The South Downs Way – Day 1

February 29, 1980: Eastbourne to Alfriston

On the Seven Sisters

On the Seven Sisters

On February 29, 1980 I undertook my very first London-based walk on a long-distance footpath. I had, of course, completed much of the Pennine Way by this date, having walked, on five summer trips, from Gargrave to Kirk Yetholm. On this day, however, I began to walk the South Downs Way, hoping to find some relaxation and to expend some physical energy by claiming the occasional day-off from my labors on a biography of my stepfather, Ingolf Dahl – one which I was writing during a year-long sabbatical from Michigan State University. (In the event, the biography, after many revisions, was not published for another twenty-eight years!)

The South Downs Way is close enough to London that it is possible to do a day’s rambling and to return to the city by nightfall – at least this was true when I began my walks here.  I was drawn to this venture by Sean Jennett’s volume in the HMSO series, having brought it with me from East Lansing. I had used it very briefly in December, 1979, when, with Bunny Dexter (soon to join me on a number of stages of this walk) I had made a descent in a tempest from Ditchling Beacon.

Trying to figure out how to use the right trains and buses (in the reference room of the Swiss Cottage Library) had now provided me with an additional useful challenge. Finding a day that promised enough daylight, warmth, and dryness had delayed the inauguration of the venture as well, but at last, on this dark February morning, conditions seemed favorable and, after a restless night, I left 6B Steele’s Road at about 5:50 (it was still black outside) and waited some fifteen minutes for the right tube to take me to London Bridge.

I was about to experience the first of dozens of travel disappointments in my walking career. A young woman, who preceded me to the ticket window at 6:40, was also going to Eastbourne ­– so I followed her to our train track where she noticed that the 6:55 had been cancelled (“due to staff shortages”). There were plenty of B.R. staff standing around here with nothing to do – including one ticket taker who didn’t know that the train he was sending passengers to was, in fact, “finished.” The young woman was most unhappy because she was supposed to give a lecture at 9:00. We made enquiries of various uniformed underlings, telling each what their fellows had advised, and finally speaking to one senior officer who, on hearing that we were now to take the 6:57 to East Croydon, said, “Nobody told me that – and I’m the station supervisor.” Indeed I did meet my sister in suffering on the platform at East Croydon, but we didn’t sit together on the Eastbourne train – as I headed for a smokeless carriage.

We must have arrived at our destination shortly before 9:00, only about fifteen minutes late. I thought about taking a taxi or a bus to the start of the walk but decided to head for the seafront and walk the mile or so to the beginning of the path instead. The weatherman had been correct in promising dry weather (though I think I heard thunder twice) and, after taking my blue coat off, I was able to walk in 50 degree weather in my sweatshirt – though I did keep my wool hat on throughout the day. There was no wind at all and I was quite comfortable, though visibility was not outstanding, only about one and a half to two miles – and it remained grey throughout the day. I managed to take some photos, beginning with two at the start of the walk. In retrospect I see how lucky I was to get so gentle a day so early in the year. Many years passed before I was able to get an earlier start to the walking year.

First there was a steep climb up the hill to the west of Eastbourne, onto the flanks of the famous Beachy Head, and then on to the hollow of Whitebread Hole. During the entire day I never encountered another genuine SDW walker, though there were a few daytrippers wandering a few yards from their cars and some locals exercising their dogs. Wildflowers were beginning to blossom in a few places and the yellow gorse was much in evidence. Near Beachy Head itself I overheard a teacher dressing down four of his charges for wandering away from their meeting place – “This is no ice cream and candyfloss outing, this is a serious nature walk experience.” I passed the rest of the group as I cleared the dramatic red lighthouse far below. A young pianist had jumped from Beachy Head just a few months before; I once read that this height is the third most popular suicide spot in the world.

I was making pretty good time and averaging slightly under thirty minutes a mile. The views inland were also dramatic and now included Hodcombe farm. After Belle Tout lighthouse a descent brought views of Birling Gap and glimpses ahead to the famous chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters (well, with today’s visibility, Two And A Half. I toyed with the idea of having a drink at Birling Gap (it was now 11:15) –but decided to push on.

Climbing the first of the sisters (Went Hill) I made my only false turning of the day, and this was because I wasn’t paying enough attention to Jennett and because the route I should have followed was obscured by a very large flock of evil smelling sheep (and also because a signpost at the top of the hill proved to be a National Trust and not an SDW one). I became suspicious as soon as I saw my path leading away from the sea and corrected my angle with very little loss of time. I did find myself on the wrong side of a barbed wire fence, but my predecessors in confusion had made the same mistake and opened a large gap in the fence – through which I regained my route above the crashing sea. The rise and fall over the remaining Seven Sisters (Eight doesn’t sound as euphonious, though some say this is a more accurate figure) was not as difficult as I had imagined it to be; the worse moments were on some of the steep descents, for I was not wearing any tape against blisters – in an effort to improve the chances of my toe nails surviving better than they did on the Pennine Way.


On Flagstaff Point an elderly couple sitting on a bench waved to me. At Haven Brow, the last of the Sisters, I stopped on a stile and drank some water and ate a Mars Bar – my first rest in seven miles. The view of Cuckmere Haven below was quite lovely, though the estuary seemed rather muddy and uninviting. Altogether I was unhappy to leave the Sisters; they had afforded me some really delightful walking. On a hot, sunny day in June of the following year I redid them in the company of Bunny – and enjoyed the experience all over again.

I descended the steep cliff path and followed a somewhat boring and muddy causeway inland to the Exceat Bridge. Here too I spotted a pub, but I was hoping to make one in Litlington before closing time, so I pressed on. There was a sidewalk along the highway to Exceat Farm, which was just as well since the road traffic was intense. Once a yellow Renault honked at me and its driver waved; my only guess is that she recognized a fellow SDW walker – since I was carrying Jennett in my hand. I did not know anyone with a yellow Renault.

I climbed a steep field to the borders of the Friston Forest and descended on a most uncomfortable set of steps to the village of Westdean. A duck approached me for a handout while I was taking a photo of Forge Cottage. In the next section of the forest route-finding would have been difficult except that Jennett’s instructions were very precise and accurate. The views of the Cuckmere Valley were charming and so was the village of Litlington – which had won the Best Kept Small Village award in 1964.

I rolled down my trouser legs before entering the somewhat posh Plough and Harrow, where I had a pint at the bar. I had arrived at 2:10, just in time – as the pub closed at 2:30. The lager was most welcome, if consumed too quickly, for I left with a bit of a headache. The publican and his lady wife were dolefully contemplating the leftover salads – which none of the noontime guests had seemed interested in ordering.

I had only a little more than a mile to go to reach my terminus, Alfriston. At Lullington Court a fenced dog greeted my infiltration with furious barking. His master eventually put a head over the garden wall and said, “I apologize for the rudery.” “He’s very brave,” I said. I arrived in Alfriston at 3:00, passing a building site in which one of the workmen was shouting over the sound of the cement mixer, “It’s time for tea.”

I asked at the village store for information about buses back to Eastbourne. Actually I shouldn’t have sat in that pub for even twenty minutes because I could have made the 2:54. Now I had to wait about an hour. Some of this I spent walking through this charming, antique village – well worth another visit. Outside the Plough and Harrow I had passed a gentleman who had complained about the cold and now I realized that I too was getting chilly. I was wet from perspiration and tired from my twelve miles or so. I took out my coat and put it on.

An old lady sitting on bench at the bus stand looked at a camera I had borrowed from Jay and said, “Is that a camera? I’ve never seen one with that shape before.” A pastry truck was making a delivery to the village shop. “Ah Mr. Kipling,” she said, “I remember him well.”

At 4:00 I climbed aboard the bus to Eastbourne and forty minutes later this deposited me only a few blocks from the railroad station. I had time for a cup of tea before selecting a seat on the London train, which left promptly at 5:00 and arrived at Victoria at 6:25. I think I slept between Lewes and Hayward’s Heath. At 7:00 my feet, bruised from the friction, and my legs, tired from the ups and downs, slowly carried me up the hill to 6B, where Dorothy had a delicious curry waiting for her SDW walker.

I had enjoyed the outing tremendously. I was hooked. That one could have such a wonderful walking experience without leaving the comforts of one home base seemed an utterly charming notion. London was not yet my home, of course, so I had no way of knowing just how many more days like this would eventually enrich my life.

To continue with the next stage of our walk you need:

Day 2: Eastbourne to Southease