The south coast’s white cliffs are a dazzling battlement that have kept invaders at bay for centuries, though perhaps are most linked in the British psyche to the Second World War – pieces of U-boat can still be found on the shingle beaches below. But these rock faces also mark the spot where the chalk downlands hit the sea, creating a unique habitat for specialised plants, butterflies and migrating birds. However, it’s an area at risk; the Seven Sisters are being eroded at a rate of around 40cm (16in) a year, and Cuckmere Haven is losing its battle with nature – the Environment Agency has decided to stop maintaining sea defences. In the future this may be a very different walk.
For now, though, the preliminary miles of the South Downs Way (SDW) allow you to witness this coastline in all its glory.
The SDW begins at the west end of Eastbourne’s King Edward’s Parade. Walk upwards for around 250m; here the path splits in two. Ignore the inland route (via Jevington) and veer left on the coastal path. Follow a succession of SDW waymarkers, heading towards the sea; after about 1km you’ll leave the open grassland for bracken. Stay on the track, walking uphill, until you reach a tarmac path.
Cross the tarmac, following waymarkers. Head up the grassland path; soon you’ll see a 19th-century watchtower ahead – walk towards it. The Beachy Head Lighthouse – built using a perilous cliff-top cable car in the 1900s – will appear below as you walk along the unfenced cliff-tops. Take in the expansive views, then continue along the path for about 1½ miles past the now-disused Belle Tout Lighthouse. At the old coastguard station you’ll get stunning views of the Seven Sisters before the track descends into the National Trust hamlet of Birling Gap.
An old Saxon settlement once defended by a gate and portcullis, Birling Gap is now a little more fragile; a quick detour on to the shingle beach reveals the extent of Birling’s coastal erosion problem.
To continue, rejoin the SDW, which runs to the right of the toilets. Follow the path for 150m, go around a gate and turn right; after 50m, follow the SDW waymarker left. Pass through two gates (about 200m apart) and ascend Went Hill – the first of the Seven Sisters. The next mile is a rollercoaster over the Sisters. Kittiwakes and fulmars nest on cliffs ledges, so bring binoculars. You’ll eventually reach a fence; go over the stile and walk on.
Turn inland at the SDW post, heading downhill. Follow the path, which veers left. Continue downhill towards the Cuckmere River, once a wild salt marsh, and at the bottom, pass through a gate until, after 100m, you join a path.
Turn right, following the path for around 1 mile, until you reach
the Seven Sisters Country Park Visitor Centre; this is where the bus stops for the return trip to Eastbourne.
The walk is soft underfoot but undulating. Strong winds can batter the coast, so hold on to your hat. Take care near cliff edges.
HOW TO GET THERE
By car: The A22, A27 and A259 run to Eastbourne. The walk starts at the western end of King Edward’s Parade, where there is a café and free parking.
By public transport: Trains run from London to Eastbourne; the station is about 2 miles from the start. Regular Brighton-Eastbourne buses stop at Exceat.
The Birling Gap Hotel
Birling Gap, East Dean
Tel. 01323 423197
Eastbourne Tourist Information Centre
Cornfield Road, Eastbourne BN21 4QA
Tel. 0871 663 0031