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 :