The Pride of Susssex: Beachy Head, Birling Gap & the Seven Sisters

My hips ache…

My knees ache…

My back aches….

But I’m exhilarated, having just completed a 12km walk with some of the most stunning views in the county of Sussex.

Looking west to Belle Tout lighthouse, Beachy Head, Sussex

Actually, I’m ashamed to admit that even though we’ve lived only 15 miles from Eastbourne for the last 24 years, we’ve never walked along, or even seen – in the chalk, as it were – Beachy Head, the Seven Sisters or Birling Gap.

Nor had we visited the charming village of East Dean until we decided to park the car and make this the starting point for our walk this week.

I’d downloaded a set of route directions, dressed for all weathers (as is always advisable in the UK) and loaded the backpack with snacks and water so we wouldn’t end up resorting to cannibalism if things went horribly wrong.  So armed, Hub and I confidently strode out of the car park to begin our big adventure.

I dislike directions that tell you to “head South,” and such like, as if we all possess an internal compass, but at least the sun was shining and it was approaching midday, so we were able to take a reasonably accurate stab at which way to set off.  The directions proved invaluable during the first part of the walk toward the coast.  Without them, we could easily have missed the bridleway just before the sharp right bend in the road at the village outskirts, just past the cricket ground.

Sheep sheltering under a tree
The Guilty Party

This path took us through a couple of fields heavily splattered with sheep “doings.”  Before long we found the producers of said “doings” crammed beneath a tree taking respite from the hot sun.  As we nervously plotted our course, trying to keep our walking shoes from landing in anything brown and gooey, the sheep watched with mocking expressions as if to say “We’ve been absolutely everywhere. Good luck avoiding it.”  Passing through a gate to the next field, we found an even larger group doing the same – and having “done” the same!

The final field we traversed was home to some cattle and a couple of them had babies. It was at this moment my mind decided to regurgitate the statistic I read recently that 11 people were killed by cattle attacks between 2020 and 2021 with a further 31 receiving non-fatal injuries.  Most of these occurred when calves were present and the members of the public who were killed were walking on public footpaths – eek!  I advised Hub to keep walking and avoid making sudden movements or eye contact.  Moving swiftly on…

Belle Tout lighthouse, Beachy Head, Sussex
Belle Tout Lighthouse, Beachy Head, Sussex

Before long, the welcome sight of Belle Tout lighthouse came into view.  It seems pretty far inland for a lighthouse and there’s a reason for this.  Originally built in 1832, the lighthouse has had an eventful existence changing hands several times and appearing in more than one TV programme.  In 1999, the entire structure was moved 17 metres back from the cliff edge.  Now operating as a unique bed & breakfast, there is talk of a further retreat becoming necessary due to continuing cliff erosion.

Once we reached the cliffs, we turned left to head towards Eastbourne enjoying the spectacular views of the majestic white chalk cliffs.  It’s an odd feeling knowing you’re on the very end of England.

White cliffs at Beachy Head, Sussex
White Cliffs of Beachy Head, Sussex

We’d certainly chosen the right day for our walk.  The sun was shining but a sea breeze kept us cool and the cloud formations inland were quite stunning.  The ground occasionally undulates quite sharply so the walk was challenging in places but the frequent stops to take in the vistas offered good opportunities to recharge.

One of the highlights is seeing the red and white Beachy Head lighthouse that’s situated at the bottom of the cliffs.  It took over from Belle Tout and does the job of warning shipping vessels away from the rocks.  Together with its backdrop of white cliffs, it’s been the subject of many a painting and more than a few photographs.  Well, it can’t help being such a pretty focal point, can it?

Beachy Head Lighthouse
Beachy Head Lighthouse

Sadly, there’s also a darker side to this most dramatic of Sussex beauty spots.  It’s one of the world’s most notorious suicide spots.  It’s the unpleasant job of the police and coastguards, often with the assistance of the RNLI, to recover the bodies from the bottom of the cliffs.  Not all the deaths are intentional, however.  Tourists have been known to lose their footing after straying too close to the edge.  You’d think it would be common sense to keep clear, after all, Belle Tout was moved for a reason, but I guess the urge to create the perfect Instagram moment is strong.

There’s a lovely café offering toilet and water refill facilities as well as tasty food such as tea and toasties.  A little further on you’ll find The Beachy Head, a dog-friendly pub in a fabulous setting serving appetising pub food and boasting the best views of the English Channel.

Eastbourne town from the top of Beachy Head
Our first glimpse of Eastbourne

Not being frequent walkers, we were more than happy when Eastbourne town came into view far below us.  And what a view.  It’s fun to pick out landmarks as you can see all the way from the modern windfarm generators to the north of town, to the giant wheel that’s the Eastbourne Eye on the coast and, of course, the pier.

But just as climbers scaling Everest think they’re almost at the summit once it comes into view then find they’re still a couple of hours away, it’s the same descending into Eastbourne.  Either that, or someone kept moving it!  Still, at least it’s downhill at this point.  The very last part is extremely downhill so be careful to avoid slipping.

You’ll enter Eastbourne through the very pleasant Holywell area and proceed toward the Meads and old town.  We headed to Cornfield Terrace to locate the number 12 bus for the 10 minute trip back to East Dean to complete our circular route.  The buses run about every 15 minutes so we didn’t have long to wait.  We were glad of the seat, that’s for sure.

Tiger Inn, East Dean, Sussex
Tiger Inn, East Dean, Sussex

Alighting in East Dean – there’s only one stop – we easily found our way back to the car park in the centre of the village but were distracted by the welcome sight of the Tiger Inn, an old smuggler’s pub sited right on the village green.  We availed ourselves of the facilities, bought something cold and wet and took a seat at one of the many table & bench units near the war memorial.  If you prefer a café, there’s the Hiker’s Rest right next door offering a fine array of tea and cakes.

Cottage with blue plaque
Cottage with Blue Plaque in East Dean

East Dean village green is extremely pretty and bordered by some picturesque, flower-laden cottages.  One, in particular, bears a blue plaque signifying that someone of historical interest lived there.  In this case, the plaque is on the cottage that now acts as the estate office for Beachy Head cottage accommodation and is dedicated to a certain fictional detective.

Blue Plaque saying Sherlock Holmes retired here
Sherlock Holes Retired Here… allegedly

I informed Hub that the plaque advised us that Sherlock Holmes had retired there.  It took him a minute to realise the peculiarity of this “Hang on, he’s not real!”  Well, it had been a long day and a 7.5 mile walk must take its toll on one’s brain function.

Even if you don’t manage the entire walk, a trip to Sussex isn’t complete without a visit to Beachy Head.  At the very least, visit The Beachy Head pub and make sure you see the lighthouse, the views west to the cliffs that are the Seven Sisters and east down to Eastbourne.  You may go home with the same photos taken by millions of visitors before you, but you’ll also have the beautiful images burned into your retina forever.

Author

  • Maria Bligh

    Maria Bligh is a journalist, published author, professional speaker, singer and artist now settled in Sussex, UK, having previously travelled extensively throughout the UK and overseas, including a period living in Geneva. Married to a successful musician and with a background that encompasses working in the music industry, finance, sales and presentations training, she maintains a diverse existence. Her interests encompass travel, nature, animals and the arts: music, theatre, painting, writing and philosophy. Maria now writes for online and print magazines. Having once maintained a regular full page in “A Place In The Sun” magazine, travel is an obvious interest, but her articles also cover a wide variety of subjects. She bills herself as “an observer of the human condition and all that sail in her.” Maria has frequently appeared on radio & TV as well as in print. Her humorous style has seen her travel the world addressing audiences throughout Europe, Asia and Australasia and as a cruise-ship speaker with P&O and Fred Olsen.

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