Monday, 23 January 2012

Seven Sisters and a Lighthouse

Beachy Head Lighthouse - Keep the Stripes!
Sussex has a beautiful coastline, with the Seven Sisters and Beachy Head cliffs being a famous part of it – where the hills of the South Downs meet the sea.  An iconic landmark here is the lighthouse at Beachy Head with its distinctive white and red stripes, built in the sea in 1902.  The white and red lighthouse was built to replace the cliff-top lighthouse called Old Belle Tout, which was built in 1832 and has been moved more than once owing to coastal erosion.  The stripes on the Beachy Head lighthouse are under threat at the moment owing to the cost of maintaining them but there is a “Keep the Stripes” campaign that was launched in October 2011 and is doing a fantastic job to raise money and gain support.  I hope it will succeed as the lighthouse is so distinctive and it would be a real shame to let such a striking part of the history of the area fade to grey.  Keep the stripes!

Cliffs & Beach from Birling Gap
My walk of the Seven Sisters began at Birling Gap in the National Trust car-park.  The coastline at Birling Gap is notorious for shipwrecks and since 1563 at least 25 ships have been wrecked between there and Cuckmere Haven (the other end of the Seven Sisters) due to the fast moving currents.  Birling Gap was also notorious for smuggling as the quiet coves on the shore made an excellent place for landing boats filled with contraband from the continent.  The goods would then be transported at night to local villages and ultimately onto London for sale.  Smuggling in the area began in the 1300’s but was at its peak in the 1600’s and 1700’s, particularly focusing on tea, wine, spirits and tobacco.

Now on this walk I did not have a map as it is a straightforward route and I had done it before.  However, I did find it rather tricky finding the path from the car-park.  The route to Beachy Head was obvious but I wanted to head in the opposite direction.  There was a track that signposted a range of Bed and Breakfasts but I could not see a sign saying it was the footpath as well.  So – what does any girl do in such a situation?  I rang my Mum to ask her which way I needed to go!  My Mum is as good as any Satellite Navigation or Ordnance Survey map.  Mum confirmed the route was up the track so off I went, noticing how perilously close the houses are to the cliff edge!  The views must be outstanding though.
The Seven Sisters from Seaford Head
Brave Sheep on the Cliff Edge
The Seven Sisters were formed by geological activity 50-100 million years ago and they are effectively seven hills between Birling Gap and Cuckmere Haven.  The “dips” in between were formed by ancient rivers no longer in evidence.  It was an extremely windy day and as I got to the top of the second hill, I was battling so hard against the wind that it felt like I was not getting anywhere – each step forward was a few inches and progress was slow!  I needed a lot of view stops but each time, I was rewarded with excellent views along the coast in both directions.  Even the seagulls were absent from the cliffs owing to the wind.  I did however see some incredibly brave sheep grazing right at the edge of the cliff – one sheep in particular was grazing on a section that looked extremely precarious as there was an enormous crack in the rock that looked like a fault-line and could come crashing down into the sea at any moment.  It just goes to show that southern sheep can be just as tough and brave as the hardy Herdwicks in the Lake District!  I also saw a lot of people surfing – much braver than must have been freezing in the water in January!

Sarsen Stone with Seaford Head beyond
Cuckmere Haven & Seaford Head
The Seven Sisters path is within the newly formed South Downs National Park and is part of the South Downs Way (which is 160km in total, ending at Beachy Head which is 535 feet above sea level and from which Timothy Dalton parachuted from a Jeep in the James Bond film “The Living Daylights”).  Each “sister” has a name - Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass point, Flagstaff Point, Flat Hill, Baily’s Hill and Went Hill Brow.  On top of Flagstaff Point is a Sarsen Stone (sandstone) monument and this is a helpful landmark on the route so you know which hill you are on!  I think I miscounted the hills as when I got to the top of what I thought was number seven, it turned out to be number six.  I would have been more upbeat about that but the true number seven looked the steepest of the lot!  Once I got to the top of the final Sister however I was rewarded with superb views into Cuckmere Haven with Seaford Head beyond and the sweeping meanders of the River Cuckmere in the estuary on its final few hundred metres to the sea.  The contrast between the lazy Cuckmere River and the waves dashing the cliffs below was quite something. 
Seven Sisters with Old Belle Tout Lighthouse Beyond
On the way back (yes I did 14 hills rather than seven as I had to get back to the car), it was much easier as the wind pretty much swept me up the hills!  It was enormous fun (although important not to get too close to the cliff edge!) and for good measure, I climbed up to Beachy Head to see the lighthouse.  On a clear day, you can see for miles along the coast and inland from the top of Beachy Head but that was not to be on that day sadly.  I have been there before however when the sky is bright blue without a cloud in sight and the contrast between that and the white cliffs from the chalk Downs is simply mesmerising.  The red and white lighthouse is a key part of that view – long may it remain!
Iconic Lighthouse & Beachy Head

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  1. I have never done this walk as I did not realise the Sussex coast was so striking. Another inspiring piece with excellent photos. I also hope they manage to raise enough money to 'keep the stripes'. Perhaps a Trust of some kind could help with the support of the business community nationally as it is a national treasure not just a local one.

  2. Thanks Peter - I believe the local business community are being very supportive and the local newspaper. I agree - it is a national treasure! :-)

  3. Another great read Tanya.
    Good on your mum. Always there when needed.

    Now this is a walk I should aim to do as it's just a short drive from where I live. Your photographs and your description of the views always inspire me.

    And finally, yes we MUST keep the stripes. I hate standardisation. Let individuality survive!

  4. Another excellent and interesting blog post! The stripes must be kept: the reason this lighthouse has such a distinctive paint scheme is so it can be seen by those sailing offshore. It is an important navigation mark!

    I've not walked that way for a number of years, and I suspect the cliffs are a bit further inland than when I last visited (1986, I think). That sheep is definitely taking a bit of a risk!


  5. Thanks Nick...yes I thought the sheep was more of a risk-taker than I would be!!
    The lighthouse is just so iconic - it is practical and picturesque. A little piece of history that should be cherished.

  6. This is wonderful! Several years ago, I googled the seven sisters and couldn't find anything. You're amazing for sharing your information and pictures. Be well. I look forward to future posts. Blessings.

    ~ Aithne

  7. Thanks Aithne :-)
    It is a lovely place with so much history. The lighthouse is beautiful as are the white cliffs.
    One of the fantastic things about England is the variety of mountains, sea, landscapes and even weather in such a small area...