South Downs Way Diary - Walking to the Seven Sisters
I awoke to a hazy light, not the light streaming through the windows that I had hoped for my final days walk on the South Downs Way. The week so far had provided a mixed bag on the weather front, but mostly dry and bright, which is the ideal for a long-distance walking route.
On peering out the window of Riverdale House in the pretty town of Alfriston, there was a definite haze, the very light rain that you would welcome with open arms on a hot day, but does not make you leap for joy with 21 miles to walk. That said, the views from my window were of glorious (oak?) trees framing a patchwork of the rolling green countryside, which had accompanied me all week on my 89 miles through Sussex.
It had been an amazing week so far, peppered with highlights. I knew this was going to be a pretty part of the world to walk in, but I had not really prepared myself for the history and olde-worlde mysticism attached to this part of England. I had stood at the top of Old Winchester Hill, all alone atop the remains of an Iron Age fort, spectacular views making way for tactical understanding as the previous tenants of the fort invaded my brain.
I had walked through Chantonbury Ring, a prehistoric hill fort, adapted over the centuries by Bronze age people, Iron age people and of course, Boar Cultists. Whoever lived here last planted a ring of beech trees on the inner wall which forms a strange, standout ring of trees in an otherwise barren area.
I had witnessed Constable’s winner of ‘grandest view in the world’ from the edge of the Devils Dyke chasm, rumoured to be constructed by Satan’s fair hand. Through all of this ancient history, literally steeped in the Sussex countryside, I had come to my final day when the sheer beauty of England’s geological might was to cap off my adventure. I remember thinking that it would have been nice if it wasn’t raining so much!
After a wonderful breakfast and chat with charming hosts, I donned my boots and headed off on this oddest of days. Waterproofs on top, shorts on the bottom, the eternal optimist in me winning the sartorial battle.
Alfriston is a hidden gem of a town. I hadn’t really heard much about it and it turns out to be somewhat of a secret, but its Tudor wood-beamed houses, dappled red bricks and narrow streets convey a different sense of history and an unassailable feeling of what an English village should be like. Here, in the centre of the town, the route splits, there are several options to finish the South Downs Way, but really there is only one way to choose, down to the coast, through the South Downs National Park to finish at the Seven Sisters.
Despite the drizzle, the paths are holding up well, the dry ground soaking up the fine rain with ease. Rolling countryside is the order of the day at first with a few ups and downs, a few copses of trees and nothing but peace to accompany me. My first real sign of human life is when I reach Litlington, a tiny, super-quaint village composed of flint cottages. While this hidden village is lovely, its real draw is the massive white horse embedded on the hill beside it, another feature of this part of the country. (one of the other routes to Eastbourne has The Long Man on one of the hillsides) I stand, as I am sure many have done before me and marvel at this gigantic beast, while really wondering if this is just an ancient form of graffiti.
A few miles further along the route I reach Exceat and am beginning to realise that a change in the days walking is about to occur. Firstly, the rain has gently fizzled out and there is a tangible sense of the sun bulging against the clouds trying to force its way through. Secondly, Exceat is pretty much the gateway to the Seven Sisters national park and the gentle swell of the day's path is about to alter drastically.
Undulation would be the keyword to the rest of the days walking if it were not for the might of the surroundings. The sheer beauty of this final stretch through Cuckmere Valley and its carpet of wildflowers, up onto the rollercoaster clifftop walk of the Seven Sisters. The Seven Sisters are the chalk cliffs, erupting from the English Channel like a stark barrier to ward off invaders. While this makes them sound imposing, to stand looking at them is to be charmed by them, the contrasting deep-green tops make them look like the world’s most expensive advert for semi-skimmed milk. Now I have blue skies, that have brightened the sea to a shimmering turquoise and not for the first time on this trip I stop, drink it all in and feel incredibly lucky to be alive.
The South Downs Way is good for the soul, I couldn’t recommend it highly enough.