The one where I became a thru-hiker and greeted by a surprise guest!
WEATHER: Just right! The sun was shining, and a gentle breeze came off the sea, cooling each step.
DISTANCE: 10.61 miles
I woke up in the small YHA room with its green duvet cover wrapped around my body. I stretched and instantly felt for my foot to see if my blister on my heel was feeling any better. The Compeed blister plaster was working well, and I felt no pain result! Feeling well-rested, I had a few hours to kill before everyone was arriving at the hostel.
With no tent to pack away, I began my regular morning routine of getting ready for the day ahead. I wrote in my journal with my thoughts for the day, took a long hot shower, brushed my teeth, etc. By 7 am, I had dawdled enough and took my kit into the central community area. Pete & Jason were not due to arrive for another hour yet. I made myself breakfast (coffee and an instant porridge with golden syrup) and sat down with a few others to pass the time with idle chit chat. Yesterday I was very anti-social and didn't mix at all with anyone else from the hostel. I had escaped to my room for some solitude. Today, was my final day and I needed to share this with people. As I sank into the comfy chairs, I had a captive audience who were keen to listen to stories of the trail!
Two men in their late 60's perhaps early 70's were chatting away excitedly. One of them turned to me and started a conversation about the weather. Us Brits do enjoy chatting about the weather! He was also bewildered at the size of my backpack. He asked me if I was from Norway as he had spotted a Norwegian badge on Nellie, and I explained that last year I had kayaked the Norwegian Fjords, hence the patch he had noticed. His friend, who was wearing a thick black wig was full of energy as they explained to me their plans for the day. They both belonged to a bowls club, and they spend every evening in the local pub. On a whim, they decided to have a little adventure and go to Eastbourne for a few days. Wiggy was very high-spirited about his first night in a Youth Hostel and continued to tell me how wonderful an experience it had been for them. They could not believe the price or how clean it was. They reveled in the kindness of people that come to the YHA. I didn't have the heart to tell them that this was probably one of the most basic YHA's I had stayed. The more animated wiggy got, the further his wig slipped around his head which was a little bizarre.
By 7.50am, I had washed up my cup and was ready for the off. Wishing my new friends a good day, I headed out of the hostel to wait for Peter and Jason. I grabbed my sit-pad and sat on the dew ridden wooden bench outside until a small body emerged from the footpath in front of me. It was my good friend Peter! Peter had dropped his car by the cafe where the South Downs Way ends and made his way through Eastbourne to the hostel. He had already walked two miles, and the official hiking had not yet begun!
I receive a text message from Jason, "Off to Starbucks, fancy a coffee?" "Yes please," I responded, "a cappuccino would be lovely"!
Peter and I sat waiting for Jason, which felt like an eternity, but eventually, his Tesla came silently around the corner, and we were on our way. I am in awe of Jason's car, although I am not sure you can call it a car? I would describe it as a computer on wheels. It doesn't even sound like a car! I jump in the front seat excitedly and enjoy the next 15 minutes or so that it took to drive to Exceat and the Seven Sisters Country Park.
There is no need for me to carry a tent, sleeping pad, extra clothes, and food, so I empty the contents of Nellie into the boot of the Tesla. My beloved rucksack is now as light as a feather. With only 8 miles to walk, we calculate that we should be crossing the finish line by lunchtime.
I have no idea why I decided to check my emails just before we set off, but that is what I did. There was a message from Gill Hamilton Orr who had replied to the weekly Adventure Geek newsletter exclaiming that we were walking near her home and she would love to join us for part of today's walk. I messaged her back with our plans, mentioning that it would be lovely to see her.
8.30am - We are on our way!
We walk through a gate and instantly work our way uphill. We enjoy the beautiful view of the Cuckmere Haven and the estuary. I read aloud with interest that this is the only river mouth in the southeast of England that has not been spoilt by development. The country park covers an area steeped in history. Some of the fascinating stories involve the numerous shipwrecks that litter the seabed below the Seven Sisters cliffs. The most significant of these is that of the Spanish ship Nympha Americana, which, in 1747, ran aground halfway along the line of chalk cliffs, resulting in the deaths of thirty crewmen.
With this new-found knowledge, we soldier on with the estuary soon behind us. There is certainly a spring in our step today as we find ourselves being a rather creative bunch. Jason points out that a bush in front of us looks like a t-rex, and then we move onto cloud formation! It is not long before we start the climb of the first of the Seven Sisters. A big yellow warning sign with a man falling off a cliff greets us at the first kissing gate. "That's encouraging," I thought to myself!
We hadn't realized that all of the sisters have names, so we played a game where we named each peak ourselves — the first one we claimed as Sister Dolly. I think we called her after Dolly Parton! Anyway, I have since found out that the first Sister's actual name is Haven Brow with an elevation of just 117 ft. If all the sisters were this small, then it was going to be an effortless day. I spoke too soon!
Jason named sister number two as "Sister Emin." We were always stopping to take photos and videos as the views were the best of the whole trip. The Second Sister (official name as Short Brow) was 154ft. They were getting bigger and steeper!
During the first part of the walk, we had the path to ourselves and only shared it with roaming sheep. The sea is calm, and the air is salty. I feel alive with each breath, and I don't want this to end.
Sister number three was named Mary (official name is Rough Brow). I spot a sign that explains the names of the sisters, and we declare that our names are much more enjoyable. Apparently, according to Wikipedia, The 7 Sisters name is derived from seven elm trees which were planted in 1732 in a circle formation with a walnut tree in the center.
Onwards and upwards, and downwards! The trail is like walking along a halter skelter ride, and I am pleased that I have my trusty walking pole with me today. I receive a text from Gill to say that she is about 30 mins away. I text back saying that we are making our way to Burling Gap and perhaps we can meet there? She agreed, and I sent her a "Glympse" of where we were. (That is a great little app!).
We named Sister number four after Pete's mum, Gwen, however, the official name is Brass Point. The little plaque told us that we were now entering the Crowlink National Trust property.
There is not much talking going on today, and all of us were comfortable in our thoughts and taking in the views. As often happens on a long-distance walk, my mind raced with business ideas and new avenues of business that I could implement upon my return. I was keen to capture the plans before they vanished but convinced myself that if they were worthy ideas, then I would remember them!
By 10 am we had reached sister number five, called Mavis (official name is Flagstaff Point). We spot a warden stone which was erected in appreciation of William Charles Campbell for his donation to the Seven Sisters Preservation fund. The monument looks like it has been relocated a few times as the damage on the ground showed that it was probably a bit nearer the cliff edge a few years ago! We are losing 22-30 cm a year on this particular part of the south coast, and it is quite unnerving when you stand by the edge. I grab my Osmo Pocket and take some video footage by the side of the cliff, which makes Jason a little nervous.
The next Sister was quite a small one, so I named it after my late grandmother, who was dinky. Sister Gladys. I am sure that she was with me on this journey, so we had a bit of a chat as I looked back to see how far we had come. Wow, these views were terrific.
The sisters got bigger and bigger, and we soon forgot about naming them. The uphill and downhill was relentless, but with each peak, the reward was breathtaking scenery. Eventually, we could see the cafe in the distance, and I grabbed my phone to send a text to Gill to explain that we would be at Burning Gap Cafe within ten minutes or so.
11.30am - Cafe time!
We made our way down the steep hill into Burling Gap, and I was looking forward to a coffee and something to eat. Blimey, look at all these people! There were kids laden with heavy backpacks (I assumed Duke of Edinburgh), coach loads of pensioners and Asian tourists. I went to the ladies' loo and then met up with Jason and Peter in the cafe. The place is packed, and it was all a bit too much after the quietness of the hills. We found a quiet corner and then joined the long queue to grab a sausage bap and a coffee. While in the line I sent Gill another text saying "we are in the cafe." I had not had a reply since my last message, so I assumed that she might have changed her mind and was no longer going to walk with us.
As I made my way back to the table, I witnessed Jason doing some dancing. I wondered what on earth he was doing until I glanced at his feet and realized that he was mopping the floor with blue paper towels. His hydration pack had leaked all over the floor and made quite a mess.
12.00pm - With full bellies and coffee induced veins, we head back out into the midday sun as we set off for the final stretch. I send another quick text to Gill to let her know that we have now left the cafe and are starting our last leg of the South Downs Way. "Ping," a text arrived from Gill. "Oh no… your app was showing me that you were west of Burling Gap. I am heading in the opposite direction. Will turn around and try and drive to Eastbourne and walk from the end. Damn. Lack of phone signal does not help" Then two minutes later another text came in "Take 2 …. walking from Beachy Head Centre - fingers crossed".
I was trying to figure out the last time that I had seen Gill and arrived at the conclusion that it was about four years ago. I had met her briefly while on a work event in Edinburgh. We spent all day together, geocaching around the city and became good friends. Since then, we have only had an email and online relationship, so I was a little concerned that I may not recognize her! Gill is not one for technology, and therefore, she is not on Facebook or other social networks. I was not able to quickly look her up to see what her appearance was like four years on, so each person that was heading towards us was a potential candidate for our latest walking companion.
We passed a group of excited Japanese tourists who were setting up for lunch on the cliff edge. They looked super organized, and the place is buzzing with kids rolling down the hills and dogs enjoying a stroll with their owners. A few backpackers were heading in the opposite direction, but none of them stopped to chat.
As we passed the boundary for an ancient fort, Jason pointed out Beachy Head Lighthouse in the distance. "We are nearly there!" I shouted! As we were approaching Beachy Head, I see a tall lady with long hair approaching me. "Is that Gill?". She was undoubtedly heading towards us! As she got closer, I instantly recognized her, and I gave her a big sweaty hug. We had loads to catch up on, needless to say, the last two miles went by in a flash.
The path meanders down towards Eastbourne and Gill fills us in with the history of the area. She went to school here, so we were also told tales of her teenage years, which are not really for public consumption!
Just before you take the final hill down to the famous cafe which marks the end of the South Downs Way the views over Eastbourne were spectacular. We kept stopping to take photos and tried to figure out the landmarks in the distance. Half of me didn't want this to end, but the other half of me was craving my bed and the warm arms of my husband and daughter who I will see later today.
When we eventually reached the signpost at the bottom of the hill, just short of the cafe, I felt rather emotional. Winchester 100 miles! I had walked over 100 miles! Fifty of those I did entirely on my own. I have had a fantastic adventure and seen some of the best scenery in the UK. I patted the post, gave Jason, Peter, and Gill a big hug then headed for the pub. This achievement deserved a big glass of wine!
Walking the South Downs Way is a tough trail. Not only because of the hills, but the chalky terrain is tough underfoot. I was determined to complete this challenge, at the detriment to my painful ankle, sunburn, and blisters, but I am so glad I persevered.
When I am walking, I feel happy, content, and nothing else matters in the world. I can often walk for miles without a single thought entering my mind, or I can walk for 1 mile and become riddled with new and exciting ideas. Walking the South Downs Way, is rewarding in many ways. Not only is the distance a personal accomplishment, but I also experienced wild camping and carried a full backpack 100 miles! Yep, 100 miles!
Until the next time! Chow