Saturday July 22nd 2006
Eastbourne to Birling Gap
Today we had one of those walks which did not go entirely to plan, a real chapter of, not exactly accidents, more incidents. We left on our now familiar train, the 6.57 from North Camp and changed at Gatwick, again with time to stop and buy breakfast. The second train took us all the way to Eastbourne where we should have picked up a connecting bus to take us to Birling Gap. However, I had read the timetable incorrectly and the first bus was not due for 40 minutes, so we decided to do the walk in reverse.
We quickly found our way to Eastbourne’s famous seafront and set off westwards from the pier. The prom was wide and flat and we passed the Wish Tower, one of the string of Martello towers along the south coast, the lifeboat museum and lots of people on roller blades.
We also had to dodge the Dotto Train on its first run of the day – more of that Dotto Train later!
At the end of the prom we began to climb up a zig-zag road leading to the main road. A short walk along the main road, with glimpses of the sea between buildings brought us to the end of Eastbourne and beginning of Beachy Head. A large prep school is located here and we saw chattering children arriving for their ballet exams, hair scraped back and faces gleaming, their mothers all a-twitter. It brought back many memories.
We stopped for an ice cream at a little café at the bottom of the hill and studied the map as we had to decide whether to take the South Downs Way which took a slightly inland and initially steeper route or the route recommended by our guidebook which stuck to the cliff edge. We decided on the cliff path, which, with retrospect may not have been the best decision we have ever made. It was beautiful walking with wide grassy paths and spectacular views, some steps built into the hillside and seats dotted about.
Eventually we turned the last bend to be confronted by a very, very steep ascent which we immediately classified as a ten step hill; ten steps turn and admire the view, ten more steps etc. Over the edge of the cliff we could see the famous red and white striped lighthouse at sea level and in the distance above, people on the top. The only thing to do was climb it so we set off.
However, we were about half way up when the thunderstorm that had been rumbling away in the distance suddenly emerged overhead without any warning. We were climbing ten steps at a time, but all of a sudden Jen had no breath left. We think this was the breathlessness that many asthmatics encounter just before a thunderstorm and it needed dealing with immediately. My inhaler was easier to find then hers so I fished it out and she had two puffs. At that moment the heavens opened and the rain came down just as though someone had turned on a tap. There was no time to get the waterproofs out of the rucksacks; we were soaked through in seconds. I wrapped my camera into my sunhat and shoved it down my trousers; Jen pushed her hat and the inhaler down her bra. Luckily the relief of the rain and the storm breaking made her feel better and we set off again as fast as we could. The slope was still steep and the chalk was now becoming slippery so we scrambled almost on hands and knees. By the time we got to the top, I had so much rain on my glasses I couldn’t see and my eyes were stinging with it. At the top was a low fence and a proper concrete path, which we followed somewhat blindly to the road. We managed to dry our glasses on the towel I had brought in case we paddled and crossed the road to the dry safety of the Beachy Head pub.
Lots of people were stumbling off the slopes as we had and more were sheltering in the doorway of the pub, but we went inside to find a hot drink. Luckily hot coffee was available and very welcome before we tried to dry out a bit under the hot air dryers in the loo. The coffee shop was almost empty and had beautiful views inland across the Downs so we lingered for a while to wait for the rain to stop and finally bought some sandwiches and had lunch there.
There was no hope of drying out completely as we were wet right through to the skin, so we had a look round the countryside exhibition and, after another session under the drier, set off again.
The storms had passed, the humidity had dropped and the sun was warm, so we were happy enough hiking along in slightly damp clothes. The route continued over the top of Beachy Head itself, which has small wooden crosses dotted here and there to people who have felt desperate enough to jump and a sign with the phone number of the Samaritans. Rather sad.
The cliffs drop down a bit after the high point to a car park and then up again to Belle Tout lighthouse. Belle Tout was the original lighthouse here but did not work well as there was often too much mist high on the cliffs. So the new one was built at sea level and Belle Tout is now a house. It was moved back from the cliff edge a few years ago but is once again very close to the edge. From Belle Tout, it was a gentle decent into Birling Gap and the finish once again.
We just missed a bus back to Eastbourne because we stopped to take the end photo but that meant we had time to look at the beach when the tide was out. It was still quite early in the day and it was rather pleasant to sit on the beach in the sun and steam gently. But our day’s adventures were not over yet.
The next bus took us back into Eastbourne over the top of Beachy Head again, which was great and we were back at the pier soon after 3pm. We debated heading home but decided first to have ride on the Dotto Train to the end of the prom. But the next train to arrive was going in the opposite direction; eastwards towards the new marina so we thought it would be fun to go and look at the route we would be taking on the next walk. It trundled happily along the prom for a while, got stuck behind a delivery lorry outside a beach shop at which point the Dotto driver leant in the horn and woke all the old ladies in the hotels from their afternoon naps. It had the desired effect though and we were soon on our way again. Suddenly we reached the end of the prom and the train veered out onto the road – the A259, among all the buses and cars and lorries. The driver and guard were arguing about whether the train would reach the end of the run and make it back again as the engine kept cutting out and it really was making a lot of strange noises and jerks. We were beginning to regret this little trip but we arrived safely at the marina, which is rather swish with buildings in an impressive mix of styles. It includes lots of new houses, the main road through being called Atlantic Drive and the side roads all named after ports on the Atlantic. The train seemed to settle down and arrived back at the pier safely where we retreated to the beach with an ice cream to recover.
Jen got her paddle but had to dry her feet in the air as the towel was still soaked. By 5.30, the last bit of me was dry and we began to wander back to the station, buying fish and chips on the way.
However the thunderstorm had one last sting in the tail. We sat at the far end of the station platform eating our chips and waiting for the train back to Gatwick blissfully unaware that lightning had taken out the signals a few miles south of the airport. We had just finished our meal and were beginning to wonder why there was no-one about when a railwayman came along to explain. After a quick discussion with him and a thankful prayer that we know the railway map of Southern Britain like the back of our hands, we decided that our best bet would be to head for Brighton, then along the coast to Chichester, Havant and north to Guildford that way. There was shuttle train running between Eastbourne and Lewes, where we would be able to pick up a Brighton train, so we set off on that. On the way, the guard announced that there would now be a rail replacement bus from Lewes to Three Bridges, the station before Gatwick where we could pick up our route. We were very dubious about the possibility of the Gatwick to Reading train running so decided to continue with our original plan to Brighton. However, at Lewes the next train to Brighton was not due for 45minutes, so we dashed out and threw in out lot with the bus after all. It was quite fun trundling through the Sussex countryside on top of a double decker. The bus pulled in at Haywards Heath station first and the driver went out to find out what was happening. He came back with the news that a train for London was approaching the station, whereupon the bus emptied rapidly and we all poured up the steps in time to catch a train heading north. Gatwick was the next stop (it sailed through Three Bridges, which was the original destination of the bus) and we only had to wait half an hour there for the Reading train. We finally fell off at North Camp just before 10, having arrived at Eastbourne station at 6.20. A cool bath and an early night all round followed after one of the most adventurous walks so far.
Running total 156.8 miles