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Classic Downland

 
Picture, the Seven Sisters from Hope Gap
 
A grand station to station walk over some of the finest parts of the South Downs and Vanguard Ways
 
Starts at

Southease Station on the Lewes to Seaford line

Ends at

Seaford Station. Alternatives, Alfriston ( about 7 miles), LIttlington, Berwick Station (about 10 miles), Exceat (about 10 miles)

Getting there

Trains run hourly to Southease from Brighton and Lewes.  There are good connections with the London trains at Lewes.

Trains from Seaford run half hourly Monday to Saturday (hourly on Sunday)  to Lewes and Brighton.  There are good connections at Lewes for trains to London.

Trains from Berwick run hourly to Lewes, Brighton, Eastbourne and Hastings.  You can sometimes make a better connection for London by travelling via Brighton (particularly on Sundays) although you can also change at Lewes.

There is a roughly two hourly service, seven days a week from Alfriston to Seaford (Morrisons supermarket just south of Seaford Station) and also to Polegate station.  On weekends and bank holidays in spring, summer and early autumn the service to Seaford is hourly.  There is also a two hourly service to Lewes 7 days a week.  Confusingly the Monday to Friday service  to Lewes goes from Alfriston coach park.  The other buses go from the (tiny)  main square.

On summer weekends and bank holidays there is an hourly service from Littlington and Exceat to Berwick station.

There are very frequent buses from Exceat and Exceat Bridge to Seaford station, Brighton and Eastbourne.  The stop for Seaford is on the south side of the road.

Bus and train  times described as in 2013 and subject to change

Full details at www.travelinesoutheast.org.uk

Refreshments

Cafe at youth hostel, Southease 10-4  Small shop with sweets and drinks at the hostel.

Numerous cafe's, pubs, restaurants and shops and shops in Alfriston

Pub and tea garden at Littlington

Cafe at the visitor centre at Exceat.  Ice cream van in car park at Exceat (depending on weather)

Pub at Exceat Bridges

Open air cafe just east of the Martello tower on the front in Seaford.

On the alternative route there is a pub at Berwick village and a pub and shop at Berwick station.

Numerous cafes, pubs, restaurants in central Seaford

Route instructions

If you had to name the most popular walk of any length in the south east it would probably be the walk from Exceat to Beachy Head over the Seven Sisters cliffs.  It is a great walk, but a little difficult to get to if  you are coming from any distance.  This route uses paths that are almost as popular to give you a route as dramatic as, and more varied the Seven Sisters route, with the added bonus that it starts and finishes at railway stations that are easy to get to from London and other parts of the south.  The route follows the South Downs and Vanguard Ways.

There can hardly be a walker living in the local area who does not know these paths, so the information here is designed for those coming from further afield.  Navigation is easy because of the excellent way-marking. 

There can be few more romantic stations in the south of England to start a walk than Southease.  You have started your journey, perhaps, from a big town and now the train has deposited you in the middle of the countryside with the river, the trees and the hills all around you.  Only a few farm-like buildings are around. To the west is the River Ouse, which has created the valley in which you find yourself.  The writer Virginia Woolf drowned herself in it just north of here.

 1) As with all good walks the main climb is at the start.  Walk north to the exit of the platform and turn right along the lane. You are on the South Downs Way.  Follow the South Downs Way markers as far as Exceat. (the South Downs Way symbol is an acorn)  Ahead of you are the buildings of Itford Farm and the South Downs Youth Hostel, where you may want to stop for refreshment.  But our route turns right on a track, crosses the bridge over the main road and begins to climb, turning first right and then left.  At first there is a definite track, but later this turns to broad grass cropped by sheep.  Reach the top of the South Downs ridge and enjoy the views in all directions.

2) Now walk east along the top of the ridge past Beddingham radio masts and then a car park.  The way is obvious and well signed. 

Below to your left you can see the village of Firle and Firle Place, the home of the Gages.  It was a Gage who commanded the British Forces in the war which lost the country its American colonies.  Slightly to the right is a round tower, built on Firle Estate land at a time when every estate of worth had to have a folly.

Continue east to the prominent rise of Firle Beacon, which has a concrete pillar on it, formerly used for measuring height and distance.  This is the highest point of our walk.

From Firle Beacon our route turns south-east.  It remains on top of the downland ridge but undulates, with a general tendency to descend.

Take time to look around.  There are great views all round on a clear day, towards the sea to the south and towards the High Weald to the north.  You can also see the Downland ridge stretching away to the east and to the west.  Below you, in a north-north easterly direction, at the bottom of the Downs, is Charleston, home and gathering place of members of the Bloomsbury set who made art, had affairs with each other and patronised the locals.  Just to the right of Charleston is Tilton Farm,  former home of economist John Maynard Keynes, who was a member of the set.  He was thought badly of because he married a ballerina who was not as posh as the Bloomsburys.

You will be able to see the route of the busy A27 and, if the wind is in the wrong direction, hear the traffic.  The roads lobby is running a stealth campaign to try to turn this stretch of the A27 into a motorway, but they have not yet succeeded.

3) You now come to an area of bushes and scrub, the first for some time.  There is a junction with a number of paths.  Continue straight ahead through the bushes, following SDW signs on an obvious track.  The track bears left and starts steeply downhill.  It then turns into a suburban road.  Keep going downhill and straight ahead until you come to a five way junction.  Take the second left (a path) and then first right to meet the main street of Alfriston at the south end of the tiny main square.

What can be said about Alfriston that has not been said many times alreadyIt is picture-postcard beautiful, with quaint old streets, browseable shops, old inns, a delightful village green, a beautiful church dubbed the "cathedral of the Downs" and the Old Clergy House, managed by the National Trust.  Of course it is rammed with tourists in summer, but a look around is strongly recommended.

Turn left along the main street.  If you want to stop here the buses depart from the tiny square ahead of you (except for the Monday to Friday bus to Lewes which leaves from the coach park about 100 metres to the north-east.)

The alternative route leaves from the square via the road that runs north-north west from the left hand side of the square.  Follow signs for the Vanguard Way.  It has to be said that the scenery on this alternative does not match the majesty of the main route, but there is the chance to visit the famous church at Berwick and to stop and the noted Cricketers pub in the village.

Keep ahead as the road enters the countryside.  At a junction keep ahead on a track.  Shortly after this the track turns left, but we take the footpath straight ahead through fields aiming for Berwick Church.  Immediately before the church turn left and then right to enter the main street of Berwick Village.  On your right is Berwick Church, famous for its wall paintings done by  Bloomsbury artists Duncan Grant and Vanessa Bell.  The route continues down the main street past the Cricketer's pub with its attractive garden. to meet the main A27.  Turn left here.  Your path is 30 metres or so down the road on the right hand side.  This is a very busy road and it may take a long time to cross.  Be careful.

The route now goes north for about 100 metres and then turns slightly left to cross fields, to meet Common Lane.  Immediately opposite is a track.  Take this up to Stonery Farm.  Turn right in front of the farm and follow a bridleway that emerges on to a road after going down the side of agricultural buildings.  Turn left to find Berwick station on your left.  The platform for Lewes and Brighton is on the side you come to first.

To continue on the main route take an alleyway opposite the point where you emerged into the main street, (heading east). Walk to the Cuckmere River.  Turn right and arrive at a bridge across the river. Cross the bridge.

4)Turn right here and follow the river bank for just over a kilometre.  The path can be muddy here.  You are walking towards the hamlet of Littlington .  Just before a bridge turn left and head into the hamlet.

An alternative route carries on to the bridge, crosses it and then goes straight ahead up the hill to Alfriston YHA if you want to stay there overnight.

On reaching the road in Littlington our route turns right past the attractive pub- the Plough and Harrow.

You may want to turn left to visit the church on the left, or the eccentric Littlington Tea Garden on the right.  Here you might find that cheese sandwiches are off because someone has taken the cheese home to put it in the fridge.  You can also buy knick-knacks here if you want some and did not find the right ones in Alfriston.  This is said to be the first tea garden ever to have been created in England.

Turn left up a track by Thatch Cottage and right through a kissing gate.  Climb upwards through two gates and then along the left hand side of the next too fields.    Have a look at the white horse carved in the hill to your right.  Descend to meet a bridleway.  Turn left and then keep straight ahead at the next junction to enter a wood, heading south. Follow South Downs Way signs at junctions in this wood, finally turning right and descending to the village of Westdean, which you may want to explore.  To continue on the route carry on in the same direction into a wood and up some steep steps.  At the top of the hill emerge from this wood and descend in the same direction towards the road.

At the bottom of the hill is the Exceat visitor centre, cafe and toilets.  There may also be an ice cream van in the  car park opposite.  You need to cross the main road.  Do so carefully, avoiding the bends where vehicles may not see you.  Walk west along the pavement along side of the road to Exceat Bridge, where you will find the Golden Galleon Pub.

5)Turn left here through the car park and walk along a track ahead, heading south.  You quickly come to a junction of paths.  You can take either route here.  The left hand route takes you nearer to the river, but can be more muddy than the other route  both routes take you down to the mouth of the Cuckmere.   You may want to take the time to do seaside things.  This is one of the few beaches in this area that is not reached by roads or surrounded by housing.  It is quite pebbly and it is usually quite difficult to cross the mouth of the river.

Turn right when you have finished at the beach and head up the hill going west.  Turn round to see the classic view taken by thousands of photographers or the coastguard cottages and the Seven Sisters in the background.  Now walk for about 2.5 kilometres along the cliff edge to the outskirts of Seaford.

After about 500 metres you come to a sign indicating Hope Gap and steps down to the sea.  This is a favourite spot for locals to come and do beach things on busy days, because the beach can be quite quiet.

Descend to Seaford promenade and walk along the prom.  On your right you come to a small beach cafe/kiosk and then the Martello Tower  which contains the Seaford museum.  Continue along the prom and then turn right down "The Causeway"  Cross Steyne Road and walk ahead down the High Street.  Turn left into Broad Street, which is the main shopping street for Seaford.  At the end of this turn left on the main road and see Seaford Station in front of you, just past a roundabout.

Seaford is an interesting and somewhat odd town.  Originally the river Ouse emerged into the sea here, but now it emerges further west at Newhaven  Up until nearly the end of the 19th Century the sea defences were not infallible.  This and the fact that the beach faces south-west, exposing it to gales and storms, meant that the town never really developed as a seaside resort.  Indeed, up to the 1970's there was comparatively little development along the sea front.  The town has shopping facilities that other towns would envy, mainly because there is no really big supermarket in the town.  The town has a large retirement population and a huge bungalow hinterland.  It excudes an air of retro gentility, but if you look carefully at some of the multi-occipied properties between the sea front and the station you can see some real poverty.  In recent years the schools had something of a reputation for chaos and failure.  A local newspaper article complained of problems with "youths coming in from nearby villages" (The Littlington Massive perhaps?)

 copyright Chris Smith and licenced for reproduction under creative commons licence 2.