A brief moment of solitude – Beachy Head.

Saturday 23 December 2017 – Eastbourne and Beachy Head.

Not having had a weekend away on my own for months I booked a couple of nights in a bed and breakfast in the coastal town of Cromer in Norfolk. I had a full day of photography planned; sunrise at Cromer Pier, some nice ruins scattered around the county, sunset back at the pier, followed by some long exposures of the sea and clouds. A drive and walk on my own. Sea air to clear the head and a couple of days with my own thoughts; not having to speak to anyone, unless I was ordering food or drink.

It was a good plan. A shame it did not happen!

To reduce the stress of travelling on what was being billed as the busiest travel day of the year I had taken Friday off work. A bit of a lie in and then on the road for mid morning, allowing myself plenty of time to get to Cromer. There were a couple of interesting places on the way I was going to stop at to take some pictures.

I loaded up the car and headed off just before 11:00. I made it approximately 100 feet up the road before stopping at the top of the hill to change a flat tyre. Bugger! Not the stress free start I planned.

Luckily the spare was not flat and all the tyre changing bits were in the boot, it was my first flat in this car and I had brief moment of panic when I could not find the jack. Tyre changed and I was on the way. The car felt fine, even at 70 on the M11 it was running straight and true. However, as I approached the inevitable tailback at the junction with the M25 I tapped the brake pedal to shave a bit of speed off and the steering wheel kicked and bucked like a wild beast. Brake off and it was fine, back on and wildness.  It was too unsafe to drive any distance, so reluctantly I turned round and headed home.

The weekend was over before lunch on Friday. Not admitting defeat I spent the rest of Friday sulking at home. I did, however, book myself a return to ticket to Eastbourne for the following day. Today.

I was up early, fed and on the tube to Victoria by 8. ‘Early’ Saturday morning is an eye (nose?) opener on the tube, the carriage stank of booze, there was a dozing rough sleeper and a well dressed woman conversing loudly with her invisible friend. A fully immersive experience.

I dislike Victoria Station, it is my least favourite of London’s mainline stations. With two concourses it is big and confusing and always seems to be manically busier than the other stations, even, like this morning when it is half empty. Drunk youths staggering around on their way home to provincial towns after a night out in the city mixed with wealthy looking tourists lugging heavy cases looking for trains to the airport. Everyone looked dazed and confused, I just felt it.

The ride to Eastbourne was uneventful. I read, listened to music, drank the coffee and ate the sausage sandwich I bought as I waited for the train. It was overcast, but was not supposed to be too cold, too windy or to rain, I was only moderately prepared for all three of those things.

A five minute walk from the station got me to the waterfront. Christmas is approaching and the shopping streets were busy. The town is nicer than I expected, and that niceness is reflected in the property prices I noted when I got home, it is more expensive than its neighbours to the north.

I took a quick look at the pier, I thought about walking to the end, but the winter days are short and I had a bit of a walk planned, so I moved on.

I have been wanting to come here and walk the South Downs, past Beachy Head Lighthouse and on to Burling Gap for quite a long time, but never managed to get around to it. The walk along the front is really nice, and it was surprisingly busy this morning. The hills of the Downs were looking a little murky, and slightly intimidating under that low cloud.

Arriving at the foot of the cliffs I found a sign pointing to the South Downs Way and its 100 miles to Winchester. I wish I had the time, fitness and the will to do a long distance walk. I fill my head with so many ideas and plans, some get started, most do not. I blame time and work, needing money to do things, my age and my sometimes aching body. Maybe I should fill my head with only one idea and see it through to completion. I still have 500 or so miles of the Southwest coast path to do, I should not be thinking about other walks.

I started up the short, steep grassy climb, glad I had worn proper walking shoes, it was pretty slippery after all the rain. A teenage break means my left ankle hates these steep climbs, if I do not stretch it, which naturally I don’t, then it loses its full range of movement after a few weeks. I struggled up, knowing tomorrow it will ache like hell.

It was windy and quite cool, very damp, and there was limited view out to sea, but what there was was glorious. There are a lot of bent and twisted hawthorn trees, providing a clear indication of the direction of the prevailing wind.

Ahead it was looking a little less enticing and as I walked I wondered if that was going to be the end of the view for the day. I was quite surprised by the amount of scrub and wildness on this stretch, in mind the walk from town to Burling Gap was almost manicured lawn, the result of mis-seen photos. Those photos led me to believe it was always sunny here too. Maybe just mis-remembered.

After walking through the edge of a scrubby wood I was out on the cliff tops and the first view of Beachy Head Lighthouse. I took a lot of photos from various angles, so if you hate lighthouses, and Beachy Head in particular you should look away now. It is a spectacular piece of coast so your turning away would just be wrong.

The chalk cliffs look amazing in any light, though they seem dirtier than they were in older photos. At this point, which is roughly the highest, the cliff top is 162 metres above the sea. Given the cliff edge and the popularity of the area, I am surprised there are few fences, only where there have been slips is the edge closed to the public. I guess you cannot fence off the entire coast. I now see there are two people ahead of me. It almost seems a shame that I appear to not be alone, that I have passed through the dull low, damp mist and can see and hear further; and that people now occupy that new space.

Further out of the cloud I can see Belle Toute Lighthouse in the distance, at least there does not appear to be any more people than when I emerged, nor am I catching up on those ahead.

From Belle Toute I looked back up the cliff line towards Beachy Head.

There are more people here, even though Belle Toute is a privately owned B and B, it attracts visitors from the car park at the bottom of the short climb on the east side and a lot more from Burling Gap on the west. I was really looking forward to seeing the tiny community of Burling Gap. It features in numerous images of the area, though none of the ones I have seen feature a large orange crane and a large car park. I was a little disappointed!

There is a National Trust Cafe and I was pleasantly surprised to find it was open. It was a good excuse to stop for lunch and a coffee, though I did not linger as it was after 1 pm and I had taken almost two hours to do the 90 minute walk. If I took the same to return after eating it would be almost dark by the time I arrived. The view along the chalk white cliffed coast is breathtaking and I will certainly be back to walk more of it, perhaps on one of those blue sky days I see on the post cards.

The walk up to Belle Toute was the busiest it had been all day. 

I want to know what this is!! Why is there hatch with a padlock? There are other concrete pads where I am guessing lookouts, gun emplacements and other wartime things were located. Though this was the only one I saw that appears to have something underneath. Are there tunnels?

I took a few more photos of the lighthouse on the way back to Eastbourne, and I saved my favourite photo to share last.

The walk back was a lot quicker, the cloud seemed lower, though with the wind in my back it was not as cold and mist no longer formed on my camera lens. I did walk a more direct route, further away from the edges, though the mist was never that thick to be unsafe. I ventured almost alone back into the cloud. There was a walker behind me and I caught glimpses of him as I walked, seeing him for the last time on the train back to London.

As the light was so dim I decided to experiment with a bit of intentional camera movement (ICM) photography, something I did a lot of back in NZ in 2008/09. I have dabbled with it a little in the past couple of months. I am trying to achieve an impressionist painter effect; a work in progress.

As I returned to the top of the hill overlooking Eastbourne I could see the sun trying to work its way through the cloud, though it never quite managed to.

I made it back with plenty of time before darkness started to arrive, so took a round about way to the waterfront, strolling through the gloomy Italian Gardens,

before heading back down the beach. I love the way that over the years (decades?) the tide has finally overcome the steps, and every other set of steps along the front. I really want to know how deep they are and when the council gave up resisting the relentless move of the shoreline.

The waterfront was even busier than late morning, there were a lot of family groups out walking and a lot of older folk walking dogs. In fact there are a lot of dogs here, mainly small dogs. A heck of a lot of small dogs. So many I took no pictures of them. I did take a picture of a large building, a hotel I am guessing; and a street light.

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As I said before, I really liked Eastbourne, the waterfront is decaying less than many of the other coastal towns, especially in the south east. It is clean and tidy and most of the shops are open and active. There seemed to be a pretty good feel in the air, though so many bloody smokers!

It does have damn good pier !

I arrived in the small station about 40 minutes before the train I had booked was schedule to leave. I was going to sit in a pub over a quiet pint, but found there was a train leaving sooner, so I grabbed a bag of crisps and a small bottle of red wine and got on the earlier train.

The ride back to London was good, I read a book and then relaxed in my seat, Mogwai playing in my headphones  and reflected on what was a really pleasant day out on my own.

About wheresphil

Originally from Auckland, New Zealand, now living in London.
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