Fiona Barltrop recommends a rare snowy walk along the Sussex cliffs to the iconic Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters.
Excellent though the walking is anywhere on the South Downs, there’s no finer stretch than that along the Sussex cliffs, from Beachy Head to Seaford Head via the incomparable Seven Sisters. However, over the past decade these iconic chalk cliffs have suffered from excessive visitor numbers, notably from the far east, resulting in overtourism, especially in the summer months. But visit in the winter, ideally on a weekday, and you should enjoy a much quieter experience. Indeed, a coastal walk can be a great tonic in winter, the reflection of sun on water intensifying the light, and if, perchance, there’s been any snowfall (admittedly uncommon) it’s all the more of a memorable experience. No two days are ever the same here, depending on the tide and state of the sea.
A couple of years ago the new England Coast Path waymarks were installed along this stretch of coast, with the South Downs Way between Eastbourne and Beachy Head diverted to align with it. The original route, as shown on OS maps and in guidebooks, is still fine to use however.
Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters: route description
START: Eastbourne railway station (TV609990) | END: Seaford railway station (TV481991) | MAPS: OS Explorer OL25 (Eastbourne & Beachy Head) | DISTANCE: 21.4km/13¼ miles | ASCENT: 552m/1810ft | DURATION: 6½ hours
1. TV609990: From the station concourse take the left exit, cross the road in front of you and bear left along Terminus Road, then fork right along Cornfield Road. At the roundabout keep ahead taking the third exit on the left (B2106), leading to the seafront road (B2103). Go over the zebra crossing, turn right and then left down steps to the promenade below, the bandstand to your left, toilets on the right. Turn right and immediately fork left down a surfaced path to the lower promenade and go right. Continue to near the end, forking right up Holywell Drive to the road. Bear left up past Helen Gardens and the school to the Kiosk café at the foot of Downs.
2. TV600971: For the most direct route up to Beachy Head carry on straight uphill following the original route of the South Downs Way – this gets the steepest section of the climb over and done with first. Otherwise, turn left in front of the café past the barrier and continue along the track leading to the cliffs (in fact the England Coast Path/realigned South Downs Way – ECP/SDW – somewhat unnecessarily climbs over the side of the hill here, angling up to the left above the café, then back down again). Follow the undulating path along the cliff top and then steeply on up to the top of Beachy Head where the Bomber Command memorial is situated.
3. TV591957: Follow the ECP/SDW along the cliffs via the old lighthouse of Belle Tout, now an upmarket B&B. Built in 1832, it was decommissioned in 1902 (its cliff-top location resulted in the light being obscured by sea mist), replaced by the current red-and-white striped lighthouse at the foot of Beachy Head.
Look back for a fine view of the latter as you reach the Belle Tout lighthouse, which you pass on the landward side. 25 years ago, due to coastal erosion, the lighthouse had to be moved 17m/56ft inland away from the cliff edge.
It’s a long gentle descent down to Birling Gap which, beware, is a veritable tourist honeypot! Here you’ll find a large car park, National Trust café, shop and visitor centre (the building was once a hotel). Coastal erosion is an ongoing issue here, too, with cottages lost to the sea over the years.
The cliff-top facing section of the main NT building where the café used to be located is due to be taken down at the end of 2023. From the top of the steps down to the beach there are great views along the Seven Sisters.
4. TV554960: Head up the track past the few houses, then left at the junction to continue along the Seven Sisters (eight if you count correctly), bearing inland and gently downhill from the last one, Haven Brow, to the Cuckmere valley. Having reached the valley floor, soon leave the ECP/SDW and go left across a causeway (opposite the turn to Foxhole) to the river bank. Turn right up to Exceat Bridge.
5. TV514993: Cross the bridge to the Cuckmere Inn and walk through the car park. Back on the ECP – now also the route of the Vanguard Way (a fine 66-mile trail that runs from the south London suburbs to the sea via the North Downs, Ashdown Forest and South Downs) – continue along the path ahead to the Coastguard Cottages, from above which is the classic view of Cuckmere Haven and the Seven Sisters. Follow the cliff top path via Hope Gap to Seaford Head and downhill to the promenade. Continue for c.1km passing a Martello tower, then turn right along Dane Road to the A259 and Seaford station on the left.
PUBLIC TRANSPORT: Regular trains from London to Eastbourne/Seaford via Lewes, southernrailway.com. Regular buses (12/12A/12X) between Seaford and Eastbourne, 13X covers same route but also stops at Birling Gap and Beachy Head (Sundays only, more often in summer), buses.co.uk
TOURIST INFORMATION: Eastbourne Visitor Centre (01323 415415), www.visiteastbourne.com
Discover more walks in Scotland as mapped by our expert contributors.