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Walking on the Seven Sisters, Sussex, England

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The Seven Sisters must be one of the most photographed landscapes in Britain. It is easy to see why. This line of white chalk cliffs is strikingly beautiful in good weather. The South Downs Way, one of the UK's National Trails, runs the length of the cliffs near the eastern end of its route from Winchester to Eastbourne. This provides a choice of walks which offer you a series of stunning views of the cliffs and nearby Cuckmere Haven. If you are interested in wildlife, the Seven Sisters also provide habitats for unusual plants and birds. Definitely worth a visit.

Getting There

The Seven Sisters are in East Sussex and the South Downs National Park. They rise from Cuckmere Haven, near Seaford, and end at Birling Gap, but they are part of a longer line of cliffs which stretches from Brighton to Eastbourne. A good place from which to start a walk is the entrance to the Seven Sisters Country Park at Exceat Bridge on the A259 (grid reference TQ518996). Across the road is a visitor centre, which has an interesting exhibition of local wildlife, as well as a restaurant and toilets. A footpath leads from the centre to a pay car park which serves the Park, although the vehicle entrance is from a minor road to Litlington. There are also car parks further east, at Crowlink and Birling Gap. There are buses from Brighton, Seaford and Eastbourne, and train services to all three towns from London.

The area is covered by Ordnance Survey Explorer map 123 and Landranger map 199. The cliff path is quite a strenuous walk and only suitable for the reasonably fit. You may want to take a walking pole and you should wear boots or strong shoes. Carry something to drink and, if the weather is bright, sun cream and a hat. Always remember that the cliffs are eroding and don't go too close to the edge.

Cuckmere Haven

The path from the entry of the Park runs along the valley of the River Cuckmere to the beach – a distance of 2km (1.24 miles). This is an easy trail, suitable for people with restricted mobility and parents with buggies. The valley floor is also the only place in the Country Park where cycling is permitted. Although for most of its route the South Downs Way is shared between cyclists, pedestrians and horse-riders, the cycle route, currently Regional Trail 88, is diverted inland here, avoiding the cliff tops of the Seven Sisters.

It looks as if the Cuckmere reaches the sea through a series of meanders, but these are a reminder of the original course of the river. A straight cut was made in 1847, diverting the flow from the meanders and sending it direct to the sea. The meanders are silting up, as there is little passage of water. The Environment Agency has a plan to re-establish them as the course of the Cuckmere and allow the flood plain to become salt marsh. You may see a variety of birds, including geese, ducks, swans and wading birds like oystercatchers. In particular, look out for the snow-white little egrets, which have established themselves in Southern England.

Just north of the beach is a saline scrape, which was created in 1975 for birds to nest and feed. The scrape is particularly useful for birds on migration in spring and autumn and wildfowl in winter. At the back of the beach, shingle has been thrown out of the reach of the waves and built up in a mound. Some specialised plants have taken hold here, including sea kale and yellow horned poppy.

You can sit on the beach having a picnic and admiring the cliffs. Notice the remains of pill boxes which defended the Cuckmere Valley during the Second World War. You can also look for crabs and sea anemones in the rock pools which form in gullies in the chalk. The sea here is protected by the Seven Sisters Voluntary Marine Conservation Area. However it is not safe to swim, as there are strong currents near the mouth of the Cuckmere.

The Cliffs

The chalk rocks of the South Downs were formed from sediments laid down in lakes and the sea millions of years ago and raised by earth movements. They are soft and have been eroded over time. The cliffs are retreating at an average of 30-40 centimetres every year, but there were dramatic falls in the wet winter of 2013/14. The fallen rocks form platforms and heaps of chalk below the cliffs, which protect these places from further erosion for eight or nine years. They may also reveal fossils of marine creatures, such as molluscs and sea urchins. Don't however, venture too far beneath the cliffs, as it is easy to get cut off by the tide.

The Seven Sisters, starting from Cuckmere Haven, are: Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flat Hill, Bailey's Hill and Went Hill. The path over them follows a switchback route for seven miles (11.3km) to Birling Gap. Our Researcher has climbed the path up the side of Haven Brow, which rises rapidly from sea level to 97 metres (318 feet), but it is eroded and not recommended. To follow the official route, you will need to return north from the beach until the South Downs Way joins the concrete path along the valley bottom. As you climb, look out for flowers and butterflies. Chalk grassland is a rich habitat for flowers, and they flourished because the sheep which traditionally grazed the Downs kept the grass short. Although unimproved grassland is rare nowadays, the Seven Sisters Country Park has been grazed by sheep and cattle without fertilisers or herbicides.

When you reach the top of Haven Brow, look back. Up here, the horizons suddenly widen and you see splendid views of Cuckmere Haven and Seaford Head to the west. You may see a variety of birds, including skylarks and jackdaws and, in spring and autumn, swallows and house martins on their migration. There are breeding populations of kittiwakes and fulmars nesting on ledges.

When you have climbed Brass Point, you will reach a fence on the skyline. This marks the end of the Seven Sisters Country Park and the western boundary of the National Trust's Crowlink property. From here, look east to where the cliffs dip to Birling Gap, then rise again, with the disused lighthouse at Belle Tout perched on a high point. Soon after, you descend into Gap Bottom. You can turn left along a path to the hamlet of Crowlink and thence to Friston. Here you can cross the A259 and enter Friston Forest, then take one of several paths through the Forest to Westdean and back to your starting point at Exceat. The green shade of the Forest offers a pleasant contrast to the brightness of the cliffs.

If you continue along the cliff path, you may notice a couple of monuments. One is made from a sandstone boulder left on the chalk 50 million years ago when the rocks around it eroded. This has a plaque commemorating a gift which allowed the Society of Sussex Downsmen to buy the Crowlink Valley in 1926. Further on is a concrete obelisk which commemorates the gift of land to the National Trust by WA Robertson in memory of his two brothers who were killed in the battle of the Somme.

Birling Gap

You descend to Birling Gap along a private road past a few houses. Here, the cliffs dip to a mere few metres above sea level and the effect of erosion is dramatic. There was originally a line of seven fishermen's cottages here, but two have already fallen into the sea and another is teetering on the edge. The National Trust has erected a viewing platform above the beach, on which you can stand safely to view the panorama of cliffs. Birling Gap is a popular place for surfers and other visitors and has a big car park. There is a restaurant here, so you can sit for a rest and a well-earned snack. However, the pressure of visitors on this eroded landscape makes Birling Gap a rather scruffy place.

Routes from Birling Gap

From Birling Gap, you can continue the cliff path to Eastbourne. You will pass Belle Tout, which was the original lighthouse for this part of the coast. It was built in 1828 but was not a great success, as it was plagued by fog. After it was replaced, it became a private residence. It has been moved from the edge of the cliff, but will eventually fall into the sea. The last cliff is Beachy Head, which is the highest, rising 530 feet (160 metres) from the sea. You may want to look down (carefully) at the modern lighthouse at the bottom. It was built in 1902 by steam winching blocks of stone from the top of the cliffs.

If you want to return to your starting point at Exceat, however, you need to walk back past the houses, then turn right up a path which leads up Went Hill. At a junction of paths, take the left fork, which skirts the edge of a copse. This leads to Crowlink Lane and Friston, where you can cross the A259 into Friston Forest. A walk through the Forest and the village of Westdean will take you back to Exceat. You are likely to be tired at the end of your walk but we hope you will have enjoyed your day on the Seven Sisters.

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