DAY 7 – ONCE UPON THE SOUTH DOWNS WAY
The one with the bull, the rain, and the discovery that waterproof socks are not always waterproof!
WEATHER: Rain! Then drizzle, then overcast.
DISTANCE: 18 miles
LOCATION: Lewes to Alfriston and finally Exceat.
It's now 4.30am, and the romantic idea of watching the sunrise while sipping hot coffee vanished as I listened to the pitter-patter of rain on the roof of my tent. It's warm and dry inside, and I really don't want to get up, so I don't!
Although Jason's tent is less than 4 feet away, I receive a text message.
Jason: 04:27 - Sunrise 4:56am
Me: Not long to go. But it's raining.
Jason: Yep!!! This isn't how it was meant to be!! Nice view? I'm texting rather than talking as I can only just hear you over the rain!
Me: I'll venture out in a min, I am just updating my blog.
Jason: Just looked out to see the rain rise (sorry sunrise!) and got a face full of the wet stuff! It seems the downside of positioning your door facing east is that the wind had the same idea!
I need a wee, so I scramble from my tent to admire the view and find a quiet secluded spot. I needn't have worried as visibility was zero! Perhaps that is an exaggeration, but all I could see was fog, mist, and more fog. This was going to be fun! I was gutted that we had missed out on a gorgeous sunrise, but we will just have to save that for another day.
We pack up our wet tents in record time. The main rain had stopped now, and it had turned into a light drizzle. I can cope with drizzle, especially as I had my full rain gear which included an umbrella and waterproof socks.
6am - As we heaved our packs once again onto our backs, I turned to Jason, "I suggest you put your rain jacket on." He shrugged his shoulders and explained that he had looked at the weather forecast and it was predicted to be scorching hot all week, so he hadn't packed a jacket or any waterproofs. All he had was a fleece jumper, and he didn't want to get that wet. Jason obviously wasn't a boy scout in his youth - be prepared, and all that!
We were meeting Peter (a member of my walking club) at 8am at the YHA in Southease, which was approximately four miles away, so leaving at 6am gave us plenty of time to play with.
With the rain in our faces, my umbrella attached to my pack, Jason in a cotton polo shirt and shorts, we made our way across the top of the escarpment. I was in the middle of recording a video explaining the plans for the day when I heard Jason say, "OMG, look at that!". I kept the camera rolling as I followed his pointed arm to a bright yellow warning sign on a gate "Bull in Field." "You've got to be kidding me!" I exclaimed. And turned the camera off!
We had poor visibility and could perhaps see about 10 feet in front of us. If there was a bull here, then it's more likely that the beast would see or hear us before we spotted him! My breathing got heavy as we started navigating our way through the field, my eyes always scanning for a big hairy animal! We then came across the biggest cow pats you've ever seen, and I'm sure my walk turned into a little jog! Eventually, we exited the field, and I could breathe again. Jason thought it was highly amusing, but at least he stayed with me this time!
7am - The fog began to clear, and we finally have a glimpse of the views that we had been missing out on for the past hour. I'm chuffed with my waterproof socks and was feeling rather smug that my feet were nice and dry. We passed another wild camper who was settled under a blue tarp rather than a tent. He was utilizing the stone wall as one side of his little setup, but it still looked grim. I expect that he had very little sleep last night with the poor weather belting down on him from all angles. No wonder he was still fast asleep.
We shuffled on at a slow pace until we passed a sign. "Look at that!" Jason exclaimed. We had reached the Meridian Line, which separates the Western and Eastern hemispheres of the earth. We did a little hop from one side of the post to the other and quickly got bored. Only two miles to go until our hot steaming coffee and a place to get dry!
After trundling through more wet and soggy fields, we reached a crossroads. The South Downs Way was straight over, through a few more fields and down a steep slope, or we could take the easy route and follow the road. Both ended up at the same junction. If I was on my own, I think I would have taken the easy way as by this stage, my waterproof socks were now like sponges, and every step had a unique squelch to them. 100% waterproof is only applicable if the water does not go up and over the top of your socks!
"We can't cheat," said Jason and took the lead through the gate that pointed to the South Downs Way. I was tempted to reply, "I'll race you and use the road," but I knew he was right. I can't walk all this way and then cheat because of a bit of rain. Sloppy wet fields it is then!
7.30am - Down steep banks on sore ankles, over railway tracks and pretty rivers, we eventually arrive at the YHA in Southease. Neither of us noticed the sign that said "Cafe open 10-2pm, we simply followed the scent of hot cooked breakfast!
Jason went to the loo, and I worked my way through the busy cafe to order breakfast. "What's your name?" asked the young and somewhat stressed out chef. He was on his own, and the place was absolutely rammed with people. "We haven't booked, we've just walked here from Lewes," I replied. "Sorry, the cafe is not open until 10am he said". Ok, so there was hot coffee, just there! Bacon, sausages, eggs, etc. was to my left and people were eating happily in front of me. "But the breakfast is ready, and all these people are eating" I squeaked rather pathetically. "Breakfast is for residents only. We are fully booked today with over 50 guests, and I'm the only person working. As I say, the cafe does not open to the public until 10am. There is no-where for you to sit", he exclaimed and pointed to the packed room.
As I stood there in dripping wet clothes (and squelchy socks), I watched my dream of hot coffee vanish before me. I tried one last time." We've just walked from Lewes. I'm a YHA member. C.ould we have a coffee please, no breakfast? We are happy to sit in the rain as are wet already". I knew I was rambling now, but I was rather desperate for a coffee
He gave in and took pity on me. The young chef switched on the till and said, "ok, you can have breakfast, and I'll open up the classroom upstairs so you can sit up there out of the rain. You will have to pay by card though as I've not yet set up the cash register. Is that ok?". I wanted to hug him at that point, but I don't think he would have appreciated that! Jason arrived utterly oblivious to the latest shenanigans.
The chef was a tall, skinny guy of about 25 years old wearing chef whites. I have no idea how he managed to run the whole place on his own, including cooking, serving and refilling the coffee, etc. The place was crazy busy, and I felt a bit guilty that we were adding to his already stressful day. We followed him up the stairs as he opened the classroom for us as promised. The room was vast and peaceful as we were the only people there. The history of the earth was written all over the walls, and we enjoyed our breakfast in relative silence. I say "relative silence" as a bizarre noise was occurring just outside the door. My curiosity got the best of me as I left my breakfast on the table and went to explore. A young woman, perhaps in her early 20's, was fast asleep on the couch outside the classroom. Omg! You've never heard snoring like it! She sounded like a foghorn on steroids! I thought my husband was a loud snorer, but I felt sorry for whoever slept with this lady! I took a sneaky video like a naughty schoolgirl and then tiptoed back to breakfast giggling like a child! Our somber mood had lifted, and we were both feeling much better.
8.15am - Where is Peter?
I glance at my watch, and it's now 8.10am. Peter Brown, an older gentleman from my walking club, would be joining us today. His train was due in at 8.08am, and then it would take about 5 mins to walk up to the hostel. At 8.18am I received a WhatsApp message to say "train was late, just walking up now. I won't be much longer".
We tiptoed past the snoring lady (although we could have marched through with hobnail boots on and she wouldn't have heard us) and returned our plates to the kitchen. We refilled our coffee cups while waiting for Pete and started the process of hauling wet socks and boots back on our feet. "The rain stops at 9am," said Jason after studying the weather app. "Let's wait until then before we head off." I nodded in agreement while checking my watch.
It was now 8.48am, Where was Pete? It's only a 5 min walk from the station so something must have gone wrong. Concerned, I left Jason resting his bruised ankles on the bench and declared that I was going on a Peter hunt! He must be in a ditch somewhere! With no pack attached to my back, I was walking on air and skipped down the road. I didn't get far when I spotted a familiar figure in the distance. His little white legs were nearly running up the hill, and I made signs for him to slow down.
As Peter approached me, he was shaking his head. "I've had a bad start to the day," he moaned. His naff morning had begun by not putting the lid onto his water bottle correctly, which subsequently leaked all over his daughter's new carpet! He then went on to explain that the train was running late. "How can it run late when it was the first train of the day?" He exclaimed with frustration. "Then, when I got off at Southease station, I walked over a mile following the South Downs Way signs in the completely wrong direction"! Ah! So that was what had happened. Pete needed coffee, and I knew just the place!
9.10am - The rain had stopped (just as Jason had predicted) and we set off like the three guys from last of the summer wine (except I'm a lady of course!). We all had walking poles, and we kept a good rhythm as we walked up more hills. Our pace was slow as both Jason, and I was sore (we had walked over 20 miles the day before, don't you know!). As more bikes whizzed by, Jason and I would shout "ding ding" as they never ring their bells. God knows what Pete thought of our little ritual!
10.30am - Pete stopped suddenly and grabbed his little camera. "Listen to that," he said excitedly with a huge cheeky grin on his face. The skylark song was mesmerizing. It's as if he was signing a full song just for us.
Jason and Pete both know the area quite well. They both explained what various landmarks were in the distance. We could see Piddinghoe lake, the famous windmills stretching out into the sea, Brighton British Airways i360 (which is a 162-meter observation tower on the seafront of Brighton), radio masks, etc
We made our way up to the top of Bieddingham Hill (elevation 606ft). The novelty of taking photos and videos at trig points had worn off for me, but the views certainly hadn't! We walked in between two telecom masks while making jokes about our brains being fried as we did so! (that joke had not worn off either!).
11.30am As we cross yet another field of cows I realized that I had no fear whatsoever. The cows in Sussex were nothing like Northamptonshire cows. Perhaps they were just accustomed to walkers, but they really didn't seem to give a toss. They didn't even look at us. One particular cow was that chilled out that she was having a nap on her side. I thought she was dead, but no, there was a sign of breathing. It was just a very chilled cow!
We reached Bo-Peep Car Park (cute name for a car park!) and did a little dance as we spotted a bench. Time for a quick pit stop before our final descent into Alfriston where we were planning to end today's hike.
12.30pm - We made it to Alfriston!
We eventually made it into Alfriston, our final destination for the day. We planned to have a pub lunch and sort out accommodation for tonight.
Jason and I were feeling beat. We had only walked about 11 miles today, but our battered bodies and lack of sleep told us that enough was enough.
Alfriston is another candidate for the prettiest village on the South Downs Way. However, this small collection of Tudor wood-beamed buildings slung along a narrow main street is far from a well-kept secret, and the place was bustling.
The first pub, The Star Inn, was an excellent choice for lunch. The Star Inn is a Tudor style pub dating back to the 13th century. We walk through the door, and I politely ask the lady at the bar whether walkers were welcome. She nods and asks what would we like to drink. Coffee, please! We take off our heavy rucksacks and leave them on the floor under the careful eye of Pete, while Jason and I go in search of the toilet! As I return, a customer grabs my arm and says, "do you mind if I ask you a question." I'm curious, so happy to engage with this lady. "That shell that you have on the back of your rucksack is it to do with a pilgrimage?". I explain about the Camino, and both her husband and the good lady listen intently.
"Wow! You were meant to come into this pub. You see that pole on the wall over there?" I follow her pointed finger towards the window, and sure enough, there is a strange-looking pole more-a-less embedded into the wall. "If you rub the pole it is said to bring you good luck and is a sign of a good Pilgrimage." Well, I just had to do some rubbing at that stage! Jason gave me a puzzled look as I wandered over to the wall and started stroking the pole. "I'll explain later" I mouthed to him, as I gave the pole one last caress.
Peter had made the decision that he was walking on to Cuckmere where he could get a bus back to his daughter's house this evening. He would then meet us at Cuckmere tomorrow morning. It was sad that Peter would not be walking with us for the next little section, but we completely understood his reasons.
Lunch consisted of the freshest bread you have ever tasted, filled with the thickest fish fingers you have ever seen. I enjoyed every single mouthful, and my body thanked me for it. We were starting to dry out now, and the sun was making an appearance. "What's that noise?" I asked the guys. "It sounds like Morris dancers," says Pete. Pete and I left Jason nursing his bruised ankles, while we went to the cobbled street to investigate. I tiptoed out of the pub in bare feet and followed Pete to the market square. Sure enough, there was a full Morris dancing display going on! I capture this on video, and it all looks very English. I love our little traditions like this. It makes me proud to be British as the ladies start bashing their sticks and jingling their bells in time to the bagpipe music.
I receive some funny looks as I tiptoe back towards the pub, dodging the cobbles and looking for flat bits in the path. Why didn't I slip on my camp shoes?
Alfriston is one of those villages that oozes money. Crowds flock here in the summer as it is laden with plenty of boutique shops to keep a visitor entertained. Alfriston is famous for an old fashioned sweet shop called The Old Bank (that not only sells sweets but ice-creams, drinks and other nicknacks. We check out the situation for bed and breakfast and decide that £200 a night for a room was not going to happen. Our other choices were Alfriston Camp Site (which looked lovely), or we could chance wild camping again.
2.30pm - We were off walking again!
With newfound energy, Jason and I looked at each other. We unanimously made the decision to walk with Peter to the next town (Cuckmere/Exceat). It was only a few miles away, and the route looked relatively flat as it followed the Cuckmere river. Our feet and ankles could survive another few miles. We would then catch the bus at Exceat (along with Peter) into Eastbourne and stay at the YHA for the night (yay, another proper bed!). The plan was for Peter to meet Jason and me at the YHA in Eastbourne tomorrow morning then get the bus back to Exceat to commence our last walking day over the Seven Sisters. It was a good plan. Later Jason received a surprise phone call…
We had made our way out of Alfriston after spending a long 2-hour lunch break in the pub. Having followed the South Downs Way signs it was a pleasant walk following the river. Jason's phone was ringing, and he answered it on his watch (as he is too lazy to get his phone out!). His lovely wife and daughter had decided to surprise their dad and turn up out of the blue to join us for a little walk into Exceat. How brilliant was that? Jason had a new spring in his step. He also arranged to stay in his own bed tonight and then drive back to join us in the morning, rather than staying in the YHA (I don't blame him!). Plan number three was now being executed!
We arrived at a signpost that showed the South Downs Way pointing in two different directions. Confused, I launched Guthook to figure out the best route. Continue straight ahead towards Jevington for the alternate inland South Downs Way route (a bridleway geared towards horse-riders and cyclists), or turn right toward Exceat for the more picturesque coastal route. Avoiding cyclists was a no-brainer, as was the coastal path. We unanimously agreed that turning right was the best option.
Turning right was a walk designed for day walkers, not backpackers. Jason thought it was highly amusing when I got stuck in a double kissing gate. "It's because I have all this extra stuff on the front" I exclaimed (as I had lots of video camera gear attached to my sternum strap)! He then told me it was my own fault for being too "front-loaded", but I don't think he was talking about the video camera gear! He subsequently took a video of me in my awkward situation before eventually helping me get through the gate.
We slowly wandered through the charming downland village of Littlington, which again is lined with flint cottages. On the other side of the valley is a chalk-horse figure which is carved into the hillside. As we walk along the path, I quickly launch Google to see if there is any information about the horse on the hillside.
The hoses had initially been carved into the chalk on Hindover Hill. There were originally two white horses on the hill, the first is no more, lasting only until the 1920s. There are various myths about how the horse got there in the first place, but I personally like the tale of two youths who saw a patch of bare chalk in the turf that looked like a horse's head and they added the body. The second chalk horse, still visible today and in excellent condition was cut in 1924 by John T Ade, Mr. Bovis, and Eric Hobbis. The three men cut the horse overnight by the light of a full moon. They wanted to startle the locals with the sudden appearance of the horse in the morning and make the men famous. The National Trust acquired the carving in 1991, and it has since been scoured several times. Apparently, it was camouflaged during the war in 1930. Anyway, that is your history lesson for today. As I am reading this out loud to my walking buddies, reveling in the wonder that is Google, we make a steep descent into a dark forest.
Knowing full well that what goes down, always eventually goes up, we hit some crazy steps. They went on forever and ever, and I am sure I was moaning about them! Jason calls out "how far until Exceat Julia?", he was obviously feeling the toughness of the trail as well. Peter seemed to have boundless energy as he never moaned once! "About 1.5 miles to go," I shouted back. "I am sure you said the same half an hour ago," he questioned. I just ignored him and continued climbing the forest steps, which is difficult when you have small legs!
Eventually, we found ourselves in a wonderfully secluded hamlet of Westdean. It housed a small collection of beautiful cottages complete with its very own duck pond. We snap pictures (which is now an excuse for a break), drink some water, and head off again. We then hear a squeal of pure delight as Jason recognized a familiar face that was heading our way. His daughter Lauren was running down the steps, closely followed by his wife, Alison. With new energy in our little group, the last section flew by. As we emerged out of the forest, we were greeted by incredible views of the Cuckmere River meandering its way out to sea.
"That is the start of the seven sisters," explained Pete. "we will be walking that tomorrow." As we took our time descending into The Seven Sisters Country Park, Exceat, I was thinking about what I had achieved so far. Was tomorrow really going to be my last day… eek! My mind was racing with all the mini-adventures that I had had so far, and I felt alive. It was great walking on my own for the first five days, but life indeed became more interesting once I had started walking with others.
We found our way to the car park, and I was relieved to take off my shoes and air my feet. I enjoyed an ice-cold coke from the shop and Alison had made a fresh banana cake which was still warm. It was the best banana cake I have ever tasted.
We waved goodbye to Peter as he boarded the bus to Newhaven, and I hopped into Alison's car, Eastbourne YHA for me, please!
I have stayed at many YHA's, but the one in Eastbourne was not the best. In hindsight, I wish I had booked a Premier Inn or something similar. The hostel was out of town and had no cafe or food available. I checked in and then spent all evening in my room. I had ordered a private room, which meant that I was guaranteed a good night's sleep. I enjoyed a long hot shower then cooked myself spaghetti Bolognese on my trusty Jetboil, thankful that I kept a few Adventure meals in my pack for emergencies. I spent my evening writing, editing videos, and chatting to my hubby before eventually drifting off to sleep around 9pm.
The last day is tomorrow! Night night.