Seven Sisters, Sussex by the Sea

Much as I love the rugged, wild grandeur of the Highland and Island landscapes of my adopted home, I hold the gentle, rolling countryside of the South Downs – where I grew up – very dear to my heart.

We’re down south for a visit and Sunday presented the opportunity for a bracing walk on the Downs in cold, sunny conditions. ‘Where would you like to go?’ I enquired of TLF. ‘Where’s that lovely coffee and cake shop?’ she asked in response. I knew she meant the one at East Dean, which sits in a lovely coomb near Birling Gap between Eastbourne and Seaford on the Seven Sisters – a rollercoaster of lovely chalk cliffs just west of Beachy Head.

The plan was hatched – we’d drive to Friston Forest and do a circular walk from there.

Setting off from the car park, we crossed the A259 coast road and joined the South Downs Way, which soon began to climb above the lovely oxbow meander of the River Cuckmere.

At length we arrived above the clifftops and joined the trodden path that undulates its way up and down, up and down over the Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven in the west to Birling Gap in the east.

It makes for a fine walk. It is also a very popular walk along one of England’s truly ‘iconic’ landscapes. Today, however, there weren’t that many folk out enjoying the sunshine and fresh sea air. In all probability the population at large were working themselves into a frenzied pre-xmas shopping lather. How much more they would have enjoyed a walk!

Dougal had to stay on the leash for much of the walk owing to the presence of woolies; I was also slightly concerned about him bowling over a cliff edge in pursuit of rabbits, seagulls and so forth.

The chalk of which the Downs are largely comprised is composed of the shells and/or poo of countless billions of tiny shellfish that sedimented on the floor of an ancient ocean a very, very long time ago. Downland chalk is studded through with flint stones, which were formed when expired sea cucumbers (I’m not making it up!) sank to the ocean floor and became embedded in the sedimenting chalk. The sea cucumbers then rotted away and the cavities left behind filled with a silica solution, which solidified as flint. Amazing, huh?

What I don’t understand is why there are obvious strata of flints – sometimes dozens of metres apart – visible in the eroded chalk of the cliff faces.

Anyway, back to the walk. Well it was fairly uneventful in the best possible way, just a lovely, joyful potter along the clifftops.

Every year, more of the chalk cliff faces crumble into the sea. This is down to a combination of wave and weather erosion and freeze-thaw action. The picture below shows a sizeable lump that’s ready to go. I offered TLF £100 if she would jump up and down ten times on the seaward side of that big crack. She declined.

I was walking along here with agroup of friends about 12 years ago when thousands of tonnes of cliff at Beachy Head collapsed into the sea. This was down to freeze-thaw action. The porous chalk is permeated with water which expands when freezing then contracts when thawing causing the chalk to split along the key points of stress.

We continued on to Birling Gap where a staircase provides access to the beach. A happy hour was spent beachcombing and chasing tennis balls along the pebbly shore.

You can see the aforementioned strata of flint in the cliffs in the picture below.

TLF filled my rucksack with sea-rounded balls of chalk and large lumps of flint resembling Henry Moore sculptures, before we lurched off in the direction of East Dean and our appointment with coffee and cake, which was all the more keenly anticipated on the discovery that our sandwiches had been left at home…

East Dean is full of Sussex vernacular flint-walled houses – the archetypal picturesque Sussex village. Perhaps a little too picturesque if you know what I mean. Anyway, the coffee and cake was superb. Over the other side of the village green, the Tiger Inn looked inviting, however there were a few too many people in green corduroys with children called Jasper hee-hawing about so we passed up on the tempting thought of a pint of Harveys best bitter.

Interestingly, East Dean is where Sherlock Holmes came to retire when he’d done with the business of thwarting Professor Moriarty and throwing frisbees for the Hound of the Baskervilles. This is his house below:

Don’t believe me?

Anyway, having finished our cake all that remained to do was to walk back the few miles through Friston Forest to the car park. This provided a very pleasant conclusion to an excellent walk.

Thereafter, we drove home and the Hound went to Basketville.


14 responses

  1. Basketville 😉

    Its a grand spot the seven sisters park and I know it well, even seem to recognise that bit o beach you’re on there. Nice to see it again via the photees. Now, get back north for gods sake man, you’ll catch malaria or some other tropical disease doon here

    • Hello Mr L. Yes, it was a foolhardy expedition to the south country – I’ve contracted denge fever and beri-beri along with a number of troubling dermatological conditions.

      The Downs were looking very lovely – you should make a pilgrimage before you yourself head for the north country…

  2. Love the idea of a walk based round a coffee and a cake shop – a woman after my own heart! Don’t know the area at all, but lovely photos. Did you notice the one where somebody’s tied a poor chocolate labrador to a bench and then abandoned it?!

  3. Hello Chrissie, I love walking along coastline and although Sussex is a populous county it is possible to get away from the crowds quite easily.

    Fiona needs fed at regular intervals or she becomes violent Promises of coffee and cake take the edge off her murderous tendencies, but it’s a real calamity if a promised coffee/cake opportunity fails to materialise or is closed…

    I know it looks like Dougal has been tied to a bench in that photo, but in fact he merely got his leash snagged whilst practising his world-famous bench double back flip…

    • I do love the gentle, rolling Downland landscapes, Andy – a real contrast with much of Scotland for sure. The hills of Southern Uplands remind me a little of the South Downs only they’re much bigger and much wilder!

  4. Amazing photos Pete.
    Glad you had a quiet walk down there.For me that,s the kind of scenery I really love.In my twenties I spent several months based in Kent exploring the Home Counties,West and East Sussex,Hampshire, Essex,Devon and Cornwall. I probably feel the same way about the landscape down there that you do about Jura and the Scottish west coast.
    Given a choice of holiday between the two areas I,d pick down south. Funny that.

    • Hello Bob, it’s an interesting point that you make about the appeal of landscapes that contrast with those of your home. Actually, though, I think I’ve grown to like the rugged and wild terrain of Scotland’s west more and more.

      I’m intrigued by your sojourn exploring the south country in your twenties and gratified that you like the landscapes. There’s some fine
      walking country in the south, though I feel some outdoor types perhaps overlook the area, drawn by the grand scale of the hill country in
      Scotland, Wales and England’s north.

      I think Dorset has to be one of my favourite counties for its wonderful coastline and the wooded hills of its hinterland.

  5. I always though that Seven sisters was a tube station, the reality is thankfully much more pretty. Probably an area that I will never visit so good to see pictures of the place. Shocking that such a short marriage that you are looking at ways to dispose of TLF. I would have offered Corrina at least £150 to jump up and down on the cracked cliff………

  6. You never know, James, one day you might find yourself appreciating the understated beauty of the Downs on a walk or two.

    When I lived in Finsbury Park, I would sometimes walk down the Seven Sisters Road to the tube, catch a train from Victoria to Eastbourne and walk along the Seven Sisters clifftops…

    TLF would surely bounce if she fell from a great height, such is her optimistic nature.

  7. Pete – You doing any walks with chalk cut men featuring some frightening anatomical detail. I worked for a summer in the area as a PGL instructor. Loved the summer roadside flowers. Now get yourself back up the road – your missing a few big storms.
    Happy New Year

    • Arr, Warren, you’re thinking of the Long Man of Wilmington – though it’s thought that his bits were removed by disapproving Victorian types, if indeed he ever possessed any. It’s the Cerne Abbas Giant in Dorset who’s the chalk-cut figure with the large knobbly club and the large knobbly, erm, knob…

      You’ll be glad to know I was back in God’s Own Country in time for the storms. I’m still here for the monsoon season…

  8. Loved this geological tour, Pete, which brought back fine memories of a walk or two along that coast. And although I’m fascinated by the flint and chalk formations I think it was the gorgeous oxbow meander that really caught my attention. So understated in many ways, such a beautiful and sinuous signature on that rolling landscape. Sid has told me that he’s commonly seen peregrines hunting from the cliffs as well. Any sightings?

    Having just enjoyed a Christmas read of Sherlock Holmes in The Blue Carbuncle it was an added joy to know he he spent some years in the very same place! Hope you and Fiona are relishing the season, and very best wishes for a joyful and creative coming year to you both…

  9. The Blue Carbuncle? Shurley shome mishtake?

    I’ve fond memories of the walk we did on the Downs on my 35th – almost 11 years back, eek!

    A joyful and creatively fecund 2012 upon you and Joules also.

    Tweet xx

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