Ellie & I have been doing walks with Gary Bebb’s fabulous ‘Go London’ (usually spelled GO London) hiking group for more than two years now. Soon after the last lockdown ended we booked ourselves on another walk with them. However, when we checked the weather forecast the night before the walk, we froze: temperatures around 3C / 37F and constant rain all day. I’ll be frank, I thought about bailing out, and Ms B made up her mind quickly: this was not for her. In the end I went on my own.
15 hikers bailed out from the ‘Sunny Walk’
When I arrived in Glynde after about an hour on the train just before the agreed time of 10:30am, only 10 of the 25 persons who had booked had actually shown up. Neil (Neil Froggitt), with whom Ellie & I had done another walk before, was our guide for the day and made everyone feel welcome.
After a bit of Covid- and general safety briefing and a quick overview of the day ahead, we zipped up our ponchos and started the walk which Go London had ironically labelled ‘The sunny South Downs and seaside walk.’ Sunny my ass.
No maps, no instructions or directions
This blog post does not include any maps or specific instructions or directions. It is not aimed at enabling you to do the walk on your own. It is instead intended to give you another idea for what to do on London weekends, if you’re bored, or – even if you don’t live nearby – show you some of the beauty that one can find near The Big Smoke. Even if you’re an experienced navigation expert we’d still highly recommend the tours offered by GO London, as they are a great way to meet new people. We like the fact that we do not have to stress about finding the path, reading the map, looking for road signs and markers.
Wind, rain and trail runners
The walk starts with a lengthy ascent. We were facing pretty strong winds too. So we were getting a good workout for our money (£10 per person, not including train tickets) right away. As had happened on some other walks before, we were overtaken by trail runners, in this case a group of 50- to 65-year olds. Some people really keep incredibly fit with complete disregard to age. Running is so much harder than walking, especially uphill.
Partially thanks to the weather conditions the first few kilometres offered only relatively bland views, despite the elevation on top of the South Downs. There is not much vegetation. Sometimes you’d just see grass and grey sky ahead.
Kitesurfing, Kapoor, and Kids
None of these walks are just for the exercise or the views. Anyone who likes is encouraged to engage in conversation with their fellow hikers. Ellie & I are regularly surprised what a fascinating mix of people we encounter on those hikes.
My first longer conversation was with someone who had just started his own construction business half a year before Covid struck. The business was still small but doing well. His only regret was not having much time to kitesurf. Of course I couldn’t hold back mentioning my recent two-hour 1-2-1 course in kitesurfing. The conversation circled in on this topic. I learned a lot about technique, risks, and equipment.
My next conversation was with an art teacher. We had visited several of the same exhibitions and discussed what we liked and disliked about them. Turned out we both admired Ai Wei-Wei, Anish Kapoor, and David Hockney. And we both had already bought our tickets for the Royal Academy Summer Exhibition later this year.
The time seemed to fly by. I also had a long and passionate chat with one of my fellow hikers about youth violence. This topic is extremely close to my heart. Until recently and in my spare time, I was heavily involved in a charity that provides free fitness sessions to kids affected by gang culture.
For lunch we stopped at the pretty little village of Alfriston. I had been running late in the morning and not brought much of a lunch package, just beef jerk and chocolate.
I was pleased to find a small parish tea room, where a lovely local lady of Indian descent sold lamb samosas in bags of five and sausage rolls. The samosas were very spicey and you could tell that the sausage rolls contained actual meat, too, which was great. We gathered under the leaves of a large tree in the yard and admired the church.
Cathedral of the South Downs
St Andrew’s has Saxon origins. Most of what’s left today dates from the 14th century. Due to its size and grandeur it is often referred to as the Cathedral of the South Downs.
Less than a thousand souls live in Alfriston, but it boasts more history than many big cities. And not just history. Several Neolithic long barrows have been discovered on the surrounding hills. The name ‘Alfriston’ is first mentioned in the Domesday Book of 1086. The name means ‘Alfric’s town.’
Crossing the Cuckmere
As it was very cold and wet, we gobbled down our food in under twenty minutes and were back on our merry way within half an hour.
After a few miles we stopped at a medieval farm house cum café and purchased some hot tea and coffee. The owner greeted us friendly and in no time we were involved in a long but interesting conversation with her about her neighbour.
Despite the fact that the farm house owner’s lease guaranteed her that no one will be given permission to open another café within a three-mile radius, that cheeky bugger had done just that. With two of our group being fully qualified lawyers, different avenues of legal action were explored in quite some detail while we were sipping our hot drinks.
A short walk from the farmhouse, and after another ten-minute break to catch breath from a steep ascent, we walked downhill towards the coast and crossed the River Cuckmere. From that point onwards we were able to enjoy the cliffs both on our side all the way towards Seaford, and, when looking backwards, towards the much higher cliffs of the Seven Sisters towards Beachy Head.
I don’t know anyone who doesn’t love cliffs and the rugged coastline that comes with them. Those cliffs we had in our view are among the best England has to offer. Admittedly, mainly when looking back.
Atlantic and Himalayan Crossings
My last full-blown conversation of the day was with someone who turned out to have crossed the Atlantic in a 70-foot yacht seven years ago. Together with a team of 15 other sportsmen and -women.
He had taken part in several legs of an Around-the-World Race called “Clipper.” Six weeks of super-tough training near Portsmouth apparently got him from complete newbie to qualified junior team member level.
What followed were many more weeks on sea for each leg of the race. Competing boats lost two people during the race he had joined. One was swept overboard and died of hypothermia during the 25 minutes it took to pull her out of the water. The other one had his skull crushed by that horizontal beam that goes off the mast and that is ironically called ‘boom.’
My fellow hiker told me that the hardest thing was the sleep deprivation. Each shift is two hours. Two hours on board, then two hours in the cabin, and so on. As you have to get rid of your jacket, gloves, gear, etc., get some food and drink inside of you, and as it takes a little while to doze off, you never get more than 90 minutes’ sleep in a row.
I also made sure I got as much information as possible out of this adventurous fellow hiker as I could about the Everest Base Camp Trek. He had done the Trek three years ago, Ellie & I plan to do it in September this year.
Seaford and back to London
The town of Seaford turned out to be bigger than expected. We walked along the pebble beach for nearly three kilometres and then another distance inland towards the station. We could all feel the 23km (14.5mi) of the hike in our bones. The walk is classified as intermediate to hard. Intermediate is definitely justified in my view. Compared with hikes in proper mountainous terrain I personally wouldn’t call it hard.
Obviously Go London are not to blame for this, but on the way back we were very unlucky with signal failures and delayed and cancelled trains. Even though we hopped on a train as early as 5pm, it was nearly 7:45pm when I was back at home. A very long but very fun day. 5 out of 5 in my book.
Looking for more adventure? Feel welcome to check out our posts about our camel ride and desert camp in the Sahara, our tour along the River Douro near Porto, that time we did some fine dining near the North Pole (Spitsbergen), or our trip to the Jurassic Coast.