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.