August 17 : South Downs Way : the final stage : Exceat to Eastbourne

Hello, Mrs Hg137 here.

Time for the last section of the South Downs Way, a challenging one, down the Cuckmere Valley, then over the ridges of the Seven Sisters to Birling Gap, then up and over Beachy Head and down into Eastbourne. Challenging – yes – but a stunning walk.

But first, we needed to get from where the geocar was parked, close to the end of the South Downs Way at Eastbourne, back to the start of the walk. That meant an additional one-and-a half miles in the “wrong” direction back into central Eastbourne to catch the Coaster bus which would take us to Exceat. We set off along the seafront, stopping twice, briefly, to find caches. Eastbourne would be very busy indeed later on, as it was the third day of the Airbourne air show http://www.eastbourneairshow.com/ which takes place over the sea in front of the pier. Roads were closed, a funfair was set up, plus food stalls aplenty. And a steady and increasing stream of people were heading for the beach to get a good viewpoint.

Cuckmere Haven

Cuckmere Haven


We left all that behind and were at Exceat after a bumpy 20-minute bus ride. We exited the bus just where the South Downs Way sets off down the Cuckmere valley. Even a few steps away from the road, it was less busy. That was good: we wanted a second attempt at finding a cache, after failing last time. To quote our previous post:
…” This view has been immortalised over the years. … The painter Eric Ravilious captured the scene in 1939 and his painting was the inspiration for our next attempted cache. All we had to do was work out where Eric stood to paint his scene in 1939 and we would find a cache! We’ve had success with these type of puzzles before, but all have used 21st century photos rather than an artist’s portrayal 80 years ago. We thought we had lined up Eric’s image with a couple of locations, but sadly didn’t find the cache. We’ve subsequently been told our positioning was off” …

Well, we failed again. Even with a hint from the cache owner, and some nimble scampering around likely places from Mr Hg137, we still couldn’t find the cache, though we were much closer than before to the correct location. Oh, well …
Continuing down the eastern side of the Cuckmere estuary, we found a cache which commemorated the location of the vanished Exceat Church, and one hidden close to a dewpond. This dewpond is unusual; most of these ponds are historic, built long ago for watering stock; this one was built in the 1990s using fees paid for using the beach at Cuckmere Haven for the location of the opening scene in “Robin Hood, Prince of Thieves” https://www.reelstreets.com/films/robin-hood-prince-of-thieves/ Nevertheless, it looks as if it has been there for ever, and is well overgrown with vegetation.

Where's the pond?

Where’s the pond?


Then the climbing started, and we made our way up onto the top of the first of the Seven Sisters. We had a longish, *undulating* (aka hilly!) walk to the next cache, a multicache based on the monument on Flagstaff Brow, the fourth of the seven/eight Sisters. And having worked out the coordinates, we decided they were too far off route and continued to Birling Gap. (Editor’s note: there are actually eight, not seven Sisters; erosion has created an extra one after they were named. They are called Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Brow – Flat Hill, the extra one – Bailey’s Hill and Went Hill)
Birling Gap ...

Birling Gap …


... and the doomed coastguard cottages

… and the doomed coastguard cottages


There’s a car park and a tearoom at Birling Gap, access to the beach, and a row of ex-coastguard cottages. They are gradually being demolished, one by one, as the cliffs erode. There were five when we passed by in 2011. And now there are four … another was demolished in 2014. https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2584571/Work-starts-demolish-former-coastguards-cottage-left-just-SIX-INCHES-cliff-edge-months-storms.html
Crumbling, cracking cliffs

Crumbling, cracking cliffs


Birling Gap was heaving with muggles. They were so busy with selfies / refreshments /climbing down the steps to the beach / watching aircraft fly by to the airshow that they didn’t notice us looking for four caches, finding two and adding the other two to the “too far away from the route, find another day” list. The aircraft were distracting for us, too; we were watched from above by a circling Spitfire while we found one cache, and a little earlier, the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight passed by, and disappeared around Beachy Head, lower than clifftop height.
Battle of Britain Memorial Flight

Battle of Britain Memorial Flight


The Seven Sisters were behind us, and we began the long climb up to Beachy Head. Birling Gap is 30 feet or so above sea level, and, two-and-a-bit miles later, the trig point at the top of Beachy Head is about 500 feet above sea level. Part way along, the route passes Belle Tout lighthouse; it can be seen for miles around, but it wasn’t very effective as it was often enveloped in cloud or fog, which is why the newer lighthouse was built at sea level. We found two caches along here, Belle Tout View and Beachy Head Earth Cache, both with big views and breeziness to match.
Belle Tout View

Belle Tout View



After walking south-east along the Seven Sisters, we had now “turned the corner” and were going north-east towards Eastbourne, which was just coming into view. We had a good view of the last few minutes of the airshow, watching a Dakota, some wingwalkers, and a grandstand view of the of the final aerobatics display by a team of jet aircraft.
We were now dropping, slowly at first, then steeply, down to the esplanade, and to the end of the South Downs Way. We waylaid several passing muggles and inveigled them into taking pictures of us on the final bit of the path, at the noticeboard at the end, and in front of the ‘end of trail’ sign: there – that proved we’d done it!

By now, it was quite cool and windy and getting rather dark. For the first time in a very long time, we needed the heater on as we drove home in the geocar.

And here are some of the geocaches we found:



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Review of the South Downs Way
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We’ve walked it twice now, first in 2011, and now in 2019: what has changed, and was it better the first time or the second time?

First, what has changed after eight years? A little, but not all that much.
– The signage is better, though it was pretty good before.
– The trail now has start/end markers, so there’s a sense of occasion to mark each end of the trail. (But we still think that the Winchester end of the trail should start at the cathedral, not at the City Mill.)
– The route has changed in a few places. The route through Queen Elizabeth Country Park has changed, separating it from other long-distance paths that also pass through. And the route out of Winchester has altered, there is a bit of going round and round before you head up and out of the city. One other blog I read speculated that this was to make the route up to 100 miles for cyclists?

Secondly, was it better the first time or the second time?
– I asked Mr Hg137 and we both thought the first time was better.
– It could have been the weather. Though we are both reasonably hardy, we are fair weather walkers, and don’t generally go out walking if it is pouring with rain. Our photos from 2011 show blue skies and sunshine and us clad in T-shirts, while this year we got wet a fair few times, and spent much of the walk clad in sweaters and waterproofs under grey skies, blown by strong winds.
– I walked the majority of the walk with a torn, or part-healed calf muscle. There were times when it was very, very bad, and I’ve never taken so many painkillers, ever, and it had to affect my view of the walk.
– But it wasn’t really pain, the weather, and the great views haven’t altered. It was that we knew what was coming, there is no AAH moment at discovering a new place, or a great view, such as the sudden surprise vista over the Cuckmere estuary.
– What other things might we have done? We’ve already been to some places just off the route, such as Uppark, West Dean gardens, and the Weald and Downland Museum, but it would be good to investigate some of the others, like Amberley, Bignor Roman villa, Charleston, and the Chantry House at Alfriston. (Or an opera at Glyndebourne???)
– Would we do the walk for a third time? Quite likely, yes, though we might walk in the other direction. It is in beautiful countryside with stunning views. A brilliant walk!

August 10 : South Downs Way : Alfriston to Exceat (circular)

Many walkers of the South Downs Way complete their journey to Eastbourne with a long day’s walk from Alfriston.

Alfriston – A Smuggling Town in years gone by

Indeed this is how we completed the South Downs Way back in 2011. It is a very long walk (approximately 12 miles consisting of 3 or 4 miles of river valley walking with some ascent, then 8 or so miles on the roller-coaster path up and down over each of the Seven Sisters.
The weather forecast was for high winds, so the thought of walking along the Seven Sisters cliffs was not appealing (not to mention dangerous), so we settled on breaking the extended route at the small village of Exceat and returning in a figure-of-eight manoeuvre via the lower reaches of the River Cuckmere and the village of Litlington.

A Bug Hotel, not a Travel Bug Hotel!

Our first cache of the day was as we crossed the River Cuckmere at Alfriston. A large white bridge spans the river and underneath is a bison hidden near some brickwork. Sadly in the height of summer the route to the bridge base was full of undergrowth, and it was difficult to see where it was safe to start our search from. We didn’t even start searching!

Alfriston’s White Bridge


After crossing the bridge we then followed the River Cuckmere downstream, facing the strong wind, to the village of Litlington. As we walked the reeds and rushes ‘bounced’ in the wind like waves on the sea, dog walkers coming towards us were being blown by as we greeted them, and every gate was an effort to open.

Final view of Alfriston, The Clergy House (foreground), Church behind


Litlington is a small village yet hosts three caches. We decided to find one of them on our outbound journey to Exceat, and leave the remaining two for our return leg. After the failure to even start searching for a cache at the White Bridge we were grateful for a quick find with a magnetic key safe. Inside, the log was well protected by a plastic bag, but the interior of the key safe was dripping with water.We left Litlington via a field where clearly the owners didn’t really want walkers going near their horses. A large sign told us about 10 things we mustn’t do! (‘No loitering’, ‘No feeding horses’, ‘No picnicking’ were just three of the taboos).
We arrived at a farmer’s field with views over the River Cuckmere and part of our return route. In the distance, marked on a hill was a white horse – we would be much closer to it later on.

White Horse, on the opposite banks of the River Cuckmere


At this point the South Downs Way crosses, for about 3/4 a mile, Friston Forest. Three caches lay on this part of our route, but they were part of a much larger series of 21 caches. We decided to make a diversion from the South Downs Way and undertake a circular mini-series of seven.

Our plan, to minimise backtracking was to undertake the Friston Forest caches in the order (Friston Forest 3,2,1,7,6,4 and 5).

Not far to the cache now


Number 3, the first one we reached, was at the top of about 50 woodland steps, a simple hint, and a simple find. We strode purposefully in the direction of cache 2. Sadly we missed the woodland path that would have taken us there, and ended up at cache 1 instead. Here the GPS coordinates seemed a little out, and the hint, although useful, did yield several places to search. We walked on to cache 2 (knowing we would have to unfortunately backtrack later). The GPS wouldn’t settle, but after it did so, it yielded a beautifully crafted ‘log cache’.

We returned via cache 1, to cache 7. Here the GPS was accurate, and the cache was our biggest of the day. It was nearing lunchtime and as had approached the cache we had espied a picnic table just outside the Forest. A great sturdy table, but more backtracking to resume our circuit!

Friston Forest


Cache 6 led us a merry dance. So exact were we at standing at GZ we failed to see the tell-tale pile of sticks! We searched every tree within 15 yards before searching where we stood 10 minutes before!

Just after cache 6 there should have been a path leading to cache 4. We somehow walked by it without realising and ending up at cache 5. So, another backtrack journey to cache 4.

All these caches were straightforward, subject to GPS wobbles, and provided us with a welcome break from the wind!
In the end the sequence we attempted the caches was 3,1,2,7,6,4,5 just a bit different from our planned route of 3,2,1,7,6,5,4 !

West Dean


Leaving the Forest we arrived at the tiny hamlet of West Dean. It boasts two caches. One is near to a church, but not part of the National Church Micro series.

The other was near to the Village Pond (and yet wasn’t part of the Sussex Ponds series). The Pond would have looked really scenic in late spring, but at the height of summer the pond was full of weed and no water was visible! Two relatively easy finds.

An even tougher set of steps


Then the one part of the walk we were dreading. An ascent of about 120 steep-ish woodland steps. When we walked the route in 2011, it was a hot day and we were burdened by super-heavy rucksacks as we were overnighting in Eastbourne. Today we had 2 light day sacks, the weather was cooler and the ascent seemed not quite as strenuous. We also knew the reward…a grandstand view of Cuckmere Haven.

Cuckmere Haven


This view has been immortalised over the years. The comedian Hugh Dennis was inspired to learn geology on seeing this view. The painter Eric Ravilious captured the scene in 1939 and his painting was the inspiration for our next attempted cache. All we had to do was work out where Eric stood to paint his scene in 1939 and we would find a cache! We’ve had success with these type of puzzles before, but all have used 21st century photos rather than an artist’s portrayal 80 years ago. We thought we had lined up Eric’s image with a couple of locations, but sadly didn’t find the cache. (We’ve subsequently been told our positioning was off…so we will have another attempt on next South Downs Way caching trip).

It is only a short walk down hill to Exceat, and a waiting ice-cream van. (We don’t often partake of an ice cream when out and about, but it seemed just reward for thirty minutes fruitless searching high above Cuckmere Haven.)

Somewhere on this bridge is a cache!


Exceat is quite busy. It is next to the Seven Sisters Country Park. It has two large car parks, and buses from both Brighton and Eastbourne were disgorging visitors on a regular basis. For us, it was the furthest point on today’s journey and we set off to return to Alfriston via the River Cuckmere. A short road walk to start, a cache to find on the windy Cuckmere Road Bridge, and then a grassy footpath following the Cuckmere as it meandered northwards.

We had hoped that the wind would be behind us heading back to Alfriston, but the River Cuckmere meanders wildly so several times we were walking into a cross-wind rather than with the wind at our backs.

The path was surprisingly busy and we passed several groups of walkers, but fortunately none at the next cache site. Again, based on a bridge. Our GPS pointed one side of the bridge, and we had a good look there. We descended bankside to look up and found nothing. We scoured the logs for information and realised the cache was ‘hanging’. We needed to look for a hanging device! After much searching, we were about to give up, when we decided on one more ‘tour of the bridge’. This time something caught Mr Hg137’s eye… and the cache was soon in hand. It was then we realised that this cache hadn’t been found for 16 months and was on an official list of caches needing ‘resuscitation’. We had performed this activity!

The Resus Cache


Time had somehow slipped by. We had spent a fair bit of time backtracking in Friston Forest, too much time trying to align the Eric Ravilious painting, and far too much time resuscitating a cache. We chose to abandon our figure of eight manoeuvre at Litlington and elected to find one more cache near a third bridge over the River Cuckmere.

Another bridge..and nearby…. another cache!


It was our 13th find of the day, a creditable haul considering how windy it had been, and with the wind finally at our backs, we finished the walk with an exhausted spring in our step.

Here are some of the caches we found :