Every two years I walk the bestwalk in southeast England, which is across the top of Beachy Head and over the Seven Sisters. This year I slipped down to Sussex on the last day of high summer and revelled in the sheer chalky gloriousness of it all.
To keep things varied this time I chose to walk from east to west, and undertook the entire 15 mile trek from Eastbourne to Seaford rather than terminating early at Cuckmere Haven. It took six knackering hours, including a heck of a lot of up and down, but the sheer exhilaration of striding along the cliffs suspended between sun and sea drove me on and it was just utterly splendid.
Along the way I somehow managed to take 300 photos, because the sky was blue and the light was just right and because it's precisely the sort of landscape you'd want to preserve memories of forever. Lining up my camera I was often struck by how familiar the framed image seemed, because it turned out I'd been drawn to exactly the same spot several times previously and snapped something identical. But each time the light and tide and wildlife were different, and the tiny people scattered across the landscape in fresh locations, and basically the Seven Sisters walk never gets old. [15 photos]
There is however a danger that my posts about the walk could become dull, or at least repetitive, and also that if I haven't persuaded you to try this walk after seven previous attempts I never will. So for 2021's reportage I'm going to concentrate on cataloguing the steep ascents that make this such an exhilarating walk. They're not as bad as the ascents in the opposite direction, because the underlying chalk geology gifts sharper climbs to those walking west to east, but maybe that's a separate post for another year.
↑ Steep Ascent 1: Holywell (15 storeys in 3 minutes)
Play your cards right and you can walk to the very edge of Eastbourne without losing breath. But at The Kiosk (Breakfast, Toasties, Ice Cream) the contours suddenly shoot up and here comes the full-on chalk downland and best keep climbing until you're way above the rooftops. My iPhone informs me I climbed the equivalent of a 15 storey building, although this may not be entirely reliable and who's to say where on the slope I should have stopped counting anyway. Looking back the town of Eastbourne stretched out beneath me, and the horizon was a blue blur with a single yacht in it, and that first hill might have been the worst of it.
The bad thing about focusing on steep climbs is having to miss out the bits inbetween, which in this case was 40 minutes of considerably gentler up and down. On the approach to Beachy Head I was surprised and wholly unnerved by a platoon of 30 armed soldiers emerging from behind the gorse and walking in single file towards the trig point. At the southernmost clifftop I joined the usual (small) crowd peering (cautiously) over the edge and trying to spot the tiny lighthouse. The ice cream van in the pub car park promised a burst of Mid Sussex Super Cream. The adjacent farmland rippled green. And the remainder of the walk spread off into the distance like a limestone rollercoaster.
↑ Steep Ascent 2: Shooters Bottom (4 storeys in 1 minute)
If all you choose to do is walk from Eastbourne to Birling Gap, this is the first of only two awkward dips. It's broad and grassy like a ramblers' motorway, and definitely a harder challenge in the opposite direction. As the man encouraging his partner upwards towards Beachy Head said, "the first bit's steep, but the rest is normal steep".
↑ Steep Ascent 3: Belle Tout (7 storeys in 4 minutes)
This is the hump with the former lighthouse on, the one that's now a guest house. On every previous visit I've walked straight through their grounds but this time it was gated shut, perhaps because the ice cream counter was closed, but more likely because a huge chunk of cliff collapsed last month taking the top of the old path with it.
At Birling Gap I stopped to unwrap my Ginsters pasty rather than frequent the National Trust tearoom. I sat on a rock and looked down across dozens of cars parked along both approach roads, and a sliver of pebbly beach, and shrieking paddleboarders, and the remains of a row of coastguard cottages, and the unwise Rocky Horror tattoo on the back of the mum smoking a fag on the next hump down, and the freshly-revealed white of the Seven Sisters where I'd be heading next.
↑ Steep Ascent 4: Bailey's Hill (8 storeys in 6 minutes)
This is actually the second of the Seven Sisters, because in this direction Went Hill is a gentle doddle. I think it's also the second highest, but relative summits are hard to judge along this stretch. Offshore activity included a biplane flypast, the odd wispy cirrus and a bobbing motorboat.
↑ Steep Ascent 5: Flagstaff (6 storeys in 5 minutes)
This is the hump with the memorial bench at the summit, where I confess I did pause for a much-needed gulp of water. Where the chalk protrudes you can often see the start of a crack that'll eventually tumble it over the edge, which very much helps to explain the powdery white residue lapping against the shoreline far below.
↑ Steep Ascent 6: Brass Point (10 storeys in 6 minutes)
A gate in the sheep fence marks the point where the National Trust's jurisdiction ends. On Wednesday the butterflies easily outnumbered the humans because that's the joy of midweek rambling, and it was life-affirming to be stood almost alone on a downland peak amid the fluttering.
↑ Steep Ascent 7: Rough Brow (6 storeys in 4 minutes)
While climbing this one my ears clogged up for a few minutes, probably due to repeated changes in pressure. For those walking the other way this is the longest, steepest ascent of the lot, but it was fine going down.
↑ Steep Ascent 8: Short Brow (9 storeys in 4 minutes)
This always looks like the last climb, but only when you reach the top do you spot the final Sister hiding beyond. On the climb I saw stacked haybales and waved to sheep and heard a skylark, because this is as much farmland as it is seaside.
↑ Steep Ascent 9: Haven Brow (7 storeys in 4 minutes)
This ascent's not quite so steep if you take the furrowed inland path but I hugged the coastline to the final summit where the iconic Cuckmere estuary stretched out below. It's normally busier up here, indeed that's the smallest congregation of coach tourists I've ever seen at the top.
If someone ever added a footbridge here you could be across the mouth of the Cuckmere in minutes, but instead continuing along the coast requires an hour's detour inland to where the bus stop, pub and first bridge are. Never mind, this brackish hike is the perfect contrast to the last hour's elevation, and what's more there are no slight slopes to climb whatsoever.
↑ Steep Ascent 10: Coastguard's Cottages (3 storeys in 2 minutes)
It's an exaggeration to describe this as a steep ascent, but after so long without (and 12 miles into the walk) it might make you a little breathless. Mainly it's an excuse for me to show you this clichéd but magnificent view past some cottage chimneystacks towards a wall of chalk. This, especially when perfectly illuminated mid-afternoon, is why the Seaford extension's worth it.
↑ Steep Ascent 11: Seaford Head (8 storeys in 10 minutes)
The final ascent follows a long furrowed grassy slope back up to clifftop heights (which Seaford Town Council seem rather keener to fence off). Walking in this direction it's important to keep turning round to admire the Seven Sisters before they gradually disappear behind a field of sheep and a golf course. And then on the final descent into Seaford you can smirk at the poor sods climbing the other way because, as usual, the west-to-east-ers have it worst.
Before returning to sea level I sat on a bench overlooking the promenade at Seaford and watched the townsfolk revelling on the beach, and Brighton somewhere in the far distance, and dark clouds rolling in above the sea marking the dividing line between summer and autumn. What I had hoped to do to round off my visit was grab some proper fish and chips but the queues were out of the door at both of the town's best takeaways and I had a train to catch, and half an hour after I left the rain arrived, and later an electric storm, and my word I'm looking forward to coming back and knackering myself out again in 2023.