We’d decided to start our trip with the South Downs Way as it’s our local trail and we’ve wanted to do the whole thing for ages. We also decided to start with the Beachy Head loop on account of it taking in the Seven Sisters which absolutely offer some of the best views in Sussex, but you also need to be slightly masochistic. What you need to know if you intend to do this is that the Seven Sisters are seven, or somewhat controversially maybe even eight, fuck off great big bastard hills and your legs will never forgive you for this travesty.
We were more or less awake as we stumbled off our third form of transportation that morning; the bus to the trail head. I indulged in my usual battle with trying to get my hiking poles extended whilst swearing never to buy the twisty fuckers again then we were off! Then we stopped again to take all the photos of the sign announcing the start of the trail because if you don’t get a trail head selfie did you even start the trail?
Then we were properly off. Obviously it started with a brutal hill because start as you mean to go on right? Can’t have your entire lower body being lulled into a false sense of security. Then we stopped again because fuck me, the views were already getting real. We kept having to take photos in between gasping for air and it only got better as the trail unfolded.
Before you even reach the Seven Sisters you’re slogging up and down hills as your heart tries to make a break for freedom through your ribcage. Up and down over Beachy Head, not forgetting to bag the trig and gawp at the lighthouse but without getting too close to the edge, please. People are a bit too fond of shuffling right to the cliff for a photo, it makes my bumhole twitch just thinking about it. The cliffs are unstable and prone to collapse.
You can clearly see this as you approach the Belle Tout lighthouse. The old path cuts a white path until, well, it just doesn’t. It looks like a fucking dragon took a bite out of it. They already shifted Belle Tout back once, they’re going to have to do it again if they want to keep it. It’s the erosion that keeps the cliffs that striking white colour though. If we did something to them to stop them from crumbling then plant life would grow and turn the cliffs green. It’s a trade off. Okay so we can’t get too close to the edge lest we die horribly as the ground falls into the abyss, but it’s really fucking pretty.
Eventually you descend into Birling Gap which has a cafe and toilets. Both were closed when we rocked up, we were far too early, so we had a quick stretch because I’m being very grown up and sensible about stretching now given I’m very much not in my 20’s anymore (or my 30’s for that matter) and every fibre of my being is acutely aware of this, then shuffled onward. And upwards. Obviously.
This is where you get to this brutal set of cliffs I’ve been banging on about for the whole blog. Your eyeholes will take your mind off the searing pain in your calf muscles though, you’ll be able to use these views as wonderful and valid reasons to stop. Like, a lot. Remember to turn around and look at where you’ve been. It’s incredible. Even if it pisses rain for the rest of the trail I’m just happy it was clear for this section but actually please don’t rain because I’ll be really sad.
Then, as you finally complete the cliff-shaped rollercoaster (physical and emotional), just as you think that’s your lot you end up at Cuckmere, the river snaking down through the valley to the sea. Dear gods, there’s a lot of eyehole fodder on day one. Last time we were around here we were finishing up the Vanguard Way and it was howling wind and sideways rain and it still somehow managed to be stunning.
The visitor centre at Exeat was closed for refurbishment but they’d provided some portaloos, but you know the posh kind with actual toilets and sinks and stuff? Yeah, those. We took full advantage and headed on towards Alfriston which, unsurprisingly, involved a lot of hills. We did see a bench with a river view round about lunchtime so we sat there and aired our feet whilst shovelling sandwiches into our chops. I wonder how long it’ll take us to get bored of sandwiches?
Feet were doing well, though. So were all the various ailments that caused us to abandon the North Downs Way three days in a couple of weeks ago. No butt cheek twinging, knees hadn’t quite caught up with the idea that hills were their lives now and started rebelling. Both of us were feeling pretty good. We headed into the lovely and probably devastatingly expensive village of Alfriston where Tarrant enquired in the shop about suncream and was told no, they don’t get that in until later in the year. Well, fuck. We’d failed to pick any up in Brighton before we left and we were both already sacrificing our top layer of skin to the sun gods.
The climb out of Alfriston can, quite frankly, fuck itself. We wheezed up the hill, the sun blazing down, my face getting redder and redder until you could see it from the fucking moon. We’ve done this section of the trail before but I didn’t remember this hell loop. I must have blocked it from my poor, traumatised brain. The eyehole fodder once we were up there though was, as always, worth the pain. The views stretch out for miles and the rapeseed was so fucking gorgeously yellow, plus it smelt amazing which went someway to masking any hiker stench we might have already accumulated.
You’re walking along a ridge on this section, and these are the kind of views I associate with the South Downs Way. We know this part of the trail, the rolling hills and the eyehole fodder for miles and the white trails worn into the chalk. It’ll never get old. We’d sort of decided that we’d not press on too far past 15 miles today, we didn’t want to risk buggering ourselves up on day one, we wanted to see how our bodies and legs coped so we started looking for somewhere to camp.
Maybe a couple of miles past Firle Beacon trigpoint we found a spot tucked behind some trees away from the trail and sat down to chill. It was still warm enough to just sit and enjoy where we were without losing feeling in our extremities. Dinner was consumed and, as the sun started to dip, we got the tent up and crawled into it for the night.
Eastbourne, East Sussex to Firle, East Sussex, England
Stayed at: Wild camp on the South Downs
Useful shit to know…
- To get to the trail head from Eastbourne train station, catch the 3 or 3A from stop R1 outside the station. Get off at The Foot Of Beachy Head. You can pay with contactless.
- The cafe and toilets at Birling Gap don’t open until 10am but there is a water tap outside.
- Alfriston has a small shop, and toilets up by a car park. There’s also a tap at the church, as you look at the church door, go left and around the corner and the tap is just there. The water fountain out front on the path wasn’t working.