Walking in the South Downs National Park
Here is an article I wrote last summer about a local walk.
It is June and I am sitting at the top of Seaford Head
I am perched above the 100ft white cliffs, about 15ft from the edge. I am not sitting on a bench, but straight on the grass. I wiggle my fingers amongst the thatch – there are tiny wild thymes woven in amongst the grasses, flourishing in the thin chalky soil. Away from the trodden path, tufts of thrift attract the eye with their green cushions of foliage and bobbing pink deely bopper flower heads.
Rabbits have clearly been active around here. There are scores of shallow scrapes and hummocks of droppings, but very few deep holes. Further back from the edge, I can see that they have been burrowing under the clumps of vanilla fragranced yellow gorse, which are interwoven with vicious blackthorn and brambles. Later in the summer the blackberriers will be out in force to strip these bare, and later still, foragers for sloes. Folklore tells us to wait until after the first frost to pick them, but we locals know that they won’t be there that long. Better to pick them early before someone else does (or the birds eat them), and subject them to an artificial winter in the freezer to sweeten them up.
As I sit here, a seagull hovers up from beneath the cliff, then down out of sight again. They are carried on the updraft created when the sea wind hits the vertical cliff face. Nearby, a colony of kittiwakes nests out of sight in the cliff. These rare birds are easy to spot from the promenade below, looking much like all the regular seagulls around them – only distinguished by their black legs and wing tips.
Out to sea, the orange Newhaven lifeboat glides past on the calm waters, slightly hazy in the distance, looking much smaller than I would have expected from up here. It can often be seen close to the beach in Seaford Bay, and is a comforting sight.
I stand up and turn away from the view of the bay with its pebble beach and Martello Tower. I walk towards the white Seven Sisters cliffs, with Belle Toute lighthouse far ahead, remembering its dramatic rescue from the eroding cliff edge a few years before. But that’s a long hike away and I’m not going that far today. I am soon skirting some cow fields and dropping down again into a gap between two cliffs – locally known as Hope Gap. The grass path, which takes me to the concrete steps down to the beach, is flanked with purple vipers bugloss which resemble lavender flowers from a distance. I make a mental note to picnic here sometime soon.
It is low tide and the steps take me down to an array of rock pools I used to visit with the kids. It is just around the corner from the exposed coastguard cottages which guard the entrance to Cuckmere Haven. The green and purple seaweeds, chartreuse lichens, grey pebbles, and the reflections of the sky in the sea create a visual kaleidoscope.
I look across the water and see three canoers in the sea at Cuckmere Haven. I expect they started their journey upriver, choosing the man-made canal to travel along, rather than the famous winding meanders. I wonder if they have an opinion on the controversial new management plan for the estuary – which may result in the natural flooding of the area and big changes to this renowned beauty spot?