Around Birling Gap with The Seven Sisters

Around Birling Gap with The Seven Sisters

Wide and open, under the vast canvas of a shifting sky, the Cuckmere Haven in England’s South East epitomises the striking blend between man, nature and the subtle chiselling of time. Lying adjacent to the gleaming white teeth of the Seven Sisters, a series of chalk cliffs that command the coastline between Seaford and Eastbourne. The headland, correlating to each Sisters competitive spirit for dominance, rises and falls in stark alliance to the crashing waves below.

Area of wetlands popular with migratory birds

Area of wetlands popular with migratory birds

With some government restrictions now partially relaxed, including unlimited exercise and the movement across a greater distance. The general easing, as long as social distancing can be maintained, has never felt more necessary. Embracing open country with the accompaniment of sea breezes and bird song, that faint taste of salt and spray as gigantic cloud shadows, the size of Pacific islands, drift across the chequered greens of the rising valley. A dramatic sense of escape and returning, release and finding, after so many weeks in human captivity. Miles away from discipline and decrees, we can let loose to the winds, unbind ourselves from the restrictive indoors and antique shows that have become too much the norm. Taking yourself on long walks, forever in the front row of spellbinding scenery which explodes beyond your visual range, revolving to a continued reward of 360-degree splendour. The natural beauty of the coastal landscape here employs a variety of bio-diverse environments from wetlands and marsh to grass fields, chalk scrub and clifftop heathland. Evoking forgotten human instincts to once again explore.

Rural landscape on the Western side of Cuckmere Valley

Rural landscape on the Western side of Cuckmere Valley

Rising near the market town of Heathfield on the weald’s (old English for woodland) southern slopes, The River Cuckmere (a Saxon term meaning fast-flowing) traces its twenty-mile course through the low weald. Cutting through the South Downs before meandering through flood plains close to its mouth with the English Channel at Cuckmere Haven. The valley, part of South Downs National Park has also been designated a site of specific scientific interest. In the mid 19th century, to prevent upstream flooding that caused problems at Alfriston, its course was straightened by an artificial cut. Riverbanks were raised, providing support for irrigation.

Life on a cliff edge Cuckmere Valley

Life on a cliff edge Cuckmere Valley

The South East of England’s rugged coastline was a favoured strip by smugglers and pirates. With close proximity to France and swathes of rich farmland behind, the area supported a highly lucrative industry. The St. Clements caves in Hastings, Kent are well recorded for their exploits in exporting contraband. Smugglers who preferred the self-title of ‘free traders’, exported wool by the ton, across the channel to weavers on the continent—feeding the insatiable demand for laces, wines and brandy in the capital as well as ready markets abroad. In Sussex, the smugglers enjoyed a reputation of being the most feared and violent in the country. When the trade reached its zenith in the late 18th to early 19th centuries, trafficking was carried out by organised gangs. Men armed with firearms lined the beach in such intimidating numbers, they effectively repelled any idea of confrontation by preventive forces. In the late 18th century on the beach at Cuckmere Haven, two gangs of smugglers overwhelmed the constabulary by their sheer numbers, and carried off a sizeable amount of cargo. The geography of the coastline that included Beachy Head, Birling Gap, and Cuckmere Haven found interest from another force keen to know the layout of the land. The Germans utilised the Luftwaffe during WWII on reconnaissance missions. Scouting the area for potential landing sites that would accommodate a mainland invasion. To thwart enemy designs, the British constructed a variety of counter-measures to forestall a German advance. Ditches, tank traps, bunkers and small block houses, many of which can still be seen, certainly close to the beach. Even the River Cuckmere was extensively mined to eliminate the possibility of progressing by boat. At night, to confuse enemy bombers into thinking they were above Newhaven and its airfield, lights were set up at Cuckmere Haven. There was even a 1.5km long, 610mm gauge tram-line that went as far as the beach. Set up in the 1930s to shift gravel back to the main road at Exceat. The line functioned until the mid-’60s and today establishes the sealed route east of the river. An array of clever obstacles and astute strategies that stand in bright contrast to the Home Guard of Dad’s Army. A line of keen, brave, but quite tired pensioners standing to attention on Beachy Head with pitch-forks and upside-down cake at the ready. This beauty, this green and pleasant land, so ready to be defended by soldier and civilian alike -albeit with plenty of rests.

Gate leading out to sea Cuckmere

Gate leading out to sea Cuckmere

Built on the concerns of strong petitions to prevent the calamitous tragedy’s of both shipwreck and loss of life, The Belle Tout lighthouse on Beachy Head replaced a smaller wooden lighthouse in 1832. Headland positioned, so its light shone effectively for 20 miles and stood unobstructed by the cliffs even if vessels were already close to the shore. But by the early twentieth century, the lighthouse was decommissioned from the severity of erosion and clifftop fogs that impaired Belle Tout’s effectiveness. The lighthouse suffered extensive damage in WWII, not from enemy attacks but sustained shelling as target practice by Canadian troops. In the mid-’50s, under-lease to Dr E Cullinan, repairs and modernisation took hold. Erosion of the cliff put Belle Tout at such risk; its entirety was moved 17 metres back in 1999. When it came to market in 2007, the guide-price was set at £850,000. Today, benefiting extensive restoration Belle Tout is now open for unique stays.

The dramatic Seven Sisters cliff range

The dramatic Seven Sisters cliff range

If the scenery between Eastbourne and Seaford feels cinematic, it’s partly due to the film industry’s love of the area. A stroll through Cuckmere Haven towards the sea will reveal locations used in Atonement, Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves, Foyles War, Mr Homes and Luther. A jeep was launched from Beachy Head as a stand-in for Gibraltar in the opening scene of James Bond’s The Living Daylights. The Battle of Britain, Quadrophenia, Emma, and The Prisoner have all had scenes filmed on location at Beachy Head. In 1986, the BBC purchased Belle Tout lighthouse as the central location for their dramatisation of the Life & Loves of a She-Devil.

View west from headlands on the east side of the Cuckmere Valley

View west from headlands on the east side of the Cuckmere Valley

Aside from grazing livestock, and an abundance of sheep during the lambing season, the Cuckmere Valley and the neighbouring headlands teem with wildlife during the warmer months. Oyster-catchers, Redstart, Ringed Ouzel, Egyptian & Canadian Geese, Shoveler, Red Shank come to nest in the wetlands paralleling the sea. The area is now signed off as a breeding ground with diversions made on encroaching paths. In Winter both Wigeon and Teal make a regular appearance, hardened against the colder season. In Spring it’s not uncommon to see Bar-Tailed Godwit, Common Sandpiper and Grey Plover. The headlands can see an impressive array of butterflies, like the Chalkhill Blue, Dark Green Fritillary and the Adonis Blue. Moths abound as well as dragonflies and the curious Bloody Nosed Beetle. Rabbits are everywhere, and on hot summer days, one might see the common lizard and adders basking in the sun,  while badgers, foxes and bats come to life in the coppery light of evening. When the tide retreats, all sorts of sea life are left behind in exposed rock pools. Both Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven are perfect for exploring these contained aquariums. Children can happily wile away several hours traipsing amongst the pools; it’s a wonderful introduction in understanding the fascinating and myriad worlds of nature.

Light and the starkness on a winters day at Cuckmere

Light and the starkness on a winters day at Cuckmere

Facts: The National Trust manages the Cuckmere Valley, also known as The Seven Sisters Park. They are gradually re-opening their sites, though for now their houses and gardens remain closed. This isn’t the case with open land and coastal areas where social distancing is easier to follow. The park is free, and its opening time is simply from dawn to dusk. Dogs are allowed as long as they are kept on a lead as parts of the path intersect farmland. Fires and Barbecues are prohibited on all Nat Trust grounds.

Tel: 103123 423 197, www.nationaltrust.or.uk/cuckmere-valley                                  e-mail: cuckmere@nationaltrust.org.uk

Getting There & Away

By Bus: Cuckmere, situated eight miles east of Eastbourne and 2.5 miles west of Seaford can be accessed either way by buses #12, #12A & #12B, with stops at Exceat for Chyngton Farm. Frog Firle Farm can be accessed both by the #12A using Milberg road and #47 ‘The Cuckmere Valley Rambler’ bus that stops at the High & Over car park servicing Cradle Valley as well.

On Foot: If you wanted to turn this into an expedition, the Vanguard Way runs through the Cuckmere Valley, starting from Croydon in Surrey, all the way through to Newhaven. The South Downs Way, 160km long trail incorporating stunning stretches of coastal scenery as well as the rolling downs themselves, runs from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne.

By Car: The A259 links Eastbourne to Seaford, passing through Exceat. For Frog Firle Farm take the B2108 (Alfriston Road). One recommendation is to start from Eastbourne, stopping en-route at Beachy head & Birling Gap before continuing onto Cuckmere Haven. Or park up in Eastbourne, catch the #12 or #12A to Seaford, returning by foot along the coast. Approximately 10 miles in total, enjoying a picnic and a worthy drink at the Beachy Head Hotel. The route can comfortably be done in reverse if you’re based nearer to Brighton.

Sleeping & Eating: When normal times return, there are cafés, restaurants and pubs in Alfriston, and Lillington, at Burling Gap and Beachy Head. For hikers covering multiple days, there are hostels in Eastbourne (www.yha.org.uk/hostel/yha-eastbourne) (tel: 0345 371 9316) and Frog Firle, Alfriston (tel: 01323 870423).

For stays offering something genuinely unique, Belle Tout lighthouse has six tastefully decorated rooms. (Tel:01323 423185 www.belletout.co.uk)

Canoe & Kayaking: The Seven Sisters Canoe Centre (www.cvcc.org.uk) ( Tel:01323 417023) generally meets on Sundays from 9-45am – 12.30 pm throughout the summer months of April – October. Families are welcome, though the minimum age is 8yrs old for paddling on the Cuckmere. For kayak and canoe hire and guided paid-for-trips, contact Buzz Active on 01323 417023. info@buzzactive.org.uk

Tidal Times:

For up-to-date information regarding high and low tidal times, try www.thebeachguide.co.uk