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South Downs Scramble

(Itinerary: Eastbourne – Jevington – Alfriston – Cuckmere Haven – Friston – Eastbourne)

South Downs Way

South Downs Way

A brief interjection…

Having spent a week walking  a portion of the Pennine Way this summer, we felt it would be foolish to allow fitness levels to drop too much, quite apart from the fact that the more we use our kit, the more return we get for our money 😉

So, on Saturday morning, armed with backpacks once more (it had become tricky walking without one…) we hopped on a train to Eastbourne and marched out of that town onto the South Downs Way. It is, of course, an entirely different proposition. The South Downs Way is, generally speaking, wide chalk-white paths etching meandering ribbons into rolling hills; none of the barren magnitude of the Northumberland wilderness. But it is none the poorer for that. The terrain, while mercifully free of that godforsaken peaty bog, is firm and easy-going but hilly. Man, is it hilly!

A Typical View of the Downs Paths

A Typical View of the Downs Paths

The first stretch, out of Eastbourne, decided against breaking us in gently and took us directly upwards, over a golf course and out onto breathtaking countryside, the hills nestling and overlapping like eggs in a basket, with distant views on at least two sides of a sparkling sea.


First View of the Downs - Sea on Horizon

We had decided on the following itinerary: march as efficiently as we could, via Jevington, to Alfriston where we would have a late lunch. Then, we would carry on up onto the Downs once more, find some Access Land on which to pitch our tent and have a light supper (thanks to our funky stove – yet another of this modern world’s greatest and most efficient inventions – have I mentioned that yet?) of cupasoups accompanied by tuna, mayonnaise and red pepper sandwiches (prepared before we left). Needless to say our itinerary – as appears to be becoming our trademark – bore little or no resemblance to the actual order of the day.

For starters, we had set off later than planned, necessitating a pause en route at Waitrose for a quick pork pie. Thank God we did. The walk to Jevington was beautiful. I have, as a child, walked on the South Downs on many occasions with my family, but had never started at this point, nor crossed these stretches. We passed a groove in the hills (Sussex’s rather subtler answer to High Cup Nick) called Harewick Bottom that was dramatically cut-away through the chalk. Incidentally, this is also a great route for cyclists as evidenced by the number who passed us as we wended our merry way. Knees and thighs moaning and groaning we descended into Jevington where we passed The Hungry Monk – a restaurant with, again, associations from my childhood. I remember my parents talking about going there (the name always did rather grasp my imagination) and that it was a pretty well-to-do establishment back in the day. It proudly stated from banners draped across its front that it had been serving fine food for forty years and I remarked on that fact to my lovely companion, just as a family of four passed us bemoaning the fact that it had gone downhill and was overpriced. Another sad symbol of our day and age…

Out of Jevington was nothing short of gruelling. I felt we were on a vertical climb, but it was credit to our week away that we managed it with neither a break nor a pause in conversation – we are becoming carthorses. Another gash scythed out of the rock, where a gentleman was flying his model aircraft (big boys and big toys) dropped dramatically away to our left as we began the descent into Alfriston.

The Descent to Alfriston (Beer!)

The Descent to Alfriston (Beer!)

We managed to entirely miss the Long Man of Wilmington, a figure dug into the chalk a very long time ago – arguments abound as to precisely when – but I am pleased to say we have seen him before so we weren’t too miffed.

Alfriston… ahhh… Alfriston! A lesson that needs to be learned. It is such a pretty village, but it has succumbed entirely to the temptation to fleece unsuspecting tourists and passers-by for whatever they have left in their purses. The George Inn charges positively outlandish prices for poncey-looking meals (I overheard a Spanish couple also commenting on the massive expense – baratisimo – as they perused the menu outside the establishment) whilst the pub down the road – now a brasserie, if you please – has at least the decency not to pretend it is doing anything but go upmarket. Not a hope of a pint of bitter there, though. The only remaining possibility for a relatively well-priced meal and a pint of beer is the Angel. Not inspiring, but it would probably have been all right. So disheartened and disgusted were we, though, at being shoved over a barrel and held to ransom in such a fashion that we sank a beer, begrudgingly, in the George and resolved to soldier on to the next settlement. There were several choices (our itinerary now, obviously, well out of the window) including Seaford – not our first choice; Litlington – rather small; and a promising-looking OS Explorer pint jug symbol signalling a pub near Cuckmere Haven.

Some of us were getting a little grumpy at this point. It had been a long time since our last meal and we had walked a good 8 miles by this stage. But on we plodded, narrowly avoiding a bit of a set-to with a feisty-looking herd of cows and their calves, to Litlington. The path from Alfriston to Litlington takes you along the Cuckmere river and is a terribly pretty route, probably the easiest going of the whole walk. The pub here (the Plough and Harrow) looked fine. The menu was reasonably-priced and consisted of delicious-sounding meals, but the time was 5.45 and they didn’t start serving food again until 6.30. Not knowing where we were going to camp for the night and needing to be far enough on with our journey to get to Eastbourne again relatively early the next day, we did not want to risk such a long stay and resolved to keep going to our next hope – Cuckmere Haven. Should this fail, Seaford was to be our last resort.

Litlington to Cuckmere Haven was gorgeous. Once again, the climbs were punishing, but the South Downs Way led us through Friston Forest to the timeless little haven that is Westdean, where every house is a picture postcard, and back up through Red Riding Hood country until we emerged to the awe-inspiring view of the Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters Country Park.

Cuckmere Haven from Friston Forest

Cuckmere Haven from Friston Forest

On trembling knees we descended the slope to the main road which brings you out just by the Visitors’ Centre at Cuckmere, opposite the public car park. A short and increasingly hopeful walk along the road delivered us to the Golden Galleon – a welcome sight for the weary walker and oh, so very sympathetically priced. To add to our general delight, they had as guest ale Theakston’s Black Sheep – the very beer we drank a little too much of in Alston! Our faces warming and spirits reviving, we partook of some breaded mushrooms and a very welcome burger and chips, washed down by that rather lovely ale, and contemplated the horror of finding somewhere to pitch our tent in unknown territory in the dark (again! Will we ever learn?!) Stumbling out into the black, Jem came up with the rather clever solution of the grass along the bank of the Cuckmere’s meanders behind the car park.

It was a most fortuitous choice. Beautiful by night it was yet more so at 6.30 the following morning as we packed up our (rather damp) tent and prepared to be on our way. Dozens of geese flying overhead were our alarm call, a swan eyed us idly from its vantage point on the river, a white heron and a pair of cormorants flew by as we watched in speechless awe. Luck again, eh?

Eschewing the bus to Eastbourne, we opted instead for the five-mile yomp to give us an appetite for breakfast. It did not disappoint, but took us again through Friston Forest and Westdean, on into yet more and unutterably beautiful deep, dark wood (where we paused and employed our little stove for a well-earned cuppa) to Friston which was expansive but utterly deserted, with manicured lawns and empty houses – all a little eerie, out onto the farmland which was to take us the rest of the way back to town. Where we enjoyed a good ole English breakfast washed down with cups of tea. And caught the train home.

A weekend well spent, I am sure you’ll agree.

I have extracted a promise that next weekend we’ll do nothing. I mean, nothing. Except maybe watch a movie or two…


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Crowhurst to Rye… 20 miles across 1066 country

The longest and most challenging of our walks so far (actually, ever, for either of us), this was our “ultimate fitness test” before the Pennine Adventure begins. Our longest day’s walking will be 19 1/2 miles from Alston to Dufton, so if we could walk to Rye, we’d be okay for that yomp. (Let us, for now, gloss over the fact that the days either side of that particular walk will see us marching 16 1/2 and 13 1/2 miles respectively – not much chance of a rest-up… gulp). This walk followed the 1066 Country Walk, which we picked up just beyond Battle and which culminates in Rye.

We set off shortly before 11 on Saturday morning, a backpack between us containing a bottle of water, some of Jem’s home-made sausage rolls (with added red pepper – scrumptious), some beef jerky and a cereal bar or two, not to mention our aforementioned waterproof coats (which, in the event, we only needed to keep out the chill at the end of the night). We also decided (given my hurty knee – altogether now… “Awwwww!”) to give our new walking poles an outing. Mine are a gorgeous pink (which in my world of blue is a wonderful thing) but are sadly lacking the funky little compasses that Jem’s splendid blues ones sport in their handle.

Brakes Coppice Park to Crowhurst Park

Initially, we planned to cut out a little of our route by getting a train to Battle first but having realised that if we just walked across country from home it would make no difference to our journey, we did precisely that and it was beautiful from the outset. A little country lane took us past Brakes Coppice Park campsite, which we have not visited but can certainly advise couldn’t be in a much more secluded and beautiful spot. We walked through stunning avenues of immensely tall trees and a well-signed footpath (much of which was rather steeply uphill) brought us out past Crowhurst Park – a holiday park of pine lodges and leisure centre with stunning views, but a little crowded together for my personal taste – to the main Battle to Hastings road. Where we came a little unstuck. It has been hammered home to us on several occasions now how very much people tend to dislike maintaining a footpath (or indeed even leaving the sign up) when it passes across or very close to their land. Harumph. Grumble over. But after to-ing and fro-ing countless times, disappearing behind a Church and an abandoned pub in our hunt, we finally found several notices warning the daring rambler to close gates and keep dogs on leads and on no account to even think about bringing an unauthorised vehicle anywhere near them.

It was another beautiful lane taking us down into some woodland (where a dog sailed over a gate to get to us, thus proving it utterly ineffectual), past some of the most beautiful wild-flowered meadows (complete with rather picturesque beehive) and onward through the uncultivated countryside.

When we reached Westfield, the first place with a pub, we decided virtuously to wait until we got to Icklesham before succumbing to the temptation of a cold pint of beer on this hot and sweaty walk. We were actually to rather regret the decision as Icklesham seemed to get further away rather than closer. But it was a positive delight when we did get there (in spite of the rather rowdy clientele in the very beautiful, olde worlde Queen’s Head). Squirreled so effectively away that we managed to walk straight past it, the Queen’s Head has (I hope this description is not yet getting boring) stunning views, a play area for kids, a perfectly good looking menu and sensibly advises that it welcomes children but they should not come to the bar and adults are cordially requested to remove them before 8.30pm. All very sensible.

Feeling decidedly hazier, we crossed the busy road to rejoin our 1066. It was pointed out to us by a very friendly and keen-to-be-helpful chap driving past us and off we yomped again. This part of our walk took us past an over-laden plum tree (not on anyone’s land as such and therefore easy and delicious pickings), through extensive orchards (I am always impressed when landowners do both mark and adhere to the original footpath and this one surely did) which we surmised must be a cider orchard and at the end of which we espied a rather beautiful black windmill atop a hill. Here we stopped for a picture and, as we did, encountered said friendly, keen-t0-be-helpful gentleman walking his dog. He informed us, in his helpful way, that the windmill belongs to Sir Paul McCartney and that the ground floor is used, occasionally, as a recording studio. It was, allegedly, as a result of the land belonging to “McCartney” that the field was full of rabbits…. I’m afraid I failed to follow that logic. Nice spot, though…

McCartney's Recording Studio

And on we went. Through vast fields full of sheep, past the odd chained up sheepdog causing the lovely Jem to fair leap out of his skin, over a traditional unelectrified railway, to Winchelsea. On the approach to Winchelsea, the views were… okay, okay, you come up with another word…? Breathtaking. That’ll do. From one of the very few benches we encountered, we looked out over Pett Level to the sea. It was, all praises be to the gods of the weather, the most glorious of days and, although rather sweaty (quick drying, high wicking tee-shirts to be reviewed upon our return, when we’ve had a chance to test them) we couldn’t have asked for more.

The descent (and it really is a descent) from Winchelsea towards Rye was nothing if not painful. My knee, in spite of having worn a support which seemed to do little more than give me a rash thanks to the tightness and sweatiness of it all, was becoming excruciating on the downhill. Uphill and on the level, it was just peachy, but downhill… not. Really very not. Jem’s calves, too, by this stage were causing him some considerable discomfort, but the end was in sight. We were grateful for our walking poles, although we did only discover within two miles of Rye that we could tighten the handles and put considerably more pressure on them. Doh! Duly noted for those trekking days, huh? Jem has also just read that one walking pole is about as much use as one shoe. Daily rambles are one thing, but climbing the Fells – you need two. The last stretch to Rye was a feat of enormous effort and stamina, I have to confess, on both our parts. When we emerged blinking into the town, the signpost proclaiming one more mile to the centre almost forced a sit-in. I threatened, bottom lip wobbling, to sit and wait for beer and food, but Jolly Jem kept my smile in place and on we trekked for a pint in the Mermaid Inn, one of Rye’s oldest establishments, I believe used for smuggling in them there olden days, and also quite possibly haunted. But I might be making that up… It is situated in Mermaid Street, a picturesque cobbled street of pretty cottages covered in climbing flora and home to a very cool black cat. Truth be told, though, it was a little upmarket for two sweaty walkers and, our first drink duly consumed (they even decanted our bag of dry roasted peanuts into a little bowl for us – there’s posh!) we headed down to the waterfront where we found the much more downmarket Baileys. There we had another beer and a massive cheeseburger with chips each. Probably not the best burger we’ve ever eaten (that honour would have to go to Cafe Belge in Bexhill – I swoon salivating just thinking of it) it was from. the. gods. on that particular evening. We engendered much curiosity with our walking poles slung through the straps of our backpack and utter disbelief that we could, would or might even have wanted to walk so far in one afternoon.

Mermaid Street

Sore and aching, and just one more beer for the road from the Old Bell Inn – much more spit ‘n’ sawdust and rather full of unutterably bored-looking teens – we headed for the station. Once on the train we were informed that we couldn’t get as far as home that night. Trains run till all hours in the opposite direction, but who wants to get from Hastings to London after 10 on a Saturday night? We did. Or at least part way. Sigh. So we hopped out into the middle of a very scary Hastings night, with drunken arguments and much chip-consumption going on all around us, and found a very affable and affordable taxi driver to take us home where we tumbled with gratitude and relief into our bed for a very well-earned sleep.

On Sunday, we did nothing. I mean, nothing. At all.

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