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The white cliffs of Sussex

Features | December 2019


Patrick Barkham walks around the deceptively named Seven Sisters

Scenery is deceiving. In fact, as I tramped up the steep bowling-green side of Went Hill, I cursed, ‘This land lies.’

There are no Seven Sisters. I counted eight. And then some. I’d sailed up Hana Brow. I’d leapt up Short Brow. I’d pounded up Rough Brow. I’d sweated up Brass Point. I’d plodded up Flagstaff. I’d struggled up Flat Hill. I’d staggered up Bailey’s Hill. And now this, the eighth Sister.

From a distance, the Eight Sisters look glorious. They dazzle on summer days and even on the foulest autumn day, with suffocating grey clouds and horizontal rain, they look luminous. In fact, like a beautiful woman, they may look even better without make-up. I want to use the word curvaceous as well, because they are so perfectly round of rump, but that sounds as if I’m leering. Sorry. Writing this, I’m still as high as a kite from the endorphins released after I’ve clambered over all these madams.

To the walk. I was strolling along this most beautiful stretch of coastline a few days before Brexit was supposed to happen and here stood Britain in its very finest, white-walled glory, being admired by huge gaggles of German tourists.

It had rained for three weeks and even the crows, skulking on wooden fence posts, looked forlorn. At least the fungi were thrilled, toadstools sprouting all over the sheep-grazed lawns atop the rolling downs.

The ultimate walk is along a mountain ridge because it is the closest we get to flying without mechanical assistance. So the best lowland walks unashamedly mimic this experience. Take dune walks, for instance, or strolls along raised riverbanks, where a little bit of elevation goes a long way. Best of all are cliff-top walks that take you up and down again like a rollercoaster.

There was also a magnetic quality about the cliff edge. I kept being pulled towards it. At the bottom of each brow, I lost track of the route of the path, and when ascending I found myself drawn towards the lowest part of the ridge, which happened to be closest to the cliff.

In the distance, Birling Gap showed its dirty bottom – a slice of soft yellow sandstone infiltrating this glorious spot where the South Downs end in the sea.

When I reached it, over Went Hill, I noticed that, since I was last here, another dwelling had disappeared from the coastguard terrace which in time will topple onto the beach. The old hotel, renovated by the National Trust, is also now designed to be ‘rolled back’ against the incursions of the Channel.

The second half of this walk, from Birling Gap to Eastbourne, is famed, unfortunately, for the allure of its edge. Like places that witness a terrible disaster – Lockerbie, Hungerford or Aberfan – Beachy Head will for ever hold tragic associations on account of the number of people who kill themselves here. The taxi driver who took me from Eastbourne to the walk’s start had taken a few fares to Beachy Head. He’d called the police and each one had been persuaded or pulled from the edge. Volunteer chaplains often hover about the cliffs. I watched every single walker – like me – carefully. And I greeted everyone I met a little too cheerfully, so they wouldn’t worry about me.

I can understand why people seek to end their lives by the sea. Plenty of us retire here, after all. The sea, as one elderly seaside-dweller once told me, is a great peacemaker.

Where the South Downs end, bowing gracefully into the chalky-coloured Channel, Eastbourne glittered on the horizon, its white blocks cubist and exotic after all those green curves. At the end of the down and the start of town, above a café a Union Jack flew. It’s time to cheer the view from here, and better celebrate the stupendous chalk, and other picturesque rocks we live upon.

I started the walk at Seven Sisters country park, BN23 4AD. It is a vigorous eight-mile walk along the well-signposted South Downs Way national trail / coast path east to Eastbourne.


This story was from December 2019 issue. Subscribe Now