A bit of a last minute ride on an unexpected free day with good weather. I decided it had been quite some time since I last went Beachy Head way (a good 10+ years!), a route that we used to take quite often (by car) in a previous life. A quick look on the map and it seemed a ride along the coast out, “round the Beachy Head block” and then back along the coast to home. Without going too bonkers out of my way there was no other way to do it unless I came back via Lewes and the other side of the Downs, to come back home via Bramber. I decided the “same way back” idea, although it would be something I would question later on. No need to put the route onto the GPS, we all know how to get to Beachy Head, so preparation was quite simple. I packed my bag full of hot cross buns (it was Easter Monday after all) and set my alarm for “early in the morning”.
It was dark when I woke up, after a breakfast of apple, raisins and crunchy oats, the sun was still coming up when I left. The weather was suggested to be calm and warm so I had decided against bringing a jacket, but I soon popped back in to grab my gloves when I noticed ice on the cars. The ride through deserted Lancing and Shoreham was quiet and nice for once biking into the sun rise. The sun was coming up red, a oman of “red sky in the morning, naff weather…” as the old saying goes. That seemed to be a bit different to what the weather forecast had suggested. One thing was for sure, it was pretty cold, ice on the parked cars and the beach huts, by the time I got to the bridge at Shoreham the feeling in my fingers were a distant memory. I stopped to put on my gloves, thinking that given time the sun that was rising slowly would soon warm us all up. An unexpected frost all the same.
Stopping in Brighton for the “West Pier” photo, along the recently opened cycle path that has been closed on the seafront for ages while building work has been taking place. No longer do people need to write into the local paper complaining of either “cyclists using the pavement while the cycle path is closed” or “cyclists using the road while the cycle path is closed”. Now it is all letters about brand new cycle path and cyclists don’t pay tax (which is annoying as I seem to pay a load of tax and I still can’t work out how only the cyclists featured in the letters page manage to not pay any….). However, early in the morning there were few people around, those that had ventured out so early were people on bikes, using the new cycle path.
A quiet sunny seafront in Brighton is a rare treat, it was nice cycling along past those preparing for the day, the various street cleaners and those making their way to work along the front, camper vans, lorries and coaches parked up with curtains still drawn. Soon I could see the marina in the distance and the shape of cranes and new buildings. I had seen for many years in the paper reports of planning for a couple of tower blocks to be build at the marina and the various objections. I am thinking the plans now say they must not go above the cliff top from sea level and so no disturb anyones views from the houses above. In the “old” days, I remember coming to the marina and on an Easter Monday the whole place would be full of families sitting on the grass eating picnics and enjoying a day off work. Now… there is no grass in sight at all, it can be quite hard to find a view with a boat in it with all the new development turning it into quite a busy “town”. Still, as I rode past the petrol station I noticed it was 2p cheaper here than in Shoreham…. not all is bad it seems.
Undercliff walk took me from the marina to Saldean and away from the cliff top ups and downs and main road. A shared cycle path, although constant signs telling cyclists will be shot if they even think about doing anything at all, shows that it has maybe not been a popular idea. Even so, it was still early, the only people using the path was myself and the odd dog walker, plenty of room for everyone. It was in the 1930s that the path was created, really a sea defence with a walk on the top in order to stop the corrosion of the cliffs and the main road that sits quite close at the top of it. It was always designed to be a bit of a tourist feature, taking you from popular Black Rock to Rottingdean and Saldean further on. While parts of it have been closed some winters and the whole path in general not advised in bad weather, it has done well and is still popular, even with the demise of Black Rock to be replaced with the marina.
Previous times I had ridden along here the spray and at times the waves from the storm sea were splashing over as I quickly made my way along (ever so mindful of salt water….), today the tide was right out. This permitted me to not only see the (black?) rocks but also for the first time the foundations and route of the track for the infamous “Daddy Longlegs” railway built by Magnus Volks. So much has been written about this that it is no mystery, it is instead an idea by Magnus Volks in the late 1800s to have a rail track on the sea bed with a car like a pier on long legs to allow it to move along in low tide and also look like a spooky boat (maybe) in high tide. It was called Pioneer, but everyone called it the Daddy Longlegs for obvious reasons. Not too much of a surprise, while popular, it did not work well and soon closed when sea defences cut through the route and plans to go round them were never drawn up. His more successful land based electric railway lasted better, being the first electric railway in the country to still running today.
After the flatness so far, it was time to venture up onto the cliffs and the route to Newhaven. The road down into Newhaven has for many years been a wide road with the edge coned off, probably a measure to stop cars trying to overtake on the downwards bends that was never revoked and just stayed. There are two ways into the town from this direction for a bike, either along this road with the rest of the traffic (normally going the same speed as you due to the downhill) or follow Cycle Route 2 which hugs the coast a bit more until dropping suddenly into town, but not before it has climbed suddenly upwards along an unpaved road. It’s not good. Nice to see then that they have started to turn the coned off side of the road into a cycle path which in time will allow you safe passage along the side of the road, maybe keeping speed down seeing as it will be a (wide) shared path.
Once into Newhaven you tend to keep going. It’s mostly a large roundabout with some closed down shops in the middle and factories around the outside. There is a ferry too, probably the only saving feature for a town that is neither “new” or a “haven”. It is listed in the book “Crap Towns” and it didn’t get there by chance. You know it is port town as signs in French direct you to the town centre, but you probably wished it had not.
It is not all bad though, I have fond memories of picnics in the back of the car on damp days watching the large ferries come and go. It starts as nothing, you sit eating your corned beef sandwich in the back of a 1980s car just staring at the horizon while others in the car pour hot tea from a Thermas into china cups and saucers perched up on the dashboard. You slowly see something appear on the horizon and great excited envelopes, although thinking it will be forever for the ferry to get any neither. But, within a surprisingly short period of time, the ferry appears larger and larger until you can make out the shapes better, before you know it there is a sodding great big ferry moving past you just meters away with their passengers waving (they look happy, they have not come to Newhaven before….). It is quite an experience. It was made even more so years back when they had super fast catamarans which halved the time it took to go between Newhaven and French. They were like space aged super boats which would, once again, appear as little specs on the horizon but in a matter of minutes be towering boats from the future making loud un-earth like noises as they skimmed past almost flying. They don’t run anymore, a pity.
Let me not also forget the Fort that stands to stop enemy ships at the entrance to the town, quite a structure. It was never used, no-one wanted to invade Newhaven.
Onwards to my first break stop and a moment to eat hot cross buns, into Seaford along cyclepath and beach front. It was still very early in the day, everywhere was quiet. I stopped by the martello tower to watch the ferry appear on the horizon – I didn’t wait but instead continued on.
Next landmark would be Seven Sisters and a bit of a challenge as while the ride down into the valley would be fun, the ride up the other side and the start of the white cliffs would maybe be not so. Since last time I came this way an alternative off road section of Cycle Route 2 had been opened. Instead of rejoining the busy A259 down the valley you have the option to go cross country instead. I opted for that and while initially quite a bumpy track it soon took you through a series of fields all populated by lambs and sheep, making a bit of difference to cars. Most sheep took their young and hurried away as they saw me coming, some were caught by surprise and quickly scampered away at the last moment. Some brave lambs ran alongside and stopped with me when I did, only to get a disapproving look from their mother who, in silent sheep language, called them back and to stop talking to strangers. It turned out to be a good route, hills were not steep and I was soon at the bottom of the valley facing the large climb up the other side.
If you are not in a hurry (and on ride why should you be?) then hills become a lot friendlier. If you are in a rush or part of a groups, hills are set to kill you. The plan of action, find a good pace, find a good gear, peddle. Nothing too complex or taxing. I got to the top and it was not a problem at all, I didn’t get to the top in super fast speed, but it didn’t take me for ever either, plus was not out of breath. This was a good job as basically it was an upwards trend all the way until I got to the Beachy Head/Eastbourne turn off.
I could had continued on down the steep switch back into Eastbourne or turn towards Beachy Head and the start of making my way back home. Eastbourne would be for another day.
Beachy Head is a bit like Lands End, it is a feature in the landscape but once you are there it does not present much to look at. The top of a cliff is like any top of a cliff. Unless you are one of the many who go there to end it all and jump off the edge, you are not going to get too much out of your visit. There are walks that take you to the good spot to be able to see the light house at the bottom, it all seems a bit close to the edge for me to venture that way. I sat for a rest, eat a hot cross bun, and continued on my way. I noted now I was having to battle against the wind quite a bit, I thought due to the height but I found out the wind would be against me for the rest of the way.
The Beachy Head road is a good road and a good place to ride/drive and visit. If being on the top of a cliff is not your thing then the Belletout light house is interesting just for its story. Beachy Head is a “head”, ie it is jutting out a bit and no doubt there are various rocks under water you cannot see which a boat would soon find as they made huge holes in the bottom of it. The Belletout lighthouse was build at the top of the cliff so ships 20 miles away could see it, and if you could not see it then you had got too close to the cliff! This worked well, apart from the times there was fog and mist at the bottom of the cliff meaning you could not see the light. But an even bigger problem was the fact that erosion round this way is quite big, the lighthouse was getting a bit close to the edge. The now famous red and white striped lighthouse at the bottom of the cliff was built to replace this one.
This should had been the end of the lighthouse as it changed hands, fell into disrepair and finally got used for target practice during WW2. The council took it on, understanding its historical significance, it was repaired and put back into use…. by the BBC for film of “Life and Loves of a She-Devil”. The end really did look coming when it had become so close to the edge that it was no longer safe. Like a cat with 9 lives it escaped once again by the whole building being put on rollers and moved to the other side of the road! Now it is a bed and breakfast, you can spend the night there to wake up with quite a unique sight in the mornings.
Erosion doesn’t stop there, further on down the road I got to a favorite stopping place, Birling Gap. It is a gap in the cliffs, and it must be near a place called Birling I would think. Apart from stories of smuggling and invasion threat, there is nothing too amazing until you look at old photos. There sits just a small terrace of old coast guard cottages, still being lived in by the looks of it. Look at photos 10, 20, 50, 100 years back and each time you are shown a completely different view. The terrace of cottages were build, sensibly, a way off the edge, you could had got quite a number of more houses there before you got to the edge. Due to the nature of the chalk and the formation of the coastline, it all contributes to massive erosion. This means the terrace of cottages are now just few in number, with the last one looking a bit unloved and not lived in, and only meters away from the edge. Maybe some might had thought the cliff edge would get near, but I wonder if they saw that given quite a short amount of time they would one-by-one start falling off the edge. Indeed, in another 20/50/100 years, not only will the coast guard cottages be gone, the hotel and cafe and accompanying car park will be no more, they will probably be trying to protect what would by then be the cliff top coast road. At the moment, there are no plans to save the houses, nature is just too powerful to stop it seems.
The wind was certainly now against me now, I put my head down and started my journey back home along the way I came. A quick stop off at Friston church for a hot cross bun. A small but pretty stopping point on the side of the road that if you didn’t know was there you would go straight past it in a car. I have visited and had picnics here before, I had always known there was something special about the church gate and indeed it did look a bit unusual pivoting off a centre post. I had to wait until I got home to find out more and indeed it is not only a special gate but it is just one of six in the country and they are all around Lewes (maybe I need to plan a route to visit them all?).
The idea behind these gates was to make it easy to open from either side with little effort and yet span quite wide openings. For those carrying coffins it made it much easier. For large animals (not welcome in a grave yard) it was too narrow due to the centre pin for them to get through. Copies have been made, but in theory you will not see a true Tapsel gate outside of Sussex and indeed far away from Lewes.
Turning around and looking in the other direction you are drawn towards a pretty village pond, making this site ideal for a picnic without venturing off the main road. A lot of work has been done on the pond recently I found out by reading the information board next to it. It turns out it was of great importance during the war as a source of drinking water in an emergency, and so guarded by soldiers. Probably then it was good it was never needed as it was said that the soldiers would drive their vehicles into it in order to give them a wash!
As with all trips, the rest of the journey went by on the quest to get home. The undercliff walk was now busy with walkers and cyclist, at points making it so busy that there would be people queuing to get through the thinner sections. This was replicated once into Brighton with the seafront path being a sea of people, again slow progress through was made.
I got home, in time for lunch.
Number of miles: 63
Number of sheep and lambs: many
Number of long hills: lots
Number of lighthouses on rollers: 1
Number of doomed coast guard houses: 1 terrace (or infact now half a terrace)
Number of Tapsel gates: 1
Number of tourist feeling pleased in Newhaven: 0