Yelling “Fozzie Fozzie Fozzie, oi oi oi” out of a house window is not how I normally start a refreshing walk around the South Downs of England.
Back in the autumn of 2014 I received a message online (via Google+) from a chap called Keith Foskett or as he prefers to be called, “Fozzie“. It seemed we both shared a mutual liking of photography and the outdoors of Southern England. We also live only a few miles apart in Sussex.
Alfriston to Birling Gap Circular Walk
Fozzie needed some advice on social media, so we got talking. To cut a long story short (who can write a long story about SEO??) we agreed that we should do some walking together so a date was agreed to meet up; “sometime in January” was the plan.
Between autumn and the new year I spent some time reading Fozzie’s blog and the penny dropped. Fozzie was a serious long distance thru-hiker and an author of several acclaimed hiking books.
South Downs Weather
The Met Office promised that the first Saturday of January would be a beautiful crisp bright day, perfect for a refreshing first long walk of the new year. Well the Met Office lied! A quick message from Fozzie on the preceding Friday rescheduled the walk, as Saturday was now forecast to be wet wet wet. Fozzie rescheduled the walk for 90 minutes time! I was still in bed, under the duvet, warm. Blooming ‘eck, better get up.
90 minutes later I was shouting out of a window to a chap who looked like a thru-hiker. It would seem my front door is harder to find than the end of the Appalachian Trail. After a welcoming handshake and smiles Fozzie suggested we head to Alfriston in East Sussex.
South Downs Way | Alfriston
Alfriston is a charming village located in the valley of the River Cuckmere, about four miles north-east of Seaford and south of the main A27 road. I knew the area well from my motorbike days but had never stopped to explore on foot properly.
We parked up and headed off to the village centre, passing buildings with the type of charm that comes from 16th century construction. Alfriston is worthy of a photo-blog of its own.
A short walk along the South Downs Way from the village centre saw a charming footbridge over the River Cuckmere and a welcoming view of the South Downs. Hardly a cloud in the sky, perfect walking weather. Good call there from Fozzie.
The SDW follows the bank of the River Cuckmere, a wide path but quite muddy in winter; plenty of opportunities for forward moonwalking; where your footprints inadvertently become 20″ long. I had my walking pole with me, so at least I’d only slide 50% of the time, hmmm.
I tried not to take too many photos so early on in the walk, as January doesn’t offer the longest of daylight hours but I did have my new LED torch with me. As with many villages, St Andrew’s Church at Alfriston, is built upon raised land, so offering lots of photo opportunities. I snapped just a few!
The South Downs are very much “working” hills, with wide open grazing land and fertile flood plains. Much of the original chalk grassland has been turned over to arable farming. It is estimated that over 95% of chalk grassland has been destroyed since the 1940s.
We followed the SDW as it meandered beside the Cuckmere, heading generally the same direction we were – towards the English Channel. At the small hamlet of Litlington the South Downs Way leaves the banks of the river and begins to climb, there are steps, lanes, and grassy hills to walk up. Slippery when wet, so make sure you have grippy walking boots!
Even The Horse Said Hello
This really is rural Sussex, only a few miles from the busy A27 east / west trunk road yet a world apart from the traffic and mayhem. As we walked the SDW, through arable fields and pasture the wildlife came and said hello; from horses, to wild birds, to well-behaved dogs. Escaping from the “office” really does bring out the best in people and animals.
Eventually we reached the tiny hamlet of Westdean (or West Dean). This idyllic hamlet is located at the edge of Friston Forest and if it wasn’t for the SDW and local knowledge would probably remain undiscovered by even the keenest of walkers.
As you leave Westdean there are a flight of steps, taking you away from the village pond, up into the edge of Friston Forest. I hadn’t walked this part of the SDW before so was unaware of the views that were only a few minutes walk away.
Cuckmere Haven – A Lesson in Geology (and war!)
All the way from Litlington we had been steadily gaining altitude, as well as an appetite! As we left Westdean behind us and followed the numerous SDW signposts, a flint wall and a stile marked a dramatic change in landscape and view.
Walking out of the forest we were presented with a wonderful view of Cuckmere Haven and a very welcome bench to occupy for a lunch break. Fozzie and I sat and had lunch, no real need to say anything. Nature and “that” view did all the talking. I absolutely recommend it. Sit down, turn your mobile to silent and look, just look.
Cuckmere Haven can be busy place, popular with walkers, families and 75 years ago the military. There are pill boxes to explore, an 1890 shipwreck to discover, even an old tramway (well the footpath follows the route).
Explore Word War 2 Pill Boxes
The SDW once more rejoins and follows the Cuckmere River at Exceat, this area is perhaps one of the finest locations to see a meandering river and oxbow lakes.
Due to the natural valley, Cuckmere Haven was a likely location for any WW2 invasion by Germany. Like much of rural England, traces of homeland defences are never far away. The Seven Sisters Country Park doesn’t disappoint on that. There are several very intact pill boxes to explore and anti-tank traps.
In the 1940s this area would have been completely off-limits to civilians, we had a lot to be thankful for, on a bright January day. Miles of open countryside to legally roam.
Like a rat up a drainpipe Fozzie crawled into one of the larger pillboxes and took some photos. I wandered around outside trying my best to keep out of his “arty” photos (which I should add are bloody brilliant). I would imagine if you had time on your side you could really take some amazing photos of this landscape. Natural and man-made.
As much as I wanted to stay and take photos of the pillboxes as the light and landscape changed, we still had more walking ahead of us and some pretty impressive chalk downs to traverse. Here’s my parting shot of a pillbox.
Please Mind The Gap
Leaving the Cuckmere Estuary behind us we climbed steeply upwards and eastwards, the OS Map contour lines are close together here, that’s for sure. After several minutes of steep walking and not much talking, we reached the first of several summits. This first hill is marked on OS Maps as Cliff End, appropriate enough.
There is a safety clue here in the name, Cliff End is just that, a cliff that is (slowly through coastal erosion) ending. So please, as they say at all the best places; mind the gap.
This part of the South Downs Way is probably the most famous. If a TV production company needs a shot of English white chalk cliffs, The Seven Sisters tick that box. The white chalk shone brilliantly in the winter sunshine, a reminder that chalk falls are not uncommon here. The tide was low, which meant a grandstand view of rockpools far below us. Nature never fails to impress me.
Our next destination was Birling Gap and the newly refurbished National Trust cafe. Before that welcome cup of tea though, we had some serious peaks and troughs to walk. Onwards and upwards, downwards, upwards….
The Seven Sisters (of mercy?)
Immediately east of Cuckmere Haven are the impressive Seven Sisters. They are dry valleys in the chalk South Downs, which are gradually being eroded by the sea; so making a series of seven hills to walk up and down. Plenty of photo opportunities here and the promise of a cup of tea after the seventh hill, I was in my element.
Nature, humans and local wildlife are sculpting this vista; a mix of erosion, land slippage, rabbit burrows and human footfall all combine to make for an interesting landscape.
We followed the SDW along (but not too close) the cliff edge, stopping every now and then to look at the geology and beauty of the area. This is a geography lesson in real time. Wish my school trips had come here and not to the hyper-markets in Calais.
The tide was very low but access to the foreshore can only be made at Cuckmere Haven or Birling Gap and we were now between the two. Far below us we could see exposed rockpools, the waves over time carving patterns in the rock. Depending on your way of thinking, there could be some of my human ancestors petrified in those pools!
It’s All About That Chalk Face
The path as it follows the coastline allows for some fleeting glimpses of the chalk cliff face, meaning it was not dangerous to get some photos from “out to sea”, without being all washed up and….out to sea.
It was time to crack on, Birling Gap was calling, the sun was some way beyond midday. So I put my camera back in my rucksack and filed the images into my mental memory. It’s all about that walk as Fozzie reminded me, he was not wrong there.
A Nice Cup of Tea Mrs Doyle?
Birling Gap car park was busy, as we half expected. An easily accessible location by car, bus, foot. The National Trust (at the time of writing this blog) operate a popular cafe here. Serving hot and cold food and most importantly tea and flapjacks. I mention the phrase “at the time of writing” because Birling Gap suffers from very serious coastal erosion and there will come a time when the cafe will have to close and be rebuilt further inland.
I’ve visited Birling Gap many times before – here’s a walk with photos I did from the Eastbourne direction.
Fozzie and I sat down in the bustling cafe and enjoyed our tea and flapjacks. Except that Fozzie told me he didn’t like flapjacks…as he ate the flapjack he had purchased some 5 minutes earlier. I blame the sea air.
Turning My Back on The Sea
As we left Birling Gap, the sea cliffs and the warm cafe behind us, it was time to follow the SDW briefly again before taking a path that led north towards the village of East Dean, on the other side of Went Hill.
The walk from Birling Gap northwards across Went Hill offers some truly big sky. It’s a phrase that I use several times in this blog. I love big sky; watching the weather roll in; watching the hue of the blue change from east to west. Walking north away from the English Channel did not disappoint in the least.
There are few man-made structures on this part of the South Downs but one particular building did have a striking red roof, visible for many miles around.
Time Marches On
By the time we had reached the village of Friston, situated on the busy Eastbourne to Seaford road, the sun was low in the sky to our left. With my camera back in the rucksack it was time to walk. We followed a path from the western edge of Friston, north towards Friston Place and then in a westerly direction right through Friston Forest.
Friston Forest is leased by the Forestry Commission from South East Water, and is situated on a large aquifer which supplies water to Eastbourne and the surrounding area. On a late afternoon in January the area was an oasis of calm. We need to protect our woodlands, through management and education.
We followed the forest trails in a westerly direction which brought us back to the hamlet of Westdean, where several hours earlier we had climbed the wooden steps overlooking Exceat.
Westdean to Alfriston
From Westdean we retraced our original route, via the South Downs Way back across the fields, the lanes, the slippery slopes back to Litlington where once again we walked beside the Cuckmere River towards Alfriston.
By this time it was dark, pitch black in fact. I finally got to use my new LED torch in anger. It worked well. Fozzie had brought a decent camera / tripod combination with him, so with darkness very much upon us it was time for him to practice his night shots.
The moon was a day or two short of being full, so looked very atmospheric through the silhouette of the trees. We followed the SDW all the way back to the footbridge over the Cuckmere River at Alfriston, no serious mishaps; other than Fozzie misjudging a very muddy gate and sinking into the mire and I fell off a dyke, with fading swear words as I disappeared from view. Nothing to see here, move along please.
Alfriston to West Sussex
By the time we had got back to Alfriston the worst of the South East rush hour was over, we off-loaded our rucksacks into the car and headed back to West Sussex, to discuss our next walk.
Route: Alfriston to Birling Gap and back.
Distance: 12.2 miles (19.6 km)
Map of Walking Route
The map shown is a rough guide to the route that I walked. Please make sure you always follow safe and legal paths, roads and walkways. The actual location of the red-route on the map is an approximation. Never walk in the sea or off a cliff, please just don’t, you’ll get wet and I’ll get worried!