Seven Sisters walk via Friston Forest: Distance: 13 km. Elevation: 475 m. Difficulty: Hard
Alternative route from Seaford: Distance: 12 km. Elevation: 330 m. Difficulty: Hard
This is a fabulous if challenging Seven Sisters walk and there are two different routes depending on your preferences. You will need Ordnance Survey Explorer 25.
Route 1: Seven Sisters walk and Friston Forest
Part 1. Exceat to Birling Gap (6 km)
Park at the Visitor Centre at Exceat just east of Seaford. It’s £4 for the day, or £3 for 2 hours, but you are very unlikely to finish this walk in 2 hours! Cross the road towards Cuckmere Haven and you’ll soon see the signpost for the South Downs Way. You follow this almost all the way to Birling Gap and it immediately takes you uphill (close to where the abandoned Medieval village of Exceat used to be). Straightway, you get views of the Cuckmere River, Cuckmere Haven and Seaford Head as you roughly follow the course of the valley until you reach the first of the Seven Sisters cliffs, Haven Brow.
The good news is that by the time you reach the top of Haven Brow, you have conquered the highest of the climbs and you have fabulous views. The bad news is (if you can call it that) that you have another six cliffs to climb, namely Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flat Hill (it isn’t), Bailey’s Hill, and Went Hill. As you make your way along these Seven Sisters the views are incredible and you can see Birling Gap getting slowly closer in the distance but the constant up and down is tough going on the legs.
When you get to Brass Point, there is a sign to let you know you’re halfway to Birling Gap. Your knees flinch. It also points out you can see the Belle Tout lighthouse in the distance and is a timely point for refreshments if you’ve brought any with you.
Keep going. It’s wild, it’s challenging and it’s wonderful and your legs seem to pick up strength during this next stretch. You’ll pass a couple of memorials, and eventually come to West Hill and the last of the Sisters. Pass through a gate, and temporarily leave the open downlands behind you.
Part 2. West Hill to Crowlink and Friston (2 km)
The South Downs Way goes right here to Birling Gap (there is a café and bus stop there) but on this route, you turn left on the path signed to East Dean. You thought you’d walked the last of the hills but you soon discover you haven’t as you climb up Went Hill. Take the left fork where the footpath divides and head across to the Crowlink car park (you can see it as you crown the hill). More wonderful views are in order both behind you and ahead. You are in the heart of smugglers’ territory here as Cuckmere Haven, Crowlink Gap and Birling Gap were all notorious smuggling points. As you carry on your walk, it’s easy to see why. When you reach the car park, just follow the little lane until you come to a pond, a small church, and the main road. St Mary the Virgin church at Friston dates back to about 1050 (the Saxon nave) and the pond is just as old. It’s very pretty.
Part 3. Friston to Friston Place (1 km)
Crossing the road, there is a footpath in the bushes directly ahead of you as you enter the most south-easterly corner of Friston Forest. Go straight ahead (not left) and just follow the footpath out of the woods, across fields, up steps, and around Friston Place. You’re suddenly aware of how very different the countryside feels here. Friston Place is an early-16th-century manor house with impressive gardens. It’s privately owned although the gardens are occasionally open to the public. The footpath takes you across the drive and fields, along the side and round the back of the manor and you can only catch fleeting glimpses of it. But there’s a distinctly grand feel about it and a sense of history.
Part 4. Friston Forest to Westdean (3 km)
From behind Friston Place, you take the main path into Friston Forest which is gorgeous. At 689 acres, it is the largest area of recently established forest in South East England. It is predominantly beech wood, and although the peaks aren’t as steep as the Seven Sisters, it definitely undulates. Just follow the main path and enjoy secluded woodland until you eventually reach Westdean.
Part 5. Westdean to Exceat (1 km)
Westdean (also referred to as West Dean) is a tiny and very pretty village with flint cottages, large old barns, and an impressive church and rectory. Again, parts of the church date back to Saxon times although most of it is Norman and dates to about 1200. There is useful information about the village in the church which suggests Westdean was a royal residence for Alfred the Great.
There are also the ruined remains of an Elizabethan manor house behind the wall in the centre of the village and a Medieval dovecote. There’s a little lane that circles the whole village and if you still have energy, walk around it before you head to the western corner where you pick up the South Downs Way once more.
And because it’s just what you need at the end of a long, challenging walk, there’s now a steep flight of steps for you to climb before you emerge at a wall and stone stile. Beneath you is the Visitor Centre and car park at Exceat and in front of you is Cuckmere Haven where you started. All you have to do now is roll down the hill to the café and car!
Alternative route from Seaford Head to Birling Gap
There is free parking on Seaford Head and Seaford seafront. From there, you can follow the path down past the famous coastguard cottages and then around Cuckmere Haven along the side of the river and along the coastal path until you join up with the South Downs Way as above, all the way to Birling Gap. At Birling Gap, hop on the bus (number 12 or 13) back to Seaford. But remember, if you’ve parked at Seaford Head, you’ll still have to walk back up to the car park.
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