It was a perfect summer's morning. Above the valley the cloudless sky was stained with the bright radiance of the sea. The sun rising over the shoulder of the hill slanted down, warming the still air. Already the grass was dry underfoot.
I was up early and packed, as I wanted to reach Eastbourne by lunchtime. While waiting for the warden I had a look inside the camping barn. I had never stayed in one, and it seemed a bit spartan. There was nothing except a long wooden dais which I supposed acted as a sort of communal bed. Camping mats definitely required there!
By half past eight nobody had come and I had to leave. I followed the valley back to the river, then took the footpath which climbs up to Cliff End. From this point you really can't get lost. Follow the edge of the cliff until you reach Eastbourne.
To my right, on the far side of the estuary, I could see the cottages of Cuckmere Haven. Those familiar with the Sherlock Holmes stories will recall that the great detective, after a career foiling the dastardly plots of Professor Moriarty, left the dripping fogs of London for a small farm on the South Downs and the study of bees. And W.S. Baring-Gould, in an entertaining if slightly fanciful biography of Holmes, suggests that the place of his retirement was just here. So now you know!
Be that as it may. From Cliff End to Eastbourne is a switchback, probably the toughest seven miles of the South Downs Way. You go up. Then you go down. Then you do it all over again. In the pub the previous evening I had met some cyclists travelling west to Winchester. They were slightly shocked by the Seven Sisters: I think they had visions of another ninety-three miles of the same sort of thing. I was happy to assure them (and indeed any other cyclists reading this) that most of the Way is nowhere near as bad. There are climbs and descents, but there are also miles of level going.
Half way between Cuckmere and Eastbourne is Birling Gap, where there's a hotel and access to the beach. Approaching the Gap I tried to pass through a kissing gate and got jammed in it. After a short struggle I managed to break free. I climbed the fence and plodded on to the hotel, cursing gates on national trails which couldn't be negotiated with a rucksack. An unreasonable moment of petulance: I may have been more tired than I realized. Or hungry.
The hotel café was open when I arrived. There was a limited choice, the bacon roll of my dreams seemingly off the menu, but coffee and toast made me feel a whole lot better. Primed with caffeine I began the long slog to Belle Tout.
From the old lighthouse, now a private dwelling, I looked east across a dip to the great bulk of Beachey Head - the last obstacle on the South Downs Way. It's a four-hundred foot climb to the summit, but I got there eventually. There was one last mile, then suddenly the ground plunged and Eastbourne lay before me.
The chalk ends at Eastbourne. From the last slope I looked out over the town, out to the flat coastal plain sweeping round to Dungeness. Beyond it, somewhere in the haze, lay the North Downs and Dover where the next stage of the journey would begin.
Eastbourne on a fine morning is no bad place to finish a walk. I like journeys to have an end; and though Winchester with its cathedral and history gives perhaps more of a sense of completion, light and colour and sea breezes and the sun sparkling on the water make for an attractive conclusion too. It was a fitting termination to my second journey along the South Downs Way.