A brisk and cloudy morning over East Sussex, with the sun running its fingers capriciously along the spine of the South Downs where they made their final eastward roll before smoothing out into the coastal plains beyond Eastbourne.
First published in: The Times Click here to view a map for this walk in a new window
Here Alfriston sits in a gap carved by the snaking Cuckmere River in the chalk wall of the downs, a natural gathering place for travellers going east-west along the ridge, or north-south between the fertile lowlands of the Sussex Weald and the pebbly coastline with its mighty white cliffs.
We gathered on the outskirts of Alfriston, a mixed bag of siblings, cousins and friends, and set off through the streets of the postcard-pretty village, all brick and flint, cheery red tiles and half-timbered houses. Not that everything hereabouts has always been this cosy. Back in the 18th century the Collins gang ran a ferocious and ruthless smuggling ring in Alfriston, and woe betide anyone who dared cross the ‘night-walking gentlemen’ or peach on them to the excise officers.
We passed the extravagantly carved and painted old Star Inn (a secret tunnel connects it to the beach at Cuckmere Haven, local stories say), and followed the wide chalk-and-flint trackway of the South Downs Way north-west, steeply up and out of Alfriston between thick hedges. Up on the back of the downs we had the wind in our faces and a broad track unrolling ahead, sheer exhilaration and a great stimulus for chatter.
Gilbert White, the naturalist curate of Selborne, speculated in the late 18th century as to whether the downs might have risen like bread from some yeast-like primordial dough. On a day like this you could see what he was getting at, with sun and cloud accentuating the soft elastic curves of the chalk, so that the whole range appeared to be straining skyward like a wind-bulged sail. Even under the bruise-coloured clouds the clefts of the downs held their characteristic allure, an invitation to explore enhanced by their status as Access Land open to all comers.
A great inner curve of south-facing downland shields Alfriston from the coast. We rounded its ridge and came down towards the meanders of the Cuckmere River through meadows where black and cream cattle grazed contentedly, scarcely troubling to lift their noses from the grass as we passed by. Glancing back, I saw the white chalk horse on High and Over Down, its muzzle sharpened by perspective to a crocodile profile, overseeing our homeward stroll by the olive-green and chalk-thickened waters of the Cuckmere River.
Start: The Willows car park, Alfriston, East Sussex, BN26 5UQ (OS ref TQ 521033)
Getting there: Bus service 126 (cuckmerebuses.org.uk), Seaford-Eastbourne
Road – Alfriston is signposted off A27 between Lewes and Eastbourne.
Walk (7½ miles, moderate, OS Explorer 123. NB: online map, more walks at christophersomerville.co.uk): Left into Alfriston; right up Star Lane beside Star Inn (‘South Downs Way’/SDW). Follow SDW for 2 miles. At 4-finger post (499045, blue arrow/BA), left on Green Way track for 1½ miles. At top of steep path, 5 ways meet (489024); take first left (bridleway). In 50m, keep ahead (not left downhill). In almost 1 mile, left through gate (498014, BA), following bridleway to cross road (512014). Descend fields to river; cross New Bridge (517014); left along east bank of Cuckmere River for 1¾ miles. Just past Alfriston Church, left across river (521031) to car park.
Lunch: Star Inn, Alfriston (01323-870495; thestaralfriston.co.uk)
Accommodation: Beachy Head Cottages, East Dean (01323-423878; beachyhead.org.uk) – immaculately run and very comfortable