Monday, 16 June 2014

Southdowns Day 2: Alfriston to Eastbourne

After a day of hiking, you have a really weird sleep.  You don't drift off to sleep as much as you die for eight hours, and then wake up completely confused as to how you got to your current location.  A stretch reveals some odd sore muscles and then it all comes back.  Time to get up and do it all over again.  

I felt surprisingly good of wind and limb (spry might be stretching it), but I did have a discolored toenail that I am keeping an eye on.  Going down hill puts a lot of pressure on my toenails, and once they get blisters under the nail beds, the nails tend to pop off fairly painlessly.  Like, I'll take off my socks at the end of the day and realize that an entire toenail is still in the sock.  I will usually just stick it back on with a band-aid until I feel brave enough to go without it, and an intrepid new nail will start growing back, oblivious to the fact that I will give it the same treatment as the old one.  Still, it's gross, and I was mindful of them.  I don't need another toenail to string on my personal tribal necklace.  I have plenty.  

We did have a rather odd disturbance during the night: I had heard shouting and went to the window in a fog and saw that the innkeepers had been locked out of their own house.  One of the guests had dead-bolted the door behind them, and I'm pretty sure that due to our ultra early bedtime, it wasn't us.  

Sometime during the night, it rained quite a bit.  We woke up and had breakfast in a downpour, with the innkeepers clucking and shaking their heads about what a pity it was to have to walk to Eastbourne it that,  but by the time we put our packs and rain gear on, it had cleared.  Breakfast at a B&B tends to be pretty good- they usually do the full-English breakfast of sausage, bacon, black pudding, roast tomato, eggs beans and toast unless you beg them for something lighter.  I did.  Hiking tends to increase your appetite 10 fold, but that much meat first thing in the morning would slow me down to a crawl and feel like it's undone any health benefits I  had gained the previous miles.   We had at least 13 miles to cover to get to the train station, and most of that would be along the coast.  

As the morning cleared, we saw the other half of Alfriston, with its ancient flint church on the banks of the River Cuckmere.  There were a handful of people out walking with their dogs, but the world was quiet.

With the downs behind us, this portion of the hike was relatively flat, with a couple of small hills to conquer as the trail wound through farmland and copse and quaint Sussex villages.  

On a nearby hill you could see the Lillington White Horse, a chalk cutting in the hillside.  Some of these chalk figures on hillsides are quite old, with neopagan groups spending a lot of energy communing at them.  This one was made in the 1920's by a local.  The hind legs are disappearing due to the rabbit population burrowing around them.    

The countryside was pretty and green and a bit soggy.  It was really enjoyable walking. 

Finally, after one last tree-covered hill, we went down a muddy slope, crossed a road and we were confronted with the sea.  

The Cuckmere river turns into a winding marsh, and then empties out into the English Chanel.

 I had done this portion of the hike back in April, and I was happy to go back and do it again.  The Seven Sisters and Beachyhead is one of the most-trod but stunning bits of England I have seen so far.

And windy!  It's quite windy on these hills.

At this point, the promised rain decided to stop being so shy, and a steady drizzle whipped by the wind started to make things less than perfect for walking.  

I am of the opinion that all walks should end at the sea.  It gives you a sense of absolute stop.  You can go no further.  Your hike is done.

Well, not quite done in this case.  We planned to stop for lunch at Birling Gap, where the National Trust operates a cozy but busy cafe.  Fueled by not a little herbal pain killer, advil and granola bars, we started our trek up and down the Seven Sisters- a series of cliffs that are deceptively hilly.  From afar, they look compressed, like you could glide right over the tops of them.  In reality, it's several miles of steep climbs and descents, each one seeming like the largest one of the series until you see the next.

 For scale, there are two tiny people sitting close to the cliff edge, having lunch.  You can barely see them:

And the trail keeps going once you hit the gap: to the Belle Tout lighthouse, and along more high cliffs until you dip down onto the beaches at Eastbourne.

At this point, I had to put away my camera, as the wind was gusting mightily and the rain started pelting.  I had to put up my hood and fasten the elastic so just my nose and one eye peered out.  This was gorgeous lovely and amazing walking, but the weather could have been better.  Still...this, being England, we passed hundreds of people out walking, and Birling gap cafe was packed.  We did see quite a few serious hikers, along with people in unsubstantial shoes, walking from the parking lot to the top of the first down to get pictures before running back.

We ate our packed lunch and some soup from the cafe, warmed up with some tea, then headed back out to hit the final stretch of trail in a downpour.

Here's a picture from my last trip to Beachy Head, and here are some more.

It's fantastic hiking- really unusual to have so much up and down in a single stretch, and warmed up and powered by lunch, the gale didn't seem all that bad.  I did get a terrible bout with vertigo at one point.  Even 20 feet back from the cliff edge and walking along it for hours, I will occasionally drop like a stone and start to pass out as my body decides to go into full-on panic mode at being so close to the edge of the world.  In this case, it was slightly amusing as I really have no control over when I decide to get a sudden fear of heights, but it's a pain in the ass when I'm doing a peak climb and can't go on any further.  

Finally, past the lighthouse, the trail drops sharply off the hills and the cliffs peter out and you walk down to the city of Eastbourne.  At the trailhead, you can take the road in, or walk the boardwalk along the pebble beaches as we did.  It's slightly anticlimactic, especially since it was pouring out and the beach town seemed completely dead, and the pier as boarded up as it was in the off-season.

The train station is another mile inland from the pier, with trains running to London more than once an hour on the weekends.  I ended up stripping my rain jacket and putting on the warm sweater that I had brought, and we tried not to stink up the train compartment too much with our exhausted wet hiker smells.  We were knackered, having just done 35 miles of hilly hiking in two days, but a certain elation came over me as we pulled into London Victoria and onto the crazed frenzy of a slick, wet London.

This is all just a quick train ride away from one of the world's largest metropolises.  They make it so easy- there is a bus from Eastbourne that will bring you to Birling Gap, or you could take a train to Seaford and walk along the cliffs to Eastbourne from there as well.  Getting a map and stringing together all the days of walking you can have local to London is an undertaking I am happy to devote myself to.

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