It has taken me 25 years, but finally I made it to the Sussex Heritage Coast and to wonder at those iconic white cliffs – not of Dover – but the Seven Sisters and in particular Birling Gap, further west along the coast. I had only ever glimpsed those white cliffs through a sea fog, or dirty spray-spatted ferry windows on the way to and from the Continent. Today, I was in the hands of an East Sussex local and good friend Vicky, who would show me what I had been missing all these years.
We started our walk at the clipped and trimmed village of East Dean, located between Eastbourne to the east and Seaford to the west. At this time of year, cherry blossoms take centre stage, but the verdant verges bursting with nettles, bindweed, cowslips and the last of the daffodils hugging the flint walls also mark the change of seasons, they are just less showy about it. Punters were enjoying the early warmth outside the village pub, heritage low-slung cottages and a deli serving tasty quiches and ‘stinking bishop’ to hungry walkers, nestle around the peaceful village green. So far so typical. As we left the village and headed uphill, I began to pay attention as we crossed through the churchyard of St Simon and St Jude that has an unusual local feature to add to all this heritage eye candy – a Tapsel gate. A wooden gate, nothing special there, but unique to the county of Sussex and one of only six that remain. What makes it unusual is that it rotates in either direction through 90° around a central pivot before coming to a stop at two fixed points. I had never seen one before, and don’t normally get excited by gates, but it was so unusual and fitted the purpose for which it was built: to keep cattle out of the churchyard whilst allowing the efficient passage of coffins to and from the church during burials. A fine invention by a local family to fulfil a local need of both man and beast!
The English countryside seems so benign; few raging rivers, sky-hugging mountain ranges, venomous snakes nor deadly deserts to contend with. Every footpath, dry-stone wall, pasture, woodland and rolling hills mapped and managed. Until you come to the every edge of this British Isle: a chalky headland that just stops, 500 or so feet up from the stretch of English Channel below. Next stop France.
The Seven Sisters are part of the same chalk downlands that form the backbone of eastern and south eastern England, including the Chilterns to the north west. Formed between 65 and 90 million years ago when it was the bed of warm tropical sea, this huge natural aquifer gives rise to chalk streams and a habitat bursting with butterflies and rare orchid species that thrive only in these ancient downlands.
I was amazed to see the pace of erosion and natural destruction along this coastline. This magnificent headland is helpless in the face of violent winter storms and littered now with footpaths which, if followed would mean certain death as they disappear and reappear from thin-air ahead of you. Unobtrusive electric fences have recently been added that run parallel to the clifftop, whether to keep the many sheep from plummeting to their deaths or the 350,000 annual visitors is unclear.
Birling Gap, the most photographed settlement along this coast is possibly where the most dramatic change is happening. Enclosed plots of land with a gash at their seaward side, the boundary walls abruptly stopped, mid-stride. The terrace of seven, former coastguard houses now reduced to four, just metres from the sea. How long before these go? Whole buildings lost and in what the National Trust calls ‘managed retreat’ expect their splendid tea-rooms to last another 12 years before submitting to the sea. An ugly, but functional staircase allows access to the shoreline and escape for those facing the incoming tide. The horizontal gangway to the stairwell can be extended to match coastal erosion, and the stairwell can also be removed and repositioned higher up the beach, when the time comes. That’s mighty impressive uber forward planning.
We stopped a while on the polished pebbles and to take in the views from the bottom of the headland and to soak up the sunshine, promising to return with a picnic and a cushion, those pebbles are just not comfortable enough to encourage a snooze in the sun.
That bracing sea air meant we just had to stop at the self-styled ‘foodie oasis’ of the Frith & Little deli-café back in the village and were not disappointed, even the price of a bottle of wine (as recommended by the River Cafe no less), was a very reasonable £7.49 and the bacon cheese individual sized quiches were delicious.
For all the visitors who walk the South Downs Way on a glorious picture-postcard English day such as this, I expect we would all be in for a shock when the weather is wild, the clouds low and visibility poor; it won’t be as bucolic, but unsettling and a tad scary. An antidote to the blandness of modern life perhaps? Give it a go, you won’t be disappointed.
Visit soon, before it all slides into the sea.