The final day! Day 7 of walking the South Downs Way had been incredible. A beautiful late summer day with breathtaking views all the way. We had covered a lot of ground, loved every minute and now, we really didn’t want the adventure to end!
Day 8. Alfriston to Eastbourne
We both woke early at 5.30 am. The forecast for the day was hot. We knew we had the biggest challenge of the walk so far (the Seven Sisters) and we hadn’t had a proper meal the night before. The good news was that Emma’s family were going to collect the bulk of our stuff from the campsite for us so we could leave everything we didn’t need and just walk with a light backpack! That felt like bliss!
We broke camp at 8 am and were reasonably confident that although there are a couple of places in Alfriston that serve Sunday breakfast, they weren’t going to be open yet. So we stocked up on Mars Bars (other chocolate is available) in the shop and decided to make the café at the Visitor Centre at Exceat our first stop and have breakfast there. That meant a 6 km start.
From Alfriston, you have a choice of two routes. Via the Long Man and Jevington, or along the coast via the Seven Sisters. The former is shorter although it still has a couple of big climbs. It’s a personal decision but for me, it was always going to be via the Seven Sisters. The path divides as soon as you leave Alfriston and we headed off down the banks of a very lazy and quiet River Cuckmere. No one else was out and about, other than the cows, and a light mist hovered over the landscape.
It was utterly idyllic and a very different landscape from the previous day. We bid some swans good morning and admired the Chalk Horse carved into the hill overlooking the valley. And then you turn into the pretty village of Litlington and start the first of many, many ascents of the day. This route takes you through Friston Forest. Even though it was still early, it was already hot, but before we dived for the shade of the forest we paused for a while to watch a flock of thousands of geese.
Anyone who has done this section of the South Downs Way will know that there are steps! Yes, flights of steps to be conquered before you finally get to Westdean and the magnificent view down onto Exceat and Cuckmere Haven. As if your legs haven’t worked hard enough. But Emma hadn’t done this stretch before so I was genuinely excited to surprise her with the view after Westdean.
From there, it was a mad scramble for breakfast at the Saltmarsh Café … and I have to confess, I nearly stole a full English from an inattentive cyclist who wasn’t giving his breakfast much love. Such was my hunger!
The Seven in Sisters is a lie
Don’t be fooled that you only have seven ascents from Exceat to the finish. For a start, there are actually eight Sisters and as far as I can work out, a number of cousins too! From Exceat, rather than take you along the flat banks of the Cuckmere, the South Downs Way climbs straightaway. I set off on a detour at this point to find the elusive stone that marks the abandoned village of Exceat. Emma wished me luck and told me to catch up when I was done. She’s no fool. I searched and searched but couldn’t find it and just ended up getting very hot and sweaty. I caught up with her on the headland right at the start of the Seven Sisters and above the mouth of the river. Great views across to Seaford Head but time to dig in and get started.
On a sunny day at the end of August, this stretch was busy, but I have walked it in winter and it’s been completely deserted. But busy or not, it never fails to impress and it still feels wild and untamed. The rise and fall of the Sisters is slightly relentless but you just have to stop often and enjoy. The first few don’t feel too bad and then there is a marker that tells you you’re halfway and you wilt a little. But all the time, you can see Birling Gap and the Belle Toute lighthouse beyond and that seems to work a little magic on your tired legs.
I learnt another valuable lesson at this point. It was very hot and having left most of our stuff back at camp, I literally had nothing to put on my head. In the end, I tied my jumper headscarf style (there are photos, but they should not be seen) because I was beginning to feel a bit sick with the sun burning down on my neck. I honestly think this small act saved me but from now on, I will always pack a hat.
We had decided to stop at Birling Gap but it was absolutely heaving with tourists and daytrippers so we pushed on past the Belle Tout lighthouse and to the bench just the other side to eat our Mars Bars. Of course, that involved another climb. What were we up to by now? Nine or 10 I think?
The home straight to Beachy Head and Eastbourne
The next section is a strange mixture of anticipation, reluctance, and fatigue. There are several more climbs to Beachy Head but you catch glimpses of the distinctive red and white lighthouse. At Beachy Head, it felt like the end was nigh but it wasn’t because there was still quite a long way to go (about 3 km).
I haven’t told Emma yet but somewhere after the Bomber Command Memorial, we took a wrong turn. I don’t know how, because we followed the South Downs Way acorn sign but I have studied the map provided by the South Downs National Park and the Ordnance Survey map and whereas the South Downs Way travels a little inland, we descended a very steep path and followed the Wealdway right along the edge of the coast. I am glad we did because it’s a very special stretch of coast but it might have added a bit of distance.
Trumpets, celebrations and joyous crowds to greet us
Suddenly you can see Eastbourne within reach and although the path starts to climb steadily and seemingly neverendingly, there is a real sense of excitement. We’d both messaged our respective families to give them a fairly precise estimated time of arrival and although we stopped to chat with a couple walking their dog, we hurried on because we were pretty confident there was a gaggle of excited family members waiting with poppers and flags for our grand finish. It was about 3 pm and we were hot and sweaty but joyous as we bounded down the last hill to the much-written-about Kiost at the finish point.
Hmmmm. The kiosk was shut and there was no one waiting for us apart from a group of teenagers (not mine) who promptly sat on the only bench! So we sat on the pavement, took our boots off, and waited. It felt like a slightly understated climax to our great adventure but nothing can take away from the fact that walking the South Downs Way is one of the best things I have ever done!
The South Downs Way is 160 km. I walked 170 km but who’s counting? I finished my eight days of hiking feeling stronger and better than I had in a long time, and now, I just want to walk back again.
- Views from Westdean
- The Seven Sisters
- Beachy Head
- Route distance 19 km
- Elevation 696 m
- Water stations and café at Birling Gap
- Café at Exceat and the Visitor Cente
- Parking at Exceat, Birling Gap, Beachy Head
- Pub at Beachy Head
If you like this post about day 8 of walking the South Downs Way, you may find the following helpful: