Day 3: Jevington to Alfriston
~ The day Giselle goes cuckoo for coccoliths ~
9 hours of sleep later and we were still not quite rearing to go. There’s something about waking up in a warm and cozy bed with freezing cold air around you that makes you not want to get out of bed. We stretched (boy were we sore!), ate some breakfast, popped on our soggy boots and headed towards the white cliffs of the South Downs.
It was slow going at first, but as we made our way to the coastline our muscles began to warm up and relax and we started to move at a normal pace. We began the walk westward from the top of a hill that overlooked Eastbourne. We passed route markers and memorials, with one recalling that this was the last view some 55,573 RAF Bombers had of England before they gave their lives in WWII. We took a moment there. Not too bad of a view if I do say so myself.
The weather was scheduled to be partly cloudy but along the cliffs the wind safely picked up and there was a slight drizzle. We put gear on, our heads down and started to trek. In hopes of a nice view we picked a random edge to aim for and it ended up being Beachy head – the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain (531 feet) with a cute red and white lighthouse down below.
Dad and I had been here a year and a half before and I remembered how in awe I was of the cliffs: the passing time didn’t change my perspective. Formed from the skeletons of algae, these cliffs have been slowly eroding over the years and it was amazing to look at the difference in erosion between my two visits. I think the lighthouse that’s teetering on the edge will be gone in no time…
The full walking route along the cliffside is separated in half, with Eastbourne on one end, Cuckmere Haven on the other, and a small little village in the middle. After completing the first half, we stood by the water and took in the view… there was a placard there showing the difference 100 years makes and England has lost quite a few km’s since 1900.
The next half of our walk would be an area called the Seven Sisters. It’s a Country Park with 8 cliffs (thank you sea erosion) and, not gonna lie, those were some significant dips and hills. Thankfully, the wind and drizzle died down so we could shed some layers and by the time we reached our last ‘sister’, the sun was even coming out.
Eventually we stood, sweaty, on the final hill and had a lovely view of all of Cuckmere Haven. This is a historic portion of flood plains where the Cuckmere river meets the English Channel, and a location that played an interesting part in WWII. Cuckmere Haven was studied by the Luftwaffe as they flew missions to identify possible landing sites. The Brits constructed counter-landing defenses…. Pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles, and ditches, which we kept our eyes out for. This was also an excellent location for strategically confusing bombers, as lights could be put up at night and Cuckmere Haven would easily resemble the nearby, heavily populated town of Newhaven.
This flood plain was ridiculously flooded and with a dark rain cloud coming our way we booked it to the nearest pub for lunch. Fish and chips, a warm bisque and some sticky toffee pudding by the fireplace made us feel warm and cozy but I have to say we looked extremely out of place. We walked in with muddy boots, sweaty faces and we smelled like dirt while people next to us had glasses of Chardonnay and sweater vests on. What a laugh we must’ve been for the servers…
We only had about an hour to go before our destination, but it was only a bit past noon and the sun wouldn’t set until 16:30 so we decided to set our sights on a slight detour- the smallest church in England. Moving along the floodplain however, which we had to do no matter what route we took, was putting us in 3-10 inches worth of water and I ended my evening with painful trenchfoot ridden feet. You know, doing my part for historical reenactments.
There wasn’t much at the church, truly, but it gave us a nice little view of old timey Alfriston. There was a river to cross until we would get there.. but, where was the walking path? Oh. This shouldn’t be a river. Our walking path was completely flooded and we diverted along the road, crossing into Alfriston on the car bridge. The place we would be sleeping was unfortunately not open for check in yet so we walked around in soaking boots for a bit. Plus side? Cider and a warm fireplace and it was cozy enough that we were convinced to come back there for dinner.
We had a fabulous dinner of lamb and duck at the George Inn (so popular in town that we had to get a reservation) before retiring to our room to sleep. The four poster bed was put to good use as the latest in clothing line trends and by morning the room smelled a bit like some hikers had been squatting there for a while. It adds to the place.
Alfriston is a quaint town with a lot of history. You can feel it by the look of the streets but also by the modern posters hung in windows protesting the intrusion of proposed streetlights: the people of Alfriston like it just the way it is. In fact, the place we were sleeping in has seen a lot more interesting things than smelly socks and muddy hikers. It used to be called the Market Cross House and was the headquarters of one of the East Sussex gangs. It has 21 rooms, six staircases, 47 doors, and secret passageways that made escape easy when it came to smuggling! We don’t know much about their smuggling activities… so one can only assume they were good at it.
Day 4: Alfriston to Lewes
~ Happy Guy Fawkes Day! ~
The last day of major walking and it’s a simple one with no rain scheduled. We woke up slow, checked our hanging clothes for dampness, and went for a nice English tea at a tiny little tea shop. It definitely had a ‘mom and pop’ vibe to it and it was filled with old tea cups and quirky little historic things. For instance, in the bathroom there was a bit of exposed wood under the sink that looked similar to a stepping stool. A small plaque read that it was the original floor, but with growing human height, changes had to be made. Cool!
As the walking began, we trudged through thick mud and farming fields, which made walking twice as hard. Then we had a steep hill to go up – we were not getting it easy after our clotted cream filled morning! We were absolutely rewarded at the vista and the weather was surprisingly clear. At the highest viewpoint we sat around burial mounds for a quick snack and water break to admire the views. We could trace our route: where we started, the pevensey levels, the surprise hill we climbed up near Jevington, the back of the Seven Sisters, Cuckmere Haven… and turning around? Lewes was in our sights! What a journey it had been, and we were getting so close to our destination!
With an extra spring in our step we flew down the hill, noticing the increase in traffic now in comparison to the other little towns we had walked through. Was this for Guy Fawkes day? We stopped in Firle to check our GPS and were approached by an old man who was wondering if we needed help. We told him that we were alright and he asked what we were walking for. We gave him our spiel and he was ecstatic to learn more. Within 10 minutes we were sitting down to lunch with this man and his younger friend; they were on their way to the church in town to visit the older man’s wife at the cemetery. The older man is a local history buff and left Tristan entranced while the younger man is a stand up comedian who plans the Hastings Fringe Festival each year. It was pretty funny falling into conversation with our newly assigned partners.
We said our goodbyes and carried on, breezing through Glynde and walking on a lovely road with tree branches arching overhead. Once at our bed and breakfast, we put our bags down, our feet up (but only briefly!) and made our way to Lewes.
We didn’t know what to expect at Guy Fawkes night in the town that has the largest celebration in the world. We knew there were a couple of things to see like parades and bonfires but there was no obvious schedule or map of where major occurrences were happening.
We knew we were headed toward the right place when people dressed as sailors started walking on the same road as us. Then, when we passed a pub with about 20 colonials of all age and size out front, we had an inkling we were closer to our destination. When we passed an outdoor barbeque with a large Viking man and his little Viking kid on his shoulders, I realized that we had absolutely no idea what we were getting into. But it was too late, we were in the middle of it!
People seemed to be taking this time to grab food and drinks so we followed suit, stopping at a famous Lewes brewery. In line in front of us was a man dressed like a …well, I’m not really sure… but he had an incredible mustache and some form of goggles on his forehead. He was kind enough to give us the lowdown: there would be parade after parade, then bonfires and fireworks late into the night. He told us which bonfires were free to attend, where they were, and to ‘go with the flow and just have fun’. We thanked him and headed back to the main street.
Music and drum beats were soon heard coming from the top of the hill and everyone scrammed off of the road and onto the sidewalk. A parade of one of the bonfire societies, holding burning crosses and torches came down the street. Was that the pope holding a burning cross? People were watching down from balconies and open windows and the procession made the crowd go quiet. As soon as they passed, it was a small break before the next one, and another break before the barrel run. This is where teenagers race down a street pulling lit barrels of tar as fast as they can. As an onlooker, I felt like this was probably an extremely coveted role in society and definitely bragging rights for that kid for the next year.
Although we love a good bonfire and some fireworks, we were exhausted by 8 and with a bit of rain coming in, we thought it would be best to head back and turn in for the night. We woke up sometime past midnight and could still hear the fireworks going. What a festival!
Day 5: Lewes to London
~ The last leg of the adventure…~
We started the day with the best breakfast yet before heading up to the top of nearby Mount Caburn. My shoes weren’t soggy anymore, my trenchfoot was weaning and Tristan’s legs were only slightly sore. So up the mountain we went! It was foggy the entire trip up.. to the point where we could hardly see in front of us (besides the occasional sheep or cow outline in the distance), but once we were at the top, the sun started to shine through and we could see the valley below.
The summit is pretty cool. Mount Caburn holds the remains of an Iron Age Hill Fort and because of so many different occupations over time it’s been excavated over 170 times. That is a mess archaeologically! It was occupied in 400 BC, then again during the Norman Conquest. Then again in the 1940’s. Notice a theme?
Our walk toward Lewes passed through farm field after farm field before we hit a steep incline and a golf course – where there was a beautiful view of the city below. We could see bonfires being smothered and people taking down their tents from the night before. We decided that if we were to come back to Lewes for another Guy Fawkes night, we would stake claim to this stretch of property for perfect views of bonfires and fireworks – without having to be in the thick of it all.
The city is spread out so that the castle is somewhat in the middle, old streets surrounding it and new stores in old shop windows. If you were to imagine a ‘typical English village’ it would be this one- but we didn’t stay for long. Croissants, hot cocoa and a walk around the town were the extent of our short visit before we boarded a train to London.
So… what’s next? Snowdonia National Park? The Jurassic Coast? A multi day walk in the Lake District?
Or more importantly, anybody in?