Breezy chalk clifftops that sweep towards Beachy Head
Between Brighton and Eastbourne the South Downs ol Sussex meet the sea in a series of spectacular coastal features. Chalk cliffs rising east of Brighton lead to the bastion of Seaford Head, beyond which the scalloped white wall of the Seven Sisters culminates in the colossal rampart of Beachy Head. Two rivers – the Ouse, with its busy harbour of Newhaven, and the meandering Cuckmere – cut deeply into the chalk escarpment.
Now a popular resort, Seaford was the port of Lewes before a storm in 1579 diverted the course of the Ouse to Newhaven. Its seafront still has large undeveloped open spaces – not surprisingly, perhaps, in view of the tons of water and shingle that are hurled over the sea-wall by westerly gales, and which make repairing the town’s sea defences an endless task.
The beach consists of shingle, protected by massive wooden groynes. Because it shelves quite steeply, at high tide it is a beach for strong swimmers only. Volunteer lifeguards patrol the beach at weekends during the summer. There is no proper ramp, but boats can be manhandled over the shingle and launched at any state of the tide.
On the front is Martello tower No. 74, the westernmost of a chain that extends round England’s south-east and east coasts. It houses a small local-history museum.
SEAFORD HEAD NATURE RESERVE
Though only half the height of Beachy Head, Seaford Head is nevertheless a formidable chalk bastion, towering 282 ft above sea level. Its outer edge, extending round to Cuckmere Haven and including part of the Cuckmere Valley, is a nature reserve cover-
BARRING THE DOOR AGAINST ‘OLD BONEY’
When Europe shuddered under the attack by Napoleon Bonaparte in the early 19th century the ripples spread across the English Channel. For the first time in eight centuries England faced the threat of invasion. Hastily a string of fortress towers was built along the east and south-east coasts; looking like upturned buckets, the towers were simple and robust, being based on the design of a fort at Mortella in Corsica which had stood up to heavy bombardment from a British force. Napoleon’s invasion never materialised, and the towers had little military significance until 1940, when some were used as observation posts. Originally 103 Martello towers, as they became known, stretched from Seaford in Sussex to Aldeburgh in Suffolk. Some 45 still stand; many are in ruins, but some have been restored as museums, such as the Wish Tower at Eastbourne, or as houses.
The reserve can be reached either on foot from Seaford, or by car from Chyngton Road along the north side of the golf course; the road ends at a large car park on top of the headland, with fine views.
From the car park, paths radiate out into different parts of the reserve. The classic view of the Seven Sisters is from the path that leads to Hope Gap: the names of the Sisters (there are, in fact, eight) are, from west to east: Haven Brow (at 253 ft, the highest), Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Point, Flat Hill, Baily’s Hill, and Went Hill Brow (the lowest, at 146 ft). In autumn, Hope Gap is noisy with the cries of migrant birds, which land to rest and feed on the berries of shrubs before continuing their southward journey. Willow warblers, blackcaps and redstarts are common visitors: rarer species include hoopoes and ortolan buntings.
It is possible to walk along the foreshore below the cliffs, but there are dangers of rockfalls, and of being cut off by the incoming tide. The rock pools are rich in seaweed, and fulmars can sometimes be seen gliding by the cliffs.
An important ‘gap’ used by 18th-century smugglers for their cargoes of brandy, lace and other contraband, Cuckmere Haven is now an oasis of tranquillity. The main road is 1 mile inland, and the only way to the beach is by a footpath along the valley.
The Cuckmere river makes a series of enormous loops through water-meadows before reaching the stone-scattered foreshore. The large car park near Exceat Bridge also serves the Seven Sisters Country Park.
SEVEN SISTERS COUNTRY PARK
Owned by the East Sussex County Council, this beautiful stretch of countryside covers almost 700 acres of the Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters cliffs, and forms part of the Sussex Heritage Coast, which runs from Seaford to Eastbourne. On its western edge it adjoins the Seaford Head Nature Reserve, along the line of the Cuckmere; its north side is bounded by the main coast road; and to the south it takes in about half of the Seven Sisters cliffs.
The park’s varied landscapes include bare chalk, shingle, salt-marsh, downland and scrub, with a variety of plant and animal life. On the north side of the road at Exceat a magnificent group of flint-walled Sussex barns, with sweeping tiled roofs, has been turned into an interpretative centre and administrative buildings. A permanent exhibition, ‘The Living World’, includes a wide selection of native and foreign insects, and a display of seashore life.
Canoes and small dinghies are allowed on the Cuckmere – there is access from the car
Park – and coarse fishing is available free of charge. There are two park trails from the park centre, one 3 miles, the other 1 1/2 miles long.
The 80 mile long-distance footpath known as the South Downs Way runs down the Cuckmere Valley, then turns east along the cliffs to end at Eastbourne.
For 2 miles between the River Cuckmere and the village of Friston the coast road runs between rolling downland to the south and the shadowy gloom of Friston Forest to the north. Occupying nearly 2,000 acres, the forest is leased to the Forestry Commission, whose aim is to provide a cover of beech and other broadleaved trees.
A waymarked forest walk of 2 1/2 miles leads from the car park through mixed conifers and beech trees, with fine views opening northwards along the valley called Charleston Bottom. At the eastern end of the forest, Friston’s church of St Mary looks out over a reed-fringed pond. A lane beside the church leads down towards Crowlink, where the National Trust owns 632 acres of land, linked at its southern end with the Seven Sisters Country Park. The car park commands wide downland views.
The coast road makes a hairpin bend at Birling Gap, where a car park, a cafe and a row of cottages perch on the edge of a 30 ft cliff. Fishing boats are winched up the near-vertical cliff from the shingle beach below, which is reached down steep wooden steps. Erosion is a problem, and the line of cottages is steadily shortening as the cliffs beneath them fall away.
Much of the land west and east of Birling Gap belongs to the National Trust. On the side of Lookout Hill, to the east, there is an Iron Age earth rampart.
A mile inland, the village of Eastdean nestles in a fold of the downs, its flint-walled cottages and ancient Tiger Inn overlooking a broad triangular green. The village was once a centre for smugglers, who landed their contraband at the secluded Birling Gap and used the inn as a meeting place. The 3 ft thick walls of the church’s Norman tower gave refuge to villagers in earlier times.
Rising sheer from the rocky foreshore to a height of 534 ft, Beachy Head is indeed a ‘beautiful headland’ – the meaning of the Norman French Beau Chef from which the name is derived. The greensward on the clifftop is broad enough not to seem crowded even in summer, when the car parks are full. On a clear day the view takes in Dungeness in the east and the Isle of Wight in the west.
A small natural history centre, open during weekend afternoons in summer, in a cottage near the bus park, sells a guide to a clifftop nature trail of about a mile; but this is a walk only for those with a head for heights, since much of the cliff edge is unfenced. Sea-lavender and samphire grow beside the trail, while herring gulls, jackdaws and rock pipits nest and breed on the ledges of the cliffs.
The red-and-white lighthouse at the foot of the headland is 142 ft high and throws its light for 16 miles. The base of an earlier lighthouse, built in 1834 and known as the Belle Tout, stands on the clifftop Wi miles to the west.
Striking an agreeable compromise between brashness and gentility, Eastbourne has a fine, long seafront, 3 miles from end to end; a lively pier with a cheerful turquoise-roofed bandstand near by, and plenty of quietly dignified Victorian houses, hotels and public buildings. The town owes its rise to prominence to the 7th Duke of Devonshire, who developed the coastal area from about 1850 onwards.
The beach is mainly shingle, leading down to sand at low tide, and divided by frequent wooden groynes. The main bathing beach, patrolled by lifeguards in summer, is between the bandstand and the Wish Tower gardens, named after the Martello tower which stands above them. The tower (No. 73) houses a museum telling the story of Napoleon’s threats of invasion and the measures taken against them; its unusual name comes from the Saxon wise, meaning a ‘marshy place’.
Beside the Wish Tower is a lifeboat museum in the former lifeboat house, which was built in 1898 in memory of William Terriss, an actor who was murdered outside a London theatre.
Though there are no ramps along the seafront, Eastbourne is a sailing centre, with its three sailing clubs and facilities concentrated at the eastern end, past the Napoleonic fortress known as The Redoubt. A rough road leads from the roundabout at the end of Royal Parade towards Langney Point, where a hand-operated public winch can be used to drag boats up the shingle. At Langney Point there is extensive parking along the shingle bank above the beach. This is the informal end of Eastbourne, with old boats drawn up above tide level, and yet another Martello tower, used as a coastguard lookout.
Inland, Eastbourne spreads for 5 miles along the eastern edge of the downs as far as Polegate. Most of the town’s fine public gardens lie in this direction, as does the Towner Art Gallery, housed in an 18th-century manor house, which has a good collection of maritime pictures.
When William the Conqueror landed in England in 1066, he came ashore somewhere near Pevensey. But the exact site will never be known, for the coastline has altered down the centuries and in William’s time it was probably a good deal further inland than it is today.
At Pevensey Bay a modern development of chalets and small houses has sprung up, running 2 miles east to Norman’s Bay along a partly surfaced road. Small boats can be manhandled over the beach anywhere that the sea can be reached between the houses, and there is direct access to the beach from the car park in the village.
A mile inland is old Pevensey, a picturesque village built in the shadow of its magnificent castle and a place that evokes two vanished ages. The outer castle walls are those of the Roman fortress of Anderida, one of the Forts of the Saxon Shore built at the end of the 3rd century to keep out Saxon invaders. Inside the castle are the moat, towers and keep of a medieval castle, begun soon after the Conquest by Robert of Mortain, William’s half-brother, and garrisoned until the 14th century. When the castle was built the sea surrounded it on three sides, and it commanded the entrance to a harbour. The castle is open daily in summer; the Roman fort is open at all times.