England can feel claustrophobic: it’s dense, laced with gray highways and aging malls and hulking supermarkets, and too often straddled by gray skies. The air, even in the suburbs, can be acrid.
One of my favorite escapes is just a day trip away from London: the Seven Sisters coastal hike. The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs abutted by farmland: in one direction, water, and in the other, grazing sheep. A quick (by American standards) train ride from central London, the park’s got fresh air, impressive cliffside views of the English Channel, and inclines to get your blood pumping and quads and glutes burning.
There’s really no way to get lost– from the train station in Seaford or Eastbourne, make for the coast and walk along the cliffs to the east or west, respectively. Both towns are good places to pick up some supplies, but there are at least two spots along the trail serving food/drink. Here are a few other things to look out for:
-Near Seaford, you’ve got to cross the Cuckmere River, which at high tide if you’re not prepared to swim you must follow inland to the road and then cross via a small overpass. Coming at the start or end of the hike, this feels a bit like a detour, but a look around shows it to be more of a beautiful bonus: long blowing grass, flowers, clear rushing water, birds…
-At Birling Gap, an opportunity to take the stairs down to the pebbly beach, look up at the cliffs, and listen to the crashing waves. Also: restrooms and refreshments here.
-Just next to the cliffs, the quaint red and white Beachy Head Lighthouse sitting in the frothing surf like a barber’s pole for merfolk.
-The Belle Tout Lighthouse, also at Beachy Head but atop the cliffs, doubling as a B&B and snack bar.
-The decidedly cinematic piers and groynes of Eastbourne.
And throughout, plenty of opportunities to flirt with disaster at the edge of the brilliant white cliffs. Plus, a fantastic workout: you will most certainly merit a burger or something equally tasty at the end of this undulating stretch of land. Walking up and down each steep “sister” may tax the knees and lungs, but the views atop each mini summit are worth it.
Travel time and cost: Regular trains from London running to Seaford (for west-east direction) and Eastbourne (for east-west direction), in the neighborhood of about 40 quid total, 1-2 hours
Walking time: Really depends on what kind of shape you’re in and how often/for how long you stop, but budget 5-7 hours: Seaford is about 13 miles from Eastbourne via the cliffside path.
Difficulty: Steep but relatively short up-and-downs the whole way. If you’re out of shape, you’ll definitely huff and puff. The ground itself is pretty even, so if you take it slow, you’ll survive. Note that, although you can see it coming, weather blows in off the sea in the blink of an eye: bring rainwear.
Note: The best view of the whole series of cliffs is from Seaford and nearby Cuckmere Haven.