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Before anyone gets carried away with gratuitous salacity, the Seven Sisters are chalk cliffs on the south east coast of England. Do not confuse them with another Seven Sisters, an area of London in N15, near Tottenham. Exciting and attractive though the latter undoubtedly is, today – today we’re striding out across the cliffs, perforce taking in great gulps of sea air and looking across the English Channel to France a mere 60 or 70 miles away. Wonderful!
The hills that make up the Seven Sisters, each with its own name, sit between the towns of Eastbourne and Seaford or, more specifically, between the River Cuckmere and the Birling Gap. They are within the South Downs National Park, the South Downs being a range of rolling hills formed at around the same time as the Alps, which stretch across Hampshire and Sussex. The huge chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters are one of the iconic images of England and, because they are whiter than the White Cliffs of Dover, are often confused with them by people who don’t know, or used as substitutes by people who do. Alas, there are no bluebirds and, even more alas; they are eroding relatively quickly – thus doubtless contributing in their own special way to the overcrowding on this small island of ours. Chalk is a comparatively pure, and therefore soft, type of limestone. It was formed from the mud made of microscopic skeletons of marine organisms called coccolithophores 60-100 million years ago, a fact that I have always found to be mind-boggling; but thank heaven for spell check, eh?
If you get up close and personal with the cliffs, you’ll see that, like most things, they are not as pure as they look and are run through with flint – traditionally used to face buildings in the vicinity and, of course, as tools by some of our older relatives a few years back.
There are numerous public footpaths in the area and you can approach the Sisters from either direction, though I have always tended to approach from the east, starting at the Seven Sisters Country Park on the A259 where there are toilets and reasonably good parking. From there, head south along an easy, wide, path following the gentle flowing Cuckmere down to the sea. After wet weather, the path can be pretty muddy. You’ll be faced with a choice of heading down to the beach or up on the cliffs, but find time to do both. Just behind the shingle beach is a salt water lagoon, used by waders and various other wildfowl. The beach is most dramatic on a wild winter’s day, when the waves crash onto the shore, sucking the stones out to sea with a rushing and crunching sound. Unfortunately, it can also be a dirty beach, scattered with debris deposited far out to sea and washed up on this part of the coast. But it’s still worth a visit and gazing up at those towering cliffs.
The path up onto the Sisters makes most people breathe more heavily. En route, you’ll pass various World War 2 pillboxes, remnants of Britain’s formidable defences in more troubled times (in 1940, it was thought that Hitler’s armies would invade near here). And don’t start counting the rabbits – you don’t have enough fingers. The problem with this type of walking, of course, is its similarity to a rollercoaster; you drag yourself up one incline, are lulled into normal lung behaviour on the way down the other side, and are then faced with a series of chest heaving repeats. But think of all the good it’s doing you; and the views are very pleasant.
The area is a popular place – used by serious walkers (the South Downs Way goes through here to Beachy Head), birdwatchers (forlornly looking for bluebirds?), canoeists, cyclists (why would do you that?!) and families just out for a stroll and a picnic. You do need to be careful though. I’m not one of those who insists on wearing PPE (hi-vis vests etc) when going shopping or watching TV (unless children are present), but the last time we went to Seven Sisters I was appalled at how casually many people regard basic safety, going perilously close to the edge. Perhaps they’re not very bright. One couple was even sitting dangling their legs over. You can also see how unstable some of the chalk is from one of the photographs. So, be sensible and if you have a dog, be careful where you throw the stick…
If you want the classic view of Seven Sisters with the coastguards’ cottages in the foreground (the view at the start of this article, which you may also have seen as a wallpaper or background on some Windows software), you’ll need to go to the western side of the River Cuckmere and take the shot from near the cottages on Seaford Head. This either involves a separate walk from the Country Park car park on the west side of the Cuckmere, or a drive through downtown Seaford and a shorter walk – instructions and more information can be found on the Seven Sisters Country Park website.