Heading North to The South Downs

I’ve always enjoyed the views from Beachy Head, the famous white cliffs towering over Eastbourne East Sussex. Often confused online with the white cliffs of Dover, some 70 miles further north along the coast. I do find myself making comments online if people have posted images of Beachy Head and labeled them as Dover, Kent!

I don’t mean to be picky but the white-cliffs at Beachy Head are the start / end of the South Downs and indeed the 100 mile walking trail, the South Downs Way. The white-cliffs at Dover are part of the North Downs and, not surprisingly, the North Downs Way loop takes in the location. A subtle but important difference, especially if you have just told your friends to meet you there for a walk.

Beachy Head East Sussex
Beachy Head East Sussex

At the time of this walk I was without a means of transport, my Italian motorbike was being, well shall we say, Italian. If there was a Y in the day of the week and a hint of moisture in the air the electricity would run out of the battery and was rarely seen again. I’ve done my fair share of walking in bike leathers!

I had just quit my last job in engineering (I work for myself now) and was a few weeks away from a new adventure, living in Ireland. It was the perfect time to plan a walk of just over 11 miles.

From West Sussex to East Sussex

The first part of my journey involved getting by train from East Grinstead in West Sussex (where I lived) to Eastbourne, East Sussex, where I would start my walk. As is the way of the railways this involved heading AWAY from my destination and towards London. After a change of trains at Clapham Junction I was finally heading south once more towards Eastbourne. The weather was bright and dry, no complaints on that (warm) front.

I got off the train at Eastbourne Railway Station and headed off confidently into the crowds of shoppers. I’d not brought a map with me as I know the area well. First lesson of walking; always bring a map.

My plan was to head south from the station and pick up the start of the South Downs Way at the seafront, west of the pier. The problem with Eastbourne, like many Victorian seaside towns is the fact that the numerous hotels and apartments block your street-view further than a few yards in front. Anyway after a few false starts I did eventually end up on the promenade. If in doubt follow the smell of candy floss, the noise of happy holidaymakers and bring a map.

I only took a few images of the now infamous pier, as I was planning to return at a later date and take some “decent” images with a camera and not my mobile phone. Sadly in July 2014 there was a devastating fire and much of the 140+ year old grand lady was destroyed. As is the way in Great Britain, plans were immediately announced to rebuild.

We do love our Victorian pleasure piers. Looking west from the seafront you cannot miss the chalk sea cliff of Beachy Head, rising sharply, some 531 foot (162 metres) above the shingle beach. I walked towards the hills, the way clearly marked with numerous tourist information signs. You won’t get lost…with your map handy of course.

Dotted along the route are benches, enticing you to sit and admire the views, wrap up warm though, as the breeze from the sea is often relentless in strength. There are several well-worn paths along the section from the promenade towards Beachy Head, all eventually leading ever upwards. Onwards and upwards as someone used to say at my previous employment. By the time you reach the “summit” of Beachy Head you are ready for a break.

There is a pub/restaurant as well as toilets and nearly always an ice-cream van. A bus stop and public car-park can also be found. This is a very popular spot for walkers, families, kids, cars, motorbikes, coaches, tourists and more. During the summer months, on a warm weekend, there can be thousands of people walking along the cliffs. There is room for everyone but depending on your chosen time to visit, solitude can be lacking.

Perhaps one sad thing to mention about Beachy Head is its “popularity” as a suicide spot. You will see the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team patrolling the area, always willing to stop and talk to those that need comfort in desperate times. Please do support them if you can – http://www.bhct.org.uk/wp/

360 Degree Beachy Head Views

Beachy Head Trig Point
Beachy Head Trig Point

I stood still and looked around. In every direction of the compass you can see a view that will have you reaching for your camera. Looking out to sea, looking inland, looking up to the big sky and of course looking on to the next hill, now where was that bench again. I didn’t stop at the pub, that would have been far too enjoyable and as I don’t walk that fast, a waste of valuable daylight.

Walking away from the temptation of the pub and the ice-cream van I kept the English Channel to my left and headed off towards the distant Belle Tout Lighthouse. Famous on and off the TV screen. The chalk sea cliffs, the highest in Great Britain roll upwards and downwards, keeping you fit as you walk. There is a lot of WW2, cold war and maritime history associated with this area, a blog post in itself would cover that.

She Devils and Belle Tout Lighthouse

The South Downs Way takes you to the front door of the Belle Tout Lighthouse, built in 1831, once the only lighthouse to warn shipping of the dangers of the towering cliffs. In 1902 the now familiar red and white striped Beachy Head Lighthouse was built at the foot of cliffs in the sea, as the Belle Tout was often shrouded in sea mist. Not very helpful for mariners.

In 1986, the BBC filmed the mini-series The Life and Loves of a She-Devil at the Belle Tout and a year later it featured in the James Bond film The Living Daylights. Perhaps the most famous TV appearance was in 1999 when the entire structure, some 850 tons, was moved inland by hydraulic rams due to severe coastal erosion of the cliff face.

Belle Tout Lighthouse Sussex
Belle Tout Lighthouse Sussex

In March 2010 the Belle Tout Lighthouse found a new life as a Bed and Breakfast location with amazing views from the old lantern room. Since the image below was taken in early 2011, a new access road has been built inland for guests staying at the B&B. I expect the postman is happy about that. I wonder if people realise just how undercut the cliff is at the edge of the path here.

Recent winter storms have eroded yet more of the cliff and the South Downs Way now runs inland behind the lighthouse grounds. Sensible precaution to ensure the continuous enjoyment of your guests! Beyond Belle Tout is Birling Gap, infamous yet again due to coastal cliff erosion. Chalk and water, it’s a strange mix.

Visit Birling Gap Now – Before It’s Gone!

Birling Gap South Downs
Birling Gap South Downs

Leaving the “B&B with the best sea views” behind me, I walked onwards, still heading west towards Birling Gap. At the time of my walk in 2011 the access to the beach was still open, since the winter storms of 2013/2014 there have been several cliff falls and beach access can be closed off due to dangerous conditions. Tons of falling chalk being a common issue! The following photos I took between early 2011 and 2014 will explain that mighty mother nature is not giving up at Birling Gap, far from it.

There are toilets, a large National Trust car park, a NT cafe serving locally sourced food and drink. A very welcome pit-stop on my 11 mile walk. The wooden steps that lead from the cliff edge down to the shingle beach make for a very popular photography spot.

Birling Gap Seven Sisters
Birling Gap Seven Sisters

Visitors do need to be aware of substantial chalk falls when down on the beach or near the cliff edge. Just be sensible.

In 2014 one of the former coastguard cottages had to be demolished following the winter storms of 2013. The photos below, which I took back in 2011 show the difference.

Coastguard Cottages Birling Gap
Coastguard Cottages Birling Gap

I walked down the strong wooden steps to the shingle beach and took some images of the South Downs as they met the sea. The clean chalk face tells you that rock falls are not uncommon, so it pays to keep a healthy distance between the cliffs and the sea. It was a very relaxing mid way break (I had to retrace the route back to Eastbourne railway station).

The distance travelled was 5.7 miles to this point but it felt much more, a combination of the rise and fall of the mighty South Downs under my walking boots, plus I’m always a lot fitter in my mind than I seem to be on the trail. I walked back up the wooden steps, looking on with envy at people drinking tea from their thermos in their cars and set off east back towards Beachy Head and Eastbourne, retracing my footsteps.

Birling Gap Coastal Erosion
Birling Gap Coastal Erosion

Beachy Head at Sunset

I reached Beachy Head late in the afternoon, as the sun was low in the sky. I was torn between wanting to watch the sky as it no doubt turned a burnt orange, to getting back to the train station and a welcome cup of tea at home. By late afternoon, the temperature had dropped sharply. The casual tourists had long since gone home, leaving the hardy dog walkers and the lovers of sunsets. Perhaps lovers at sunset…anyway.

There is something special about the end of a day, when you are outdoors with miles of sky. Watching the darkness of night chase the fading sunlight over the curve of the horizon. The stars rise in the sky and all becomes very calm, or so it always seems to me.

A gentle mist formed over the villages and rolling farmland. I wanted to stay and watch the South Downs landscape as it changed under the fading light but I had a date with a train station.

Route: Eastbourne Railway Station to Birling Gap and back.

Distance: 11.7 miles (18.8 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!

6 thoughts on “Heading North to The South Downs”

  1. Good stuff, but please: ‘white cliffs’ – not ‘white-cliffs’! Where did you get the hyphen from? Dame Vera would have a fit, which would probably kill her.

  2. Hi there I am doing the southdowns way from Eastbourne to alfriston with food stop in between. From reading your blog the accent from Eastbourne to beachy head is v steep! We are having food at the cuckmere inn seven sisters. Really as we are a bunch of women walking talking and all relatively fit would you suggest to get s bus from Eastbourne to beachy head then do the walk? As the walk is for fun not to kill ourselves we also need to get to alfriston after food! Any suggestion welcome

    1. Hello Sharon, that makes sense. Get the bus to Beachy Head itself and begin from there. Though I guess it depends on what you call steep. I wrote that article long before I started hiking Dartmoor Tors 😉 Hope you have an enjoyable time.

  3. Explanation “Seven Sisters, East Sussex” from the first picture is wrong because the landscape is a view towards east from hilltop of Beachy Head, which can be recognized easily by following the lighthouse in the sea! I propose the following explanation: “View from the South Downs Way towards Beachy Head Lighthouse at high tide, Eastbourne, East Sussex, England”.

  4. Amazing photography. Thanks for sharing about your life and Eastbourne East Sussex beach. I am also a fan of beaches and living vacations near beach views, water falls and birds voice makes me calm.

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