Berwick station to Exceat: 14km (8.7 miles)
Berwick station to Seaford: 20km (12.4 miles)
a) Alternative start: reduces walk by 1.8km (1.1 miles)
b) Berwick Circular: 13.8km (8.6 miles)
c) Ending at Birling Gap... 19.8km (12.3 miles)
...or East Dean 21.4km (13.3 miles)
d) Reverse walk: Seaford to Berwick station: 16.8km (10.4 miles)
OS Landranger 199; Explorer OL25 (formerly 123)
7 out of 10: two extended hill climbs, otherwise flat or gently undulating
5 out of 10 for a) & d), 4 out of 10 for b), 8 out of 10 for c)
This walk crosses over the South Downs to the sea, linking Berwick, Wilmington, Alfriston, Exceat (pronounced Ex-seet, though Ex-ee-at is a widespread mispronunciation), Cuckmere Haven and Seaford.
The highlights are climbs up two of the most beautiful hills in the South Downs, both of them affording panoramic views. The first of these is Windover Hill behind Wilmington, on which is found the chalk figure of the Long Man of Wilmington – seen at close quarters on this walk. The second is High and Over, a dramatic vantage point above the Cuckmere River, with views down towards Cuckmere Haven and the sea.
Before and between these two hills are two fairly flat sections – one approaching the South Downs ridge from the north, and the other along the pretty valley of the Cuckmere River south of Alfriston. Both Wilmington and Alfriston have wonderful pubs for lunch, though in the latter village you may prefer to sample one of its two tea rooms. An alternative start from Berwick also takes in a popular pub in the village of Alciston and another near Berwick church, which was decorated by members of the Bloomsbury Group.
The walk ends at the Cuckmere Inn by Exceat Bridge, from where there are very regular buses back to Seaford - or you can walk to Seaford via Cuckmere Haven and the over the cliffs of Seaford Head, a beautiful 6km (3.7 miles) extension, with stunning backward views of the chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters. Alternatively if you are feeling energetic you can walk over the Seven Sisters to Birling Gap and East Dean.
Note that this walk is perfectly practical in winter – the lowland areas can be muddy, but no more so than anywhere else. However, it is worth noting that from October to March the sun shines into your eyes more or less constantly from Berwick to Exceat – perhaps not a great hardship if the weather has otherwise been grey and bleak.
a) Alternative start: Berwick station to Alfriston via Alciston. This shorter start bypasses Wilmington, the Long Man and Windover Hill, but takes you through the pleasant village of Alciston - which has an idyllic pub as a possible early lunch stop - and on via Berwick church, decorated by the Bloomsbury Group, to Alfriston. From Berwick station to Alfriston, this route is 6.6km (4.1 miles), making a total walk from Berwick station to Exceat of 12.2km (7.6 miles) and from Berwick station to Seaford of 18.2km (11.3 miles).
b) Berwick Circular. After following the main walk directions to Wilmington and Alfriston, you can then use these directions to return to Berwick station via Berwick Church. Note that this route is similar to, but not quite the same as, option A) above, taking a shorter 4km (2.5 mile) route from Alfriston to Berwick station. It makes a total circular walk of 13.3km (8.3 miles). Directions for this option can be found at the end of the main walk text.
c) Ending at Birling Gap or East Dean From Exceat it is not much further - but definitely more effort - to finish the main walk by going over the wonderful undulating cliffs of the Seven Sisters. When the 13 bus is running (see Transport) you can then finish the walk at Birling Gap, 5.8km/3.6 miles from Exceat, making a total walk from Berwick station of 19.8km (12.3 miles): otherwise it is a 1.6km (1 mile) further walk inland to East Dean from where you can get the 12 bus to either Eastbourne or Seaford for the train home. This makes a walk of 21.4km (13.3 miles) from Berwick station.
d) Reverse walk: Seaford to Berwick station In this direction you start with the fine cliff walk over Seaford Head, with magnificent views of the Seven Sisters, and then head inland over High and Over Hill to Alfriston. After tea there you head across the fields to Berwick church and on to Berwick station. This makes a walk of 16.8km (10.4 miles).
All walks apart from option d) start at Berwick station (in Sussex), which you reach from Victoria via a change in Lewes. You usually have to wait 20 minutes there for the Berwick connection, so journey times from London are as much as one hour 40 minutes. (Ignore suggestions on the online timetable to change at Polegate, which confers no advantages and is less pleasant).
For d) Reverse walk: Seaford to Berwick station you also change at Lewes (usually with a tighter connection) for the branch line to Seaford (trains every half hour).
In either case catch the first train after 9am from London to get to lunch in time. A day return to Berwick will usually be accepted from Seaford and vice versa: if not you will only have to pay a single fare as far as Lewes.
To end the walk at Exceat, at the Cuckmere Inn, you simply take the very regular 12 or 12a bus to Seaford (every 10-15 minutes seven days a week: more like every half hour after 7pm: check times on www.buses.co.uk). Get off at the library stop and carry on along the road for 200 metres or so, keeping right at the roundabout, to find the station. Trains go every half hour and it is usually best to change for London at Lewes, though in some cases Brighton has a better connection.
On option c) East Dean is served by the same 12 buses that serve Seaford. You can either get the bus to there to get the train or go the other (shorter) way into Eastbourne, in which case your train ticket needs to be a day return to Eastbourne. On Sundays year round there is also a limited (three a day) 13x bus service to Birling Gap: in the summer months this operates hourly at the weekend, with a three a day service on weekdays. Check on www.buses.co.uk.
It may also be possible to start or finish the walk in Alfriston using the Cuckmere Community Bus, whose services serve both Seaford and Berwick station. See www.cuckmerebuses.org.uk.
The Giant's Rest in Wilmington (01323 870207), 4.5km/2.8 miles into the walk, is a deservedly popular pub with a Bohemian atmosphere and a menu to match
The George Inn in Alfriston (01323 870 319) 9.3km/5.8 miles into the walk, or 6.6km/4.1 miles by Option A) the Alternative start, is one of several pub options in this picturesque village. This characterful pub has a charming garden, which makes it popular in summer
Alfriston Village Stores also has everything you would need for a picnic, including a wonderful delicatessen selling pies and flans
On Option a) the Alternative start a possible early lunch stop is the Cricketer's Arms (01323 870 469) in Berwick village, 5.2km (3.2 miles) into the walk, which serves food from 12pm to 9pm daily, except Monday to Fridays October to March when it serves food from 12pm to 2.15pm and from 6.15pm to 9pm.
There are at least three tea rooms in Alfriston. The Apiary Coffee Shop and Garden is next door to the George Inn and is open to 4.30pm daily. The Singing Kettle Restaurant and Tea Room in the main square of Alfriston is one of two very pleasant tea options in the village, open till 5 or 5.30pm. The Badgers Tea House has both a charming courtyard, full of chirping sparrows in the summer, and inside seating. It serves tea (inside at least) in “silver teapots and bone china cups” and has an interesting array of homemade cakes. It is open till 4pm Monday to Friday or 4.30pm at weekends
Alfriston Village Stores also sells a selection of homemade cakes, and does takeaway tea and coffee.
The Cuckmere Inn in Exceat (01323 892 247) is a busy and efficient chain pub, which serves tea, coffee and food all afternoon and evening. It has a large area of outside tables in the summer, and makes an excellent place to finish the walk, or refresh yourself for an evening walk over Seaford Head
If you get to Seaford, The Trawlers near the station is regarded by many walkers as the best fish and chip shop in the south east. There is also a pleasant pub just before the church, which serves food.
On Option b) Berwick Circular and d) Reverse walk: Seaford to Berwick station, there are two pub options towards the end of the walk. The Cricketer's Arms (01323 870 469) just past Berwick church is a pleasant place for a drink or tea or a meal on a summer's evening, with a fine garden to sit out in: see Lunch Places above for details. The Berwick Arms next to Berwick station has also been revamped and is now a comfortable tea stop: it has both a normal pub section, open daily, and a coffee shop, open Monday to Saturday till late. In summer you can sit in its garden and wait for the level crossing barriers to come down before dashing across to your train.
On c) Ending at Birling Gap or East Dean, the National Trust tea room at Birling Gap is situated right by the sea, if you can get there before it closes at around 5pm. East Dean has the atmospheric Tiger Inn with outside tables on its village green. Next door to the Tiger Inn, and seemingly run by it, is the Hiker’s Rest tea room which is open till 4.30pm in winter, 5pm in summer, but closed in early January.
|Points of interest||
The Long Man of Wilmington is one of those ancient chalk figures that may not in fact be that ancient. Certainly if you get up close to it, as you do on this walk, you will see that it is not a chalk-cut figure at all, but outlined by white stones, cemented together. These date from 1874 and before they were put in place the figure was only visible in certain lights. The earliest known drawing of the figure dates from 1766, but in that it is holding a rake and a scythe, not the long poles it now has. How much earlier than that the figure was created no one knows. Whoever did create it understood perspective – it is elongated so that it looks in proportion when viewed from below. It is also special in depicting a human figure at all – though there are several white horses dotted around the country, the only other human chalk cut figure in England is the Cerne Abbas giant near Dorchester.
The Cuckmere River is relatively small at Alfriston, so it is a surprise to notice that it is tidal. High tide at Cuckmere Haven sends a pulse of river water back up the river and sometimes at this point it is even flowing backwards. It takes some time for this pulse to reach this high up the river, however, and by the time it does the tide is already falling down by the sea.
Berwick church is famous for its murals, which were painted in 1941 by Duncan Grant, a member of the Bloomsbury Group. At the time he was living with Vanessa Bell, sister of Virginia Woolf, at the nearby farmhouse of Charleston. Bell had originally rented the farmhouse in the First World War when Grant was a conscientous objector and so was made to come to Sussex to work on the land. It is worth looking carefully at the paintings, which have many charming details - for example depictions of the four seasons on one side of the altar rail and the four Anglican sacrements on the other. But Grant's decoration of the church was controversial and not just on artistic grounds. The Bloomsbury Group had unconventional (ie modern) attitudes to sexual morality, and Grant and Bell had an illegitimate child, Angelica. She was used as the model for the Virgin Mary in the mural of the annunciation. This scandalised many Christians at the time. Angelica remained unaware of her true father’s identity until she was 16. Vanessa and her husband Clive Bell were already leading separate lives by the time she was born but he was happy to let her take his surname. Grant also went along with the deception. Vanessa thought this meant her daugher had two fathers. "In reality," Angelica later wrote, "I had none".
Cuckmere Haven makes a wonderfully scenic place to swim in the sea, with the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters as a backdrop. The only thing to watch out for is the current from the Cuckmere River, where it joins the sea. Traditionally this has flowed straight out from the river mouth, but some years storms or currents create a shingle bar which diverts it to the left or right, creating possibly tricky conditions for swimmers. So have a good look to see what the latest position is. For three hours either side of low tide the sea retreats across a large area of rock and seaweed and it is very tricky to wade out far enough to get sufficient depth: this is therefore definitely a beach for swimming at high tide.
Seaford at the end of the walk is a less scenic but much more reliable place for a swim, with a shelving shingle beach that gives a good depth of water at all states of the tide. When the sea is choppy the waves can crash onto the beach in an abrupt way, however, and swimming at such times can be dangerous.
Birling Gap is also a lovely place for a dip if you do option c). It has sharp underwater rocks (the remains of eroded cliffs), which make swimming very tricky in the lower half of the tide. However, when the tide is higher there is no problem at all, unless the sea is choppy, when it can break abruptly onto the shingle. At very low tide you can cross the rocks to sand beyond and swim from there. Whatever state of the tide, you get a fabulous panorama of the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters as you swim.
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Out (not a train station)
Back (not a train station)
National Rail: 03457 48 49 50 • Travelline SE (bus times): 0871 200 2233 (12p/min) • TFL (London) : 0343 222 1234
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Full directions for this walk are in a PDF file (link above) which you can print, or download on to a Kindle, tablet, or smartphone.
This is just the introduction. This walk's detailed directions are in a PDF available from wwww.walkingclub.org.uk