The South Downs Way – Day 2

March 17, 1980: Eastbourne to Southease

Heading for Alfriston – the second time.  I used a version of this photo as an illustration in A Walker’s Alphabet.

Heading for Alfriston – the second time.
I used a version of this photo as an illustration in A Walker’s Alphabet.

I looked in vain for a day that would be suitable for a continuation of my attempt to walk the South Downs Way – and I called the number of the weatherman in charge of the Sussex Coast on numerous occasions before deciding to take a chance on a passable forecast for St. Patrick’s Day, Monday, March 17, 1980. I was promised a day that was to be “mainly dry, high temperature 8 degrees, some sun in afternoon, no rain till evening.”

My alarm again clanged at 5:30 and I was again in the bowels of the Chalk Farm tube station at 6:00 – even before the ticket window was open. Almost to my surprise the 6:55 for Eastbourne was on time at London Bridge. As we sped south I began to have my first qualms about the weather, however. There seemed to be some mist about, and cars had their windscreen wipers going – but at least there was no moisture in Eastbourne when I arrived at 8:40. I went into the buffet and had a hot tea and a delicious cheese and onion sandwich for breakfast.

It was cold (this would be the first time I had ever worn my blue coat the entire day) but, except for a few times when the wind whistled through my ears, I was not too bothered by the temperature alone.

It may seem odd to start all over again in Eastbourne, but the South Downs Way has two routes to Alfriston and, in the grips of my completion compulsion, I had determined that I had better do both. I made my way through some back streets of Eastbourne, therefore, and easily found the alternative start for the SDW, the so-called bridleway, which aims for Alfriston following an entirely inland routing. It was 9:20.

Visibility was even worse than last time as I made my first steep ascent and began to cross a golf course that occupied part of Beachy Head’s summit plateau. I felt the first evidence of mist here and it played misty on me for the next few hours. Things weren’t too bad, however. The same wind that blew the moisture onto my coat dried it off in the next gust. All day the wind whistled from the left (or seaward side) and the camera, on my right shoulder, and my right sleeve managed to remain dry for miles.

Most of the route, not only on this day, but throughout much of the South Downs Way, follows real tracks and the footing was quite good in this early section of the trek. But the wonderful views were obscured and all I could see was the next hill ahead of me – occasionally highlighted by an ancient barrow on the horizon.

As I descended to Jevington I met an old man who said, as he paused for breath, “You’re heading in the right direction – down.” Just beyond Jevington church I paused briefly to change film. I wasn’t taking many pictures but I was moving along quite speedily. My only regret was that I hadn’t made use of the toilet facilities in the railway station, an omission I promised to make good at Alfriston.

I took about twenty-five steps along the path up Wilmington Hill before seeing that I needed to keep to the left. I did not go down to see the famous Long Man chalk figure, having seen him from below while travelling back to Eastbourne last time. As I got my first view of the Cuckmere Valley a small plane appeared below me and four small boys asked me if I knew where it was flying from. Before long I was back at the Plonk Barn, where the coastal version of the SDW joins forces with the inland alternative. From here I retraced my steps into Alfriston, arriving there at 12:00. I was quite happy with my time and it looked like the sun was trying to come out.

I made an emergency visit to the loo and then had a pint of Heinekens at the Star Inn, a posh establishment where the staff were discussing the decision of a fellow innkeeper to close his establishment on the weekends! The locals at the bar were deploring the inefficiency of the local labor force. I went to the village store for some snacks and some postcards and, fuelled by my pint, climbed out of the Cuckmere Valley and began to follow the ridge westward. Having reached Alfriston twice I had now completed both of the opening stretches of the SDW.

There were no signposts about but, on the whole, it was pretty obvious what was required of the walker in the way of route-finding. This was just as well because the mist returned and I had to put my copy of Jennett into my coat pocket. As I approached Firle Beacon it began to rain in earnest, with stinging pellets of moisture attacking from the seaward side again. There was no hope of getting my rain pants on, for this would have required a place to sit down in order to remove my boots. It was hard enough finding an unmucky place so I could at least wrestle with my rain cape. I also put my camera away at this point and never used it again. Some cows were fascinated by the noise of the wind whipping my cape about, but I found the process of getting this thing on both tedious and uncomfortable.

I can’t remember walking in worse weather but at least it was not too difficult to see the route, with the radio masts on Beddingham Hill serving as a beacon for the next three miles. This is hang glider territory and I sometimes feared that I would become a glider myself. The wind tore the snaps of my cape apart. There was such drag on this garment that I felt at times that I was being choked by the hood or that a really strong gust would snap my neck. It was also very cold and my gloves – which were wet anyway – had to be left in a pocket. There was also some very rough footing since farm vehicles had made a rutted quagmire of the track.

Anyway I persevered westward and at last passed the radio masts and got my first view of the Ouse valley. There was some ambiguity about how to descend but I soon found the right way and followed a rather indistinct track down Itford Hill. I had made such good time that I was much earlier than I had planned. The bad news was that I had to watch the 3:04 Lewes train arrive and depart from Southease halt while I was still on Itford Hill; fifteen minutes earlier and I could have caught what looked like a kid’s electric train as it slid through the valley.

I walked slowly down to the halt to discover that I had another forty-five minutes to wait for the next train. I had covered almost sixteen miles in six hours, twenty minutes.

It was not pleasant waiting around. I didn’t have to stand in the rain but there was no way of getting dry (my pants were quite wet) and I shuffled about quite unhappily till 4:04 – when my train arrived. It was not easy closing the door with my rain cape trailing behind me and my pack on my back.

At Lewes I had time for a most welcome cup of tea and at 4:21 I was aboard the London train, my fellow passengers chattering about their employers (“in my school district there are more administrators than teachers”). I ate my snacks and tried to keep from shivering. My feet, only slightly blistered, were cold and sore as I shuffled through the train station and the underground, glad to get out of the rain and into a warm bath at last.

I learned several things from this walk. I now set 10 degrees (50 Fahrenheit) as the minimum acceptable temperature for a London-based walk. And I remained very cautious about any day that hinted at rain. I’m sure I missed some good days of walking on borderline occasions but in the last thirty years I have never encountered a local walk as memorable for foul weather as my day two on the South Downs Way.

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

Day 3: Southease to Hassocks