Eastbourne was indeed, as contemporaries described it, largely designed by gentlemen and intended as a genteel seaside resort. We shall be meeting the gentlemen shortly, but the story begins when a comparatively small seaside settlement was visited by George III’s children in the
The royal mark of approval had little effect on the town, however, until the railway arrived in 1849 and even then the original station was little better than a wooden shed. All that was about to change and the grand Victorian resort was soon to be born.
On the prom
Our walk starts on the promenade at that essential Victorian seaside attraction, the pier. Designed by Eugenius Birch and completed in 1872 the main structure remains basically as designed, with charming cast iron buildings near the end that overhang the water.
The theatre was added in 1901. Apart from being a splendid structure, it is a clear indication that Eastbourne had arrived and that was thanks to “the gentlemen”, the landowner, William Cavendish, Duke of Devonshire and his architect Henry Currey. Between them they developed all the western part of the town and as you walk away from the pier, keeping the sea on your left, you can clearly see what they achieved.
You soon arrive at Devonshire Place and a statue of the Duke. Everything to the west of here is the new town begun in 1858 and designed to appeal to the gentry. There are elegant white stuccoed terraces lining broad streets, and it is arguably the best-preserved example we have for a high-class Victorian seaside resort. There are more modern additions.
The original bandstand was replaced by the current Art Deco version, built in the 1930s, and the most magnificent new building of all was added in 1874. This is the Grand Hotel, a little further along on King Edward’s Parade. Known locally as the “White Palace” it more than lives up to its name yet remains in keeping with the overall architectural style.
One building, however, predates the Victorian town. The Wish Tower, on the seaward side of the Parade is actually a Martello Tower, one of a string of small fortresses built around the south east coast from Suffolk to Sussex as protection against a possible invasion by Napoleon. They were never put to the test.
To Beachy Head
The sea is not the only attraction at Eastbourne. The town stands at the foot of the Sussex Downs and the end of the seaside promenade also marks the start of the South Downs Way National Trail.
The walk now follows the first part of the Trail as it heads up for the top of the Downs. It begins at a little kiosk and climbs quite steeply as a narrow, chalky path to a flight of steps.
The path is way marked and passes through scrubby woodland of stunted thorn, ash and sycamore – in summer you can find wild raspberries and blackberries here. The path emerges near the Beachy Head road before heading back into the scrub before finally emerging at Beachy Head itself.
This is a magnificent spot, where the chalk cliffs rise more than 500 feet (162 metres) above the sea. Apart from enjoying the view that includes, for those not suffering from vertigo, a chance to look over the edge at the lighthouse, you can also slake any thirst you’ve acquired during the climb at the pub by the main road.
From here a different path can be followed, back along the edge of the cliff, passing the deep Whitebread Hole, a popular resting place for migrating birds. It eventually returns to the end of the Promenade.