Saturday, 14 February 2015

Seaford Head, Hope Gap and Cuckmere Haven

Last Sunday turned out to be a very sunny day, and I went off to the Sussex coast. I really am very lucky to live in a county that has coastal scenery worth visiting. It isn't all like the photo above, not by any means: all of West Sussex, for instance, is a low-lying series of shingle and sandy beaches, backed up by sand dunes and - in places - an awful lot of urban development. East Sussex has urban development too, but it also has cliffs. I went to the nearest bit of coastline that offered a view worth shooting with the camera.

I parked on the eastern edge of Seaford, a town that was once something of a minor holiday resort, but is now mainly an amenity for its commuting residents. Its beach has been buried beneath accumulated shingle, and the requirements of tidal surge defence mean that it must stay that way. But at the eastern end of the promenade, the ground rises dramatically to form high chalk cliffs, haunted by kittiwakes and topped by bumpy turf full of rabbits. Here's a map:

Seaford is top left. The blue 'P' at South Hill Barn indicates where I parked Fiona. The orange arrows indicate access points where you can get on or off the foreshore - important if the tide is rising and you are walking at the foot of the cliffs, either from Seaford or Birling Gap. You need to know where the escape-points are. I first walked south-west (through the blue figure '98'), then struck south to the cliff edge. Already the views were wide.

Before I got near the cliff, this intriguing flying saucer shaped object came into view:

It was of course one of those beacons that help aircraft to navigate, but if you'd never seen one before, its purpose would be unfathomable.

On to the cliff edge. This showed many signs of rainwater and frost erosion, and I wondered, close to the very edge as I was, whether I was unwittingly standing on an overhang that might give way at any moment! Certainly, it would have been very easy to stumble and slide over the edge onto the foreshore far below:

The rabbits cannot be helping. Their burrows are everywhere, and all their underground holes and tunnels must weaken the cliff edge. Not the chalk itself, but the important cap of soil, so that the elements can gnaw away at it all the more easily. I dare say that no thought of a sudden cliff catastrophe fills their little heads. What indeed do rabbits think about anyway? Sex and grass, I'm guessing. Rather like sheep and cows and horses. And the occasional superannuated hippy.

I now walked eastwards down to Hope Gap, a little notch in the line of cliffs before one reaches Cuckmere Haven proper. The view eastwards was spectacular, the distant line of bright white chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters becoming ever more impressive:

The foreshore at Hope Gap was littered with old chalk falls. They had become discoloured with green algae.

An often-found feature of the shore beneath chalk cliffs is a smoothed-off area of level chalk, as if it has been ground down by abrasive stones. Indeed it has. The nodules of hard, sharp flint embedded within the chalk form cannonball-shaped rocks that the waves move to and fro over the much softer chalk shelf, smashing it smooth:

I walked on into Cuckmere Haven, clambered off the beach, and contemplated the two sets of buildings that are known as the 'old coastguard cottages'. The more picturesque are the wooden clapperboard cottages lower down, closer to the beach, though they still command a wonderful prospect. Two ladies, Wendy and Sarah, owned one of these, and were clearly keen on growing food the natural way. In fact they were offering courses, and had sown beds in progress:

Yes, I'm a right Nosey Parker, even when it comes to things that I'd never do myself! And would you credit it, having only just taken these shots, one of the ladies came into view, carefully driving down the gravel track from South Hill Barn. I don't think she'd seen me leaning over her fence and blitzing her front garden. We exchanged smiles.

On the way back to Fiona, I kept looking back to admire the position of the cottages, and wondering how one might feel about life, waking up to such a view every day:

And yet it would be a home full of drawbacks. Look at that uneven track. The exposed position that would make the cottage expensive to heat, and prone to storm damage. The constant stream of walkers and tourists leaning over your fence, or taking photographs, every day throughout the year. What a mission it would be, just to get some milk or bread. Or to visit the doctor. Or for people to visit you. Guess how hard the wind can blow:

But one always comes back to the view. It's not just seaward, or across the Haven. There's an inspiring vista inland, up the Cuckmere valley to Exceat:

As if the sheep could care! Sex and grass, all they think about. Call to them and they look up, startled, as if you had disturbed them from a dream. They move off and resume their endless munch, munch, munch of the clearly delicious salty green turf. I'm all for a simple life, but that's a bit too simple. And yet it would do them no favours to make them intelligent. Because then they would realise what's in store for them, not very far ahead. Back in 2007, I saw these poor sheep on an inter-island ferry from Picton to Wellington, stuck in a lorry, shorn for slaughter. And I think, in one or two cases, dimly aware that their days were numbered, that Auschwitz or Belsen lay ahead:

They trust us so much. Like children do.


  1. I am a sort of superannuated hippy but long ago gave up any thoughts of sex and am even thinking of digging up the last remnants of a tatty lawn...

  2. The shoreline of Lake Ontario in the eastern end of Toronto is called the Scarborough Bluffs. So similar in appearance and with similar concerns as you walk along the edge. Not nearly this spectacular!
    Your last part reminds me of something a farmer I know told me: "Never give cute names to any of your livestock

  3. I love reading about walks to interesting places, so thank you very much for this one, Lucy. It looked familiar, and indeed it is, for Sue and I walked the South Downs Way a few years ago, and the path follows the eastern side of the Cuckmere River before traversing the Severn Sisters.

    How nice, too, that you should be in Cuckmere Haven at about the same time that we were in Crackington Haven - both with beautiful coastal scenery,

  4. Thanks for this blog. I used to live in Seaford and spent a happy childhood roaming over the area you mention. Sadly, living in Swindon and my parents now moved to Kent, I don't get down there much.

    Two comments...

    This blog is the only reference I can find on-line to what the orange arrows on the OS 25K map mean (that's what got me to your blog!). The arrows don't appear on the OS web site's PDF 25K legend. Perhaps they are unique to East Sussex and only on the paper copy?

    Secondly, if anyone is a watcher of the great Idris Elba as the BBC's Luther; in the first episode of the latest series late 2015, he was holed up away from life recovering from the last series and it was in one of the coastguard cottages mentioned!


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