Seven Sisters, Sussex
The sea’s aroma sits strong in the air at the National Trust hamlet of Birling Gap. From the top of the steps above the beach and its shelf of shimmering rockpools, the views of the Seven Sisters and Seaford Head are excellent. Many consider these enormous chalk cliffs to be even more picturesque than the celebrated White Cliffs of Dover up the coast.
Leaving Birling Gap behind, a splendid walking route follows the South Downs Way along the verdant cliff tops. The chalk grasslands here teem with spring flowers, such as milkwort and round-headed rampion, the county flower of Sussex. The distinctive pink-purple petals and woolly leaves of tree mallow are hard to miss growing from the nutrient-enriched soil, while early Brimstone butterflies can be spotted investigating the yellow flowering heads of herbaceous cowslips.
WALK THE CHALK
From the top of the first sister, look behind you for a view of Birling Gap and the Belle Tout Lighthouse which, in 1999, due to extensive cliff erosion, was moved 17 metres inland. Continue along the South Downs chalk grasslands, cropped by grazing sheep, keeping an eye out for fulmars and kittiwakes nesting on the cliffs. At low tide, if the light is right, you may be able to see the remains of Coonatto, a Barquentine clipper wrecked off the coast in 1876.
At Haven Brow, the seventh sister on the route, head inland from Cuckmere Haven, rumoured to be a former smugglers’ landing site. The area is strewed with wildlife-rich watering holes – oxbow lakes and lush water meadows sit beside the River Cuckmere, which snakes through the wide flood plain to the English Channel. Nearby, a network of saline lagoons attract little egrets, oystercatchers and flocks of wigeon.
The valley is of historical significance, too, with a number of Second World War pillboxes and anti-tank defences, known as dragon’s teeth, scattered across the coastline.
FOOD AT THE INN
Travellers can catch a bus back to Birling Gap from the A259. Before you leave, take advantage of the tearooms at the Exceat Countryside Centre or the nearby Cuckmere Inn, just over the river – the perfect ending to a summer’s day walk.