we have not had any serious rain for more than 3 months. There is water around, but it is probably saline. For a moment I contemplate going down to the bowser and turning on the tap. Then I consider the farmer will round the sheep up shortly (it is late afternoon).
I continue walking and cross over the bridge, stopping for a drink and peanuts at a pub. Cheeky sparrows perch on the table, wanting some of my peanuts; they eat from my hand. I force myself to stay here for 20 minutes, knowing I will need energy to complete today’s long walk.
Following the river (now on the other side, of course), I walk back down towards the sea. By the time I reach the coast, the sky is overcast.
As the path leads up the gentle slope to the top of the cliffs, I find a man with a huge camera on a tripod. He is waiting for the sun to come out. The man tires of waiting, picks up his equipment and begins trudging up the slope, following the same path.
I turn to see what he was planning to shoot. And there are the Seven Sisters.
For the rest of this section of the walk, I keep turning back to look at the white cliffs. The sun makes brief appearances between short breaks in the cloud and lights up sections of the Sisters. I manage to take a few great photographs of this dramatic view.
Finally, I reach the crest of a slope and see Seaford spread out below me. In the distance, the shore line curves around to gap marking the entrance to Newhaven. Beyond that, barely visible as I look into the glare of the late afternoon haze, must be Brighton.
Seaford has a wide, empty promenade. There are ordinary houses, a few hotels, some restaurants. There is nothing pretentious about this town. It seems an ordinary place where people live and work, but with a great sea front. I find the station and catch a train back to Eastbourne, via Lewes.
“Which platform is the train leaving from?” I ask the young man at the ticket office.
“There is only one platform here.”
And he kindly tells me which platform I need to go to when I reach Lewes.
This wonderful picture was painted by my ‘artist in residence’ – Tim Baynes. Please visit his website. timbaynesart.co.uk.
Vital stats: miles walked = 13 miles, 1 new blister.