This is one of our favorite hikes in England. The trail is along part of the South Downs Way, and runs along the edge of the cliffs. We have taken various parts of the trail at different times. If you are in for an all day trail then start at Eastbourne and walk to Alfrison ( approx. 10 miles) For a shorter walk that covers the more scenic part and concentrates on the Seven Sisters start at the Birling Gap or Beachy Head and then finish at Cuckmere Haven at the Golden Galleon pub.
Background – What are the Seven Sisters?
The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs by the English Channel. They form part of the South Downs in East Sussex between the towns of Eastbourne and Seaford in South East England. They are within the Seven Sisters Country Park. The Seven Sisters are the remnants of dry valleys in the chalk South Downs, which are gradually being eroded by the sea. They are relatively free of development, are allowed to erode naturally and as a result, along with Beachy Head they remain a bright white color,
From east to west, the sequence starts just east of the Birling Gap. The cliff peaks and the dips between them are individually named. There are seven hills and an eighth one being created by the erosion of the sea.
- Went Hill Brow
- Michel Dean
- Baily’s Hill
- Flathill Bottom
- Flat Hill
- Flagstaff Bottom
- Flagstaff Point (continuing into Flagstaff Brow)
- Gap Bottom
- Brass Point
- Rough Bottom
- Rough Brow
- Limekiln Bottom
- Short Brow
- Short Bottom
- Haven Brow
From Eastbourne the trail over the cliffs starts at the South (Meads) end of town, at the point where the main promenade (King Edward’s Parade) turns inland, just beyond Bede’s School. There’s a refreshment kiosk here. There are a few parking spots near the cafe but many more down the Parade. As you take the walk up the hill keep looking back and get the impressive views of Eastbourne receding as you ascend.
After about 1.5 miles you will reach Beachy Head where you can stop, relax, look round, take in the scenery or stop in at the Beachy Head pub for light refreshments. This is Britain’s highest chalk cliff. On some days you can watch hang gliders take off and gracefully fly around. Looking down at the sea you find the lighthouse that marks the headland. The headland was a danger to shipping and in 1831, construction began on the Belle Tout lighthouse on the next headland west. However, because mist and low clouds could hide the light of Belle Tout, Beachy Head Lighthouse was built in the sea below.
Beachy Head to the Birling Gap via the Lighthouse
From Beach head walk to the top of the next hill and Belle Tout lighthouse (about 1.8 miles) This lighthouse is a British landmark – a Grade II building. It has been called “Britain’s most famous inhabited lighthouse” because of its striking location and use in film and television. In 1999, it was moved in one piece to prevent it from suffering from coastal erosion.
From Belle Tout lighthouse you walk downhill to Birling Gap (about 0.7 miles)
Birling Gap is owned by the National Trust. Coastal erosion has already removed some of the row of coastguard cottages built in 1878, and those that remain are still inhabited. It is likely that because of rapid erosion that all the houses will soon have to be demolished before they fall into the sea,
There is a large metal staircase leading down to the enclosed pebble beach . If you have time and the stairs are still there and operational you can get to the beach. The beach has a large number of tidal pools but can be cut off at high tide.. There is a good cafe here (recently refurbished) run by the National Trust where you can eat or buy more snacks for the walk to Cuckmere Haven
An alternative starting point or a lunch diversion is East Dean where you can have lunch on the green either from the Tiger’s Head or from the tearoom. East Dean is a delightful place and one that we never tire of visiting. You can walk there along the road past the sheep center and then return to the trail by going through Friston churchyard and past Crowlink house. Follow the National trust sign for Farrer Hall. You reach the cliff walk just past the Birling Gap. East Dean to the Gap is a distance of just over a mile.
Birling Gap to Cuckmere Haven
From Birling Gap leave the car park and turn left up the hill. Follow the road behind the houses which runs parallel to the cliffs till you get to a gate leading to a field. When you have passed the gate you start the trail across the Seven Sisters.
This is a great walk – take in the countryside and the view both forward and backward. The landscape is extremely beautiful as you walk on top of the cliffs. The cliffs are unprotected and as you can see from one of the photos prone to break off. I always shudder when someone gets near the edge to take photos. Take in the wild and domestic life. Your see rabbits, sheep in pastures, wild flowers, gulls, and other birds. At certain times you can see birds nesting in the cliffs. This part of the trail either climbs or descends steeply so take it at your pace , stop and relax as you need to. Your see people sitting and admiring the views at many points. From the Birling Gap to the bottom of the descent to Cuckmere beach is about 2.5 miles. For those interested in film trivia the Seven Sisters were featured briefly in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
After walking the Seven Sisters you arrive at Cuckmere beach and the Cuckmere river with it’s flood plains (Cuckmere Haven). Cuckmere beach is a long shingle stretch of beach. At low tide, you can sometimes spot ironwork in the sea close to the river mouth. This is the wreck of the Polynesia, a German sailing ship that ran aground in April 1890. There are also rock pools at low tide. This is another place to take a break and enjoy the view. You can get a good view of the Seven Sisters from the beach. You can also walk to the coast guard cottages and get a classic view of the Seven Sisters with the cottages in the fore-front,
For anyone interested in film and TV trivia the beach was featured in the film Atonement and appeared in an episode of Foyle’s War.
To get to the road follow the river inland. You will several oxbow lakes along the river and the area is full of wildlife. To prevent the upper river from flooding the banks were made higher and the river was artificially straightened. It also provided support for irrigation. In recent decades, the area has become a major tourist destination, with tourism contributing to the local economy more than agriculture. Consideration is being given as to whether the area should be allowed to return to its natural state. The restoration of the Saltwater estuary and marshes could enrich the ecological habitat. To get to the Golden Galleon you will need to exit the trail onto the road and follow it around over the bridge From Cuckmere beach to the Golden Galleon is about 1.5 miles.
The South Downs Way takes the above route and continues to Alfriston. Alfriston lies in the Cuckmere valley and has a village green, a clergy house owned by the National trust, and several pubs and restaurants. Activities are often held on the green and one year we toook our daughter to see some traditional activities – May pole dancing and a wellington boot throwing competition. The verdict – Interesting and worth seeing briefly !
If you wish to follow the walk along the cliffs further and get views of the Seven Sisters follow the route below
Cuckmere Haven to Seaford
The trail leading over the cliffs on the other side of the beach to Seaford presents fabulous views of the Seven Sisters. From the Golden Galleon to the cliffs overlooking Seaford is a distance of about 2.5 miles.
We normally leave a car at the end point and get someone to drop us off or use a second car to get to the starting point. On occasions we have taken the bus back from Cuckmere Haven to Beachy Head.