We’ve recently returned from a wonderful weekend walking a section of South Downs Way with cosy hotel breaks in the historic and attractive towns of Lewes and Alfriston.
Ably abetted by the UK National Trails planning tools and the A-Z Adventure Series atlas for the area, we started by leaving the car for the weekend at Lewes railway station. Our legs and lungs were immediately tested by the ferociously steep cobbled Keere St. Legend has it that the Prince of Wales (the future George IV) once drove a coach and four horses down this hill for a wager.
To the South Downs Way
Suitably limbered up we continued our ascent out of town to Mount Harry and Black Cap along the edge of the old Lewes racecourse past the Lewes beacon. This stands as a reminder of the 16th century beacon that stood there long ago to warn of danger. We took a break at Black Cap with fine hilltop views over the Weald, where the magnificent trees were replanted in 1953 to mark the coronation of Queen Elizabeth II.
From here we now joined the South Downs Way, barring a slight diversion for maintenance works and pushed on to Ditchling Beacon, the highest point in East Sussex at 248 metres above sea level. From the ridge you could see Brighton below in the distance and had a birds eye view of the Amex Stadium, home of Brighton and Hove Albion. We certainly felt the gusty tailend of Storm Callum here as we retraced our route and returned to Lewes with glowing faces, accompanied for some of the way by a flock of exuberant goldfinch.
Lewes is an attractive market town with several significant historical buildings including the Castle and remains of the Priory. Near Keere St we saw this fabulous timber framed fifteenth century bookshop. The town is also well known for its’ Bonfire Night celebrations on 5th November, Guy Fawkes Night, the largest in the country.
Our base for the night was the centrally situated Premier Inn where after a quick change we headed for dinner at Bill’s Restaurant. This is the original Bill’s which opened in 2001 and where a combination of attentive service, atmospheric candlelight and a delicious fish pie rounded off the day perfectly.
Kingston to Alfriston – 13 miles on the South Downs Way
The next morning, after a 2 mile taxi to the village of Kingston, we re-joined the South Downs Way for our 13 mile walk to Alfriston. A sharp climb via Cold Coombes took us onto the ridge with fine views back over Lewes and the large chalk Cliffe Hill that can be seen for miles around.
Descending from the village of Rodmell and passing fields of seasonal pumpkins, we approached the village of Southease close to the River Ouse. Southease is home to a quaint round towered church built in 12th century and also has a wonderful YHA where we paused for a coffee in their courtyard café.
Crossing the footbridge over the A26 we started the climb up Itford Hill, proceeding on a wide track to the communication masts at Beddingham Hill. With big skies and expansive views over the Downs, English Channel and the Weald this section made the perfect stop for a much needed though rather blustery picnic lunch.
As the winds intensified we pushed on to Firle Beacon where the weather had deterred even the most daredevil of hanggliders who normally provide a picturesque diversion at this spot.
Our final descent for the day took us past the sites of a Neolithic long barrow and down into the pretty village of Alfriston with its’ village green, church and numerous inviting hostelries. One of these, the Star Inn was to be our comfortable home for the night. This was originally a religious hostel built in 1345 to house travelling monks and pilgrims on their way from Battle Abbey to Chichester Cathedral but was in later years used as a base for the local smuggling gang! Heavy rain overnight heralded calm but cloudy conditions as we left Alfriston the next morning following the Cuckmere river south.
Alfriston to Eastbourne – 13 stunning miles along the South Downs Way
The SDW splits at Afriston and we took the walkers only path towards Cuckmere Haven and the sea. After some negotiation with a herd of rather obstinate cows blocking the way we started a gentle ascent. The White Horse of Littlington can be seen for miles around here. Apparently it was carved in one night by the light of a full moon to startle the local people by its’ sudden appearance and ensure notoriety for its’ creators.
The path continued through autumnal woodland arriving at the village of Westdean before climbing steeply through the trees. We arrived at the top to be rewarded with our first stunning views of the Cuckmere Meanders. The Meanders are cut off from the main river forming a tranquil delta like environment for kayakers and apparently, wild swimmers.
There is an excellent visitor centre providing information for the Seven Sisters Country Park which we were about to enter. A flat path goes directly to the sea but the SDW diverts uphill to give good views (or test the legs) of the Meanders and Haven before rejoining the main path where the SDW finally joins the sea.
We now embarked upon the most demanding and rewarding section of the walk as the soaring Seven Sisters white chalk cliffs undulated in front of us. Punishing ascents were followed by glorious views on the descents. The grassy swards of the clifftops teased us, as yet another climb came into view.
The elemental force of nature created these cliffs through erosion and gives them their magnificent appearance. However, we were reminded of this power upon hearing of a huge cliff slide at Birling Gap, our next stop, where Storm Callum had further weakened the vulnerable cliffs which already erode at more than 30cm a year. Fortunately, this was not near the visitor centre or pebble beach where we stopped for a coffee. We sat mesmerised by the sound of the waves and the white milk like appearance of the now calm sea.
A gentler ascent took us up to the Belle Tout lighthouse, moved back from the eroding cliff edge on rollers some years ago. It now operates as a B&B and has been replaced by the red and white lighthouse at sea level near Beachy Head.
The final push had us finally atop Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in Britain, rising 530 feet above sea level. From the visitor car park at Beachy Head we could see our final destination of Eastbourne. The seaside town was a gentle 40 minute stroll away where we reached the end point of the SDW. We walked along the prom past the famous Grand Hotel to the station for our return trip to Lewes to collect the car.
We regretfully left the South downs Way having appreciated the joy of walking on well maintained, clearly marked trails, leaving us free to switch off and happily interact with the wonderful landscape unfolding around us. A weekend to be recommended!