Route for a Sussex walk along the River Cuckmere

The meanders date back to before a historic cut in the river's course (Photo by Deirdre Huston)

The meanders date back to before a historic cut in the river's course (Photo by Deirdre Huston) - Credit: Archant

Join the South Downs Way to ramble through forest, downland and along the River Cuckmere with Deirdre Huston

From downland to river

This short walk enables you to experience three different landscapes: forest, downland and flood-plain valley. The first climb offers views over the magnificent Cuckmere Estuary. Rivers are rarely straight and these magnificent meanders date back to the old course of the river before the straight cut was added in 1847. As you wander through Westdean, look out for the gabled spire and square tower of 12th-century All Saints Church. Take time to explore, noticing the ruins of an Elizabethan manor house inside the walled enclosure at the heart of the village which could have been the site of Alfred The Great's royal residence. An informative leaflet entitled A History of West Dean Church and Parish is for sale in the church.

The White Horse of Litlington can be glimpsed from afar as we climb away from the forest. This striking white horse was first cut into the chalk on High and Over Hill (Hindover Hill) in the 19th century. It was camouflaged during World War II and, over time, has seen slight alterations but its impact remains striking, thanks to the care of the National Trust. Does this chalk figure guard the valley? Or, like so many of the visitors, is it simply passing through? Or grazing contentedly, at one with this ever-changing landscape?

As you descend to Litlington, look out for a distant flint building to your right, Clapham House. This was once the love-nest of Mrs Elizabeth Fitzherbert who secretly married the Prince Regent, later George IV, in 1746. Our footpath runs back to Exceat along a raised bank, handy because the fields beside the river are prone to flooding. The valley was a salt marsh until 500 years ago and this wetland habitat attracts a variety of bird life: Canada geese feed on the water meadows, sparrows dart about the scrub and gulls flock to the riverside. Listen out for their calls and see how many different species you can spot.

Where to refuel

- The 17th-century real ale pub The Plough and Harrow at Litlington has a pleasing garden. Booking advised for weekends. Dog-friendly.

- Litlington Tea Gardens is a quirky seasonal place and full of charm (The Street, Litlington, Polegate, BN26 5RB, 01323 870222).

- The 16th-century Saltmarsh Farmhouse is at the heart of Seven Sisters Country Park. Dogs are allowed in the outside courtyard.

- The Cuckmere Inn serves food all day. Dog-friendly.

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- Location: Seven Sisters Country Park

- Distance: 4.2 miles (6.7 km) - one-and-a-half to two hours

- Terrain: steep climbs and several stiles. Valley can be muddy. Easy access option: head south on the hard-surfaced stretch of the South Downs Way towards the shingle beach and estuary

- Where to park: Forest Car Park, next to the Exceat building, off the A259. Sat nav: BN25 4AD

- Public transport: Buses from Brighton/Seaford/Eastbourne

- Map: OSExplorer 123 Eastbourne and Beachy Head

- Navigation: uses the well-signed South Downs Way and an easy-to-follow river bank!

The walk

1 Go to the front of the farm buildings. We start on the South Downs Way (SDW) which is signed from a wooden waymarker opposite the bus stop on the main road. The start point is a kissing gate behind the flint building and in front of Exceat cottage. Go through the kissing gate and walk up the grazing field on the grass footpath. It's a steepish climb but offers a viewpoint over the meandering river estuary. At the top, go through the gate and use the stone step to climb over the flint wall. After a couple of steps to the right, continue in the same direction on the SDW past a marker post. Walk along the path beside the wall and down a significant number of steps.

2 Arrive beside the pond in the hamlet of Westdean. Continue straight ahead on the SDW. Pass Forge Cottage and the car park to Westdean Cottages. Continue straight ahead keeping to the left of the stone marker (wander right to visit the 12th-century church first). Pass The Long House and The Glebe and begin to climb. Pass a signpost and gate and amble on up the wooded SDW. At the end of the fence, turn left along the SDW, enjoying some lovely glimpses across to the Downs. At the signpost and fork, keep on the higher path through the forest. As downland fields come into sight ahead, walk straight on past a signpost and go down a lot of steps enjoying the birdsong of this wooded valley. Continue straight ahead. Pass a flint barn.

3 Turn right and climb over the stile to stay on the SDW. Walk up this steepish path beside a hedge. Glimpse the White Horse to your left. Near the top, climb over a stile and walk on along the side of a hedge. Go through the kissing gate, to continue straight ahead. Go through a kissing gate and descend into Litlington. Be careful by the second kissing gate: it's slippery!

4 Turn left past the village hall. At the T-junction turn left (unless you want to visit The Plough & Harrow or Litlington Tea Gardens). After a short stretch along the lane (watch out for cars) cross the road.

5 Walk right at the signpost opposite the thatched timber-framed house. Before the footbridge, turn left to walk along the near bank. This raised footpath runs along the bank and goes through several gates. Pass a footbridge to the other side and later, pass beneath the White Horse.

6 Cross a stile and continue straight ahead past a marker post and on along the river bank. The river meanders and there are several more stiles.

7 Emerge by the bridge (to divert, turn right for The Cuckmere Inn). Cross and turn left to walk along the pavement beside the road to return to your car park.


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