Walk 54: Seven Sisters & Beachy Head Circular: Watch your step…

The ‘Needs to Know’

Distance: 3.5 miles (5.63 km)

Time to walk: About 1.5 hours although on a lovely summers day with time to sit & admire the views, have coffee at the cafe, admire the ewes at the Sheep Centre (if that takes your fancy), plus a pint at The Tiger etc, this could easily take up half a day

Difficulty: Pretty much all off road across fields & cliff tops although being chalk-based the going should never get too boggy. We did this walk at the end of February 2016 & it was completely dry. Being a cliff walk there are several climbs that are good for the cardio so best foot forward

Parking: We parked in the beautiful village of East Dean in the free ‘Tiger’ car park on Gilbert’s Drive

Public toilets: The pub & coffee shop at the start, or the cafe at Birling Gap about 1/3rd of the way round

Map of the route: None, but think of a square!

East Sussex is a place we’ve never been to, so when work beckoned us down there we went a day early to explore. Having never seen the Seven Sisters or Beachy Head before this was a place which filled us with anticipation in doing some great cliff walking – we weren’t disappointed

Our starting point is the beautiful small village of East Dean, only a few miles outside of Eastbourne which is also worth a visit. There’s not too much information to be found about the village which lies about half a mile inland from the coast so let’s just start walking & pick it up as we go. It’s a calm, mild late February day so…

Let’s Walk!

1. There’s a great free car park right in the middle of East Dean near the Village Hall & Tiger Inn. It’s a sleepy village so park up, strap on the boots & explore…


The car park’s surrounded by a typical flint wall. Look towards the house with the bow windows. Legend has it that James Dipperay, an extremely successful & wealthy ‘gentleman’ smuggler lived here. Apparently when he & his gang were caught, he turned King’s Evidence on them & was set free, thus allowing him to build the house & live a prosperous life whilst his colleagues were committed to life sentences

2. Walk up the hill towards the village green…


The building on the left’s a coffee shop & part of New House Farm (superb converted barn & cottages that are available to rent). The farm sits on land once called Glebe Field which, in the Middle Ages, was owned by the Church & rented out for farming

3. On the right is the well-known Tiger Inn



From this angle it doesn’t look anything special, but wait until you emerge onto the gorgeous village green, so typical of England…


The Tiger Inn’s name probably comes from the Manor’s coat of arms which is a leopard but, as both date back to the 15th century, neither had been seen in this country & it’s a bit of a mystery


The Inn had a reputation in the world of smugglers & also ‘wreckers’ who used to lure unsuspecting ships onto the rocks with lamps. After pilfering their cargo the ‘wreckers’ would throw the crew back into the treacherous waters. The three adjoining cottages were used as barracks during the Napoleonic wars

4. The War Memorial looks like a very old village cross & was built after World War I. The railings were hand-made by the last village blacksmith


Head for the house directly behind the War Memorial which has a blue plaque…


The blue plaque states that this is where Sherlock Holmes retired to. Holmes is said to have retired to the sleepy countryside surrounding Eastbourne. Holmes experts have long maintained that the hugely popular fictional character ended his days in East Dean after Sherlock author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle hinted at as much in the preface of one of his books

In the first few pages of ‘His Last Bow,’ the writer said Holmes retired to “a small farm upon the Downs, five miles from Eastbourne.” Conan Doyle knew the area well, having been born in Crowborough, & was said to have been a regular visitor to the Eastbourne area during the later years of his life. Another clue which has helped Holmes enthusiasts come up with East Dean is his love of bees. Holmes needed a sheltered spot to keep his beloved bees – a fact which has ruled out a number of potential retirement spots. East Dean though, is sheltered from the coastal gales & therefore still a genuine contender

Much to the delight of locals, the official Sherlock Holmes Society supports East Dean’s claims, with a former chairman of the club suggesting that a house on the village green opposite the old farm (New House Farm) was a plausible location for Holmes’ retirement


5. Head towards the top of the green past the Thai restaurant & turn left towards Went Way…



Look at the two small black plaques on the white cottages above – we’ve seen similar in our walk round Crick. These are firemarks…one is the mark of the Sun Alliance Insurance Company & the other that of Kent Fire Insurance, so if the houses caught fire one would be saved by the Sun & the other by the Kent Fire Brigade!

6. Keep on the higher lane which is Went Way. The name means to wander or meander & it’s the oldest road in the district. It’s more famous for being known as the ‘King’s Highway’ with lines of telegraph posts sending wires to the first Cross-Channel cable which entered the sea at Birling Gap, where we’ll visit later

Pass the Old School House…


This house was built in 1850 by the daughter of Mary Davies-Gilbert who founded an agricultural school alongside normal conventional learning. The school continued until the declining population of the village meant it had to close in 1964

Just a bit further on is the Old Bakehouse…


Once the home of the priests in charge of the church, it’s now a private residence & apparently still has the bricked-up ovens

7. Continue along the lane as it begins to narrow…


The impressive property on the left is a large flint house called ‘Undersell’. This was a 16th century farm property. Pass by the house to the gate…


8. This gate is our escape from the village onto the first of the Seven Sisters, also known as Went Hill…


Go through the next gate & the path climbs steeply through a wooded area…


Over to the left we get our first glimpse of the ‘She Devil’ lighthouse which we’ll pass later on the cliff part of the walk


9. Pass through the next gate & we’re now on National Trust property



The path becomes even steeper now, but there’s a convenient bench to have a quick rest on. The mound in front of it is where one of the telegraph poles we mentioned earlier was built. As we climb higher, to the left we now get our first glimpse of the sea…

IMG_641410. Climb the final part of the wooded path & emerge onto the brow of the grassy field…


IMG_6416 Head for the red-roofed barn in the picture above, picking up the track that runs to the right of it down the hill towards the sea…



11. When we get to Birling Gap & look back we’ll have a better view of the Seven Sisters on which we’re now walking as part of the Seven Sisters Country Park. For now though descend towards the sea & a gate by some impressive houses…



Pass through the above one & then the next by the gorse to emerge in a gravel lane…



12. As the signpost now says we’re walking on the South Downs Way…


The South Downs Way is a long distance footpath & bridleway running along the South Downs in southern England. It’s one of 15 National Trails in England & Wales. The trail runs for 100 miles from Winchester in Hampshire to Eastbourne in East Sussex, with about 13,620 ft of ascent and descent

People have been using the paths & tracks that have been linked to form the South Downs Way for approximately 8000 years. The undulating path begins in Winchester Hampshire, & passes Cheesefoot Head, the towns of Petersfield & Arundel, the villages of Storrington & Steyning, Devil’s Dyke viewpoint near Brighton, followed by Ditchling Beacon & miles of chalk downland across to Beachy Head, finally ending in Eastbourne, East Sussex

13. Follow the Beachy Head direction & head down towards Birling Gap…


…passing through the car park to the seafront & the viewing platform



14. Birling Gap is owned by the National Trust & is the only place of access to the sea between Eastbourne & Cuckmere Haven.  It’s no wonder then that many tales of smuggling are linked with this place. The name Birling comes from a Saxon tribe “Beoris” who were raiders & settled at the site of Birling Manor which we’ll see later. There’s a nice cafe if you fancy a cuppa

There were originally a row of 8 coastguard cottages & a cable station here, but erosion has removed some of the row of coastguard cottages built in 1878. There is a cafe, shop & visitor centre run by The National Trust, & a large metal staircase leading down to the enclosed pebble beach & the Seven Sisters chalk cliffs. It’s moved back every few years as the erosion continues at a rate of 1 metre per year, although larger parts do fall at times

The remaining coastguard cottages, but for how much longer?

The remaining coastguard cottages, but for how much longer?

The Birling Gap Hotel was built by the Davies-Gilbert family & much of it is no longer used  due to its proximity to the cliff edge

15. There’s a fine view of the Seven Sisters from the platform…


The Seven Sisters is a series of chalk cliffs that are the remnants of dry valleys in the chalk.   From west to east, the sequence starts just east of Cuckmere Haven. The cliff peaks & the dips between them are individually named. Listed below, the peaks are in italics. There are seven hills, with an eighth one being created by the erosion of the sea

Haven Brow, Short Bottom, Short Brow, Limekiln Bottom, Rough Brow, Rough Bottom, Brass Point, Gap Bottom, Flagstaff Point (continuing into Flagstaff Brow), Flagstaff Bottom, Flat Hill, Flat Hill Bottom, Bailey’s Hill, Michel Dean, Went Hill Brow

16. Looking eastwards past the cottages you can see the challenge that now awaits us…


So walk past the cottages & turn right past the telephone box…



17. As with all walks don’t forget to look back, especially as we get higher. You can see the viewing platform we stood on…


But also don’t stray off the path, especially as there are considerable overhangs


18. Continue the climb aiming for the lighthouse which we first saw when climbing through the woods at the start of the walk…


This is Belle Tout lighthouse which has been called “Britain’s most famous inhabited lighthouse” because of its striking location & use in film and television. Beachy Head saw numerous shipwrecks in the 17th & early 18th centuries & a petition to erect a lighthouse started around 1691. The calls were ignored for over 100 years until The Thames, an East Indiaman, crashed into the rocks. The petition gained momentum with the support of a Captain of the Royal Navy & Trinity House, the official lighthouse authority, agreed to attend to the matter

Having witnessed the incident himself, John ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller, MP for Sussex, used his influence & some of his personal wealth to fund the lighthouse construction. The first Belle Tout lighthouse was a temporary wooden structure that began service on 1 October 1828. The construction of the permanent granite lighthouse began in 1829 & it became operational on 11 October 1834. Its use of 30 oil lamps meant that the lighthouse required 2 gallons of oil every hour


The lighthouse was not as successful as had been hoped, with two significant flaws – the cliff-top location caused problems when sea mists obscured the light & vessels that sailed too closely to the rocks would not be able to see the light because it was blocked by the edge of the cliff.

The Belle Tout was in service until 2 October 1902, when a new lighthouse was built at the bottom of the cliffs, known simply at the Beachy Head Lighthouse which we’ll see shortly. During the Second World War the building was left empty & was badly damaged by Canadian artillery fire. After the local council took ownership in 1948, the decision was made to restore the lighthouse because of its historical significance. Building work was carried out under lease in 1956 & the lighthouse was brought up to date with modern amenities


In 1986, the BBC purchased the lease to Belle Tout for the filming of the mini-series “The Life & Loves of a She-Devil” & a year later it featured in the James Bond film “The Living Daylights”. From 1996 the lighthouse has been used as a family home, but by 1999 the erosion of the cliffs was threatening the foundations of the building & drastic steps had to be taken to stop it from falling into the sea

On 17 March 1999 in a remarkable feat of engineering work the Belle Tout was moved 56 ft away from the cliff face. The 850 ton lighthouse was moved using a pioneering system of hydraulic jacks which pushed the building along four steel-topped concrete beams that were constantly lubricated with grease. The site should now be safe for many years & has been designed to enable further moves as & when they are required

19. We’re heading down towards the new Beachy Head lighthouse now – just follow the correct signs as the path appears to move all the time with the erosion…

IMG_6464 Our route back to East Dean actually lies left down the road, but now walk as far up Beachy Head as you want – just beware of the overhangs whilst trying to get the perfect picture…

It's high...look at the size of the walker - can you spot them?

It’s high…look at the size of the walker – can you spot them?

Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 531 ft above sea level. The peak allows views of the south east coast from Dungeness in the east, to Selsey Bill in the west. Its height has also made it one of the most notorious suicide spots in the world

There are an estimated 20 deaths a year at Beachy Head. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team conducts regular day & evening patrols of the area in attempts to locate & stop potential jumpers. Workers at the pub & taxi drivers are also on the look-out for people & there are posted signs with the telephone number of the Samaritans urging potential jumpers to call them. Unfortunately someone had jumped the week before we were there

20. Let’s move on & follow the busy road back down past the lighthouse…


…& round the corner for a couple of hundred yards looking for a gate through to a farm track on the right



21. The track we’re going to follow  back to East Dean is an old Roman Road which has seen a lot of history


As we walk up here there’s one final view across to Birling Gap…


22. When the track bends right look for a gate on the left heading towards East Dean…



Now follow the undulating grassy track to the next gate…


23. The stone wall on the left’s got some history attached to it…


The low wall around this field was built by Napoleonic prisoners of war in 1793


24. Continue to the end of the wall to pass through another gate – on the left’s Birling Manor which we mentioned earlier…




This was a homestead founded from an off-shoot of the Saxon tribe of Beorls who settled here around 490AD

25. Follow the path close to the wall down to the next gate & the road…




26. Exit the gate onto the road & turn right. Pass Beachyhead Farm & the Sheep Centre which has a large collection of different breeds of sheep…


You looking at me?

You looking at me?

27. Be careful & walk on the verge back into East Dean…


…continuing to the stone archway into the churchyard…


28. This is the Church of St Simon & St Jude…


The church’s Saxon tower is the oldest part dating back before the Norman conquest. The tower served two purposes, firstly as a place of defence & refuge, & as a church oratory. Note the flat tombstone on the left that’s the grave of Parson Darby who saved many sailors from shipwreck by the light from the cave he made in the cliff near Beachy Head


29. Keep to the left & exit the churchyard by the Tapsel Gate…


A Tapsel gate is a type of wooden gate, unique to Sussex, which has a central pivot upon which it can rotate through 90° in either direction before coming to a stop at two fixed points. It was named after a Sussex family of bell-founders, one of whom invented it in the late 18th century. Only six examples survive, all within a 10-mile radius of Lewes, the county town of Sussex. Tapsel gates have the dual advantage of keeping cattle out of churchyards & allowing the efficient passage of coffins carried to & from the church during burials. The name sometimes is used more generally to describe swivelling gates of a similar design elsewhere


30. Turn right up the lane towards the green again passing the care home on the right…



31. Here we are back at the village green where we started…


So there we go…what a fabulous walk along some of this country’s best coastline with amazing (& changing!) views. Given the chalk underfoot, this walk’s always dry so it’s one for all seasons. It’s one we’ll definitely be coming back to again & why don’t you combine it with our walk round Hastings Old Town

Go Walk!