I fully admit that when it comes to my UK hiking bucket list, I’m beginning to think that it may take several lifetimes to complete all of the walks I’d like to do. That said, I managed to tick one off the list recently, and it happens to be considered as one of the best hikes you can do in south east England.
Coastal views, rolling hills, lighthouses, beach towns and those dramatic chalk cliffs: the Seven Sisters hike ended up being one of the most visually rewarding trails I’ve done in the UK. And, as an added bonus, it’s achievable as a day trip from London.
In this post, I’ll be sharing the highlights from this stunning clifftop hike and tell you everything you need to know if you’re planning to walk along the Seven Sisters too.
What are the Seven Sisters?
The Seven Sisters is a series of chalk cliffs that can be found on the coast of East Sussex, located midway between Seaford and Eastbourne. Coastal chalk is a consistent feature of this part of England, with perhaps the most famous example being the white cliffs of Dover. But the chalk in this region dates all the way back to the late Cretaceous period – 66-145 million years ago! The Seven Sisters we see today can be described as the remains of dry valleys, and they’re constantly being eroded by the sea and other elements.
Each peak and valley of the Seven Sisters has its own name, but the collective name is a bit deceiving. Named after the original seven sisters, the Pleiades, the mythical daughters of the Titan Atlas, there are, in fact, eight peaks located in the Seven Sisters range. The last peak was created due to erosion so don’t worry if you think you’re counting incorrectly on the day of the hike.
How do you get to the Seven Sisters?
If you’re not so keen on hiking, you can drive yourself to Birling Gap and take a short walk to the Seven Sisters from there. Otherwise, you can catch a train to either Seaford or Eastbourne and then catch a bus to Birling Gap from those stations.
Since we were there to walk, we decided to take on the 22km route between Seaford and Eastbourne. You can start or end at either of those stations, but we chose to begin our hike in Seaford. There are regular connections to Eastbourne and Seaford from London Victoria station, with a journey time of about 1hr 30min. Most guides state that you should leave about seven hours to do the entire walk, but we managed it in about five hours – and that included plenty of photo stops as well as lunch.
The Seven Sisters hike – From Seaford to Eastbourne
The main reason I hesitate to call this route a ‘walk’ as opposed to a ‘hike’ is due to the fact that there are very few flat sections. The trail is undulating and features a lot of steep hills, followed by equally steep declines. You don’t need to be super fit to do the walk, but those hills, especially once you get to the Seven Sisters themselves, left our calf muscles burning.
The beginning point, however, is the lovely seaside promenade of Seaford. Walking down to the beach from the station, you may want to make a pit stop at Seaford’s public toilets; the next available toilet will be all the way over at Birling Gap, roughly the halfway point of this entire route.
We followed along the promenade towards the cliffs and it was here that we experienced our first climb of the hike, which took us into the Seaford Head Nature Reserve. Even with those few steps upward, we left built-up civilisation behind, with only the cliffs and countryside stretching out in front of us. The clouds were looking ominous that day, but we didn’t mind as we already started to see glimpses of the dramatic scenery we’d be surrounded by for the next few hours.
It’s at this point that warning signposts started to appear. Chalk is very brittle so the cliffs all along this coastline are very unstable and, because of this, very dangerous and prone to rock falls. While you may want to take a risk to get an amazing photo or to sit on the edge for an epic lunch spot, it’s really not worth it. Pay attention to the signs and always keep at least five metres between yourself and the cliff edge.
We loved the landscapes of this first part of the walk, which, at the time of our visit, were dotted by multitudes of colourful flowers and, to the other side, small herds of sheep. But soon our attention was distracted by our first sighting of the Seven Sisters, which appeared as a white line of coast way out in the distance. I was surprised to see them so soon into our walk but, as I’ve learned from past hikes, appearances can be misleading: we still had a long way to go before we’d get to the cliffs.
After walking along the grassy paths, we followed a long, steady decline that eventually led down to where the Cuckmere River meets the sea. This is also where you’ll spot some buildings that are jokingly referred to as the most photographed houses in this part of the country. Once you’ll get down there, you’ll see why – these coastguard cottages have a backdrop of none other than the Seven Sisters themselves. As for us, I think we immediately starting talking about house goals, and how these would be pretty much perfect for us.
But since we’re not looking into the property market just yet, we instead focused on the decision waiting for us down at the river.
The ‘official’ route veers away from the coast at this point, going inland until you can find a proper river crossing and, once across, you work your way back to the sea. If you don’t want to walk a few kilometres simply to double back, then there is another option, although I wouldn’t recommend doing it during the colder months!
The point where the river meets the sea is quite shallow so most of the hikers we saw simply decided to take off their shoes and walk across. It’s a bit of a painful crossing (cold feet and hard pebbles is never a great combination) but, once you make it and dry off your feet, the Seven Sisters hike can resume fairly quickly.
We walked along the pebble beach, getting closer and closer to the chalk cliffs that had seemed so far away at the start of the walk. Up close, it’s easy to see how brittle these really are, with great cracks making their way all along the exposed chalk surface. It was incredible to see these massive cliffs and our next task was to get to the top of them.
This involves a steep scramble up some chalk paths (which can get slippery) but the effort is worth it. The views are spectacular, especially if you look back in the direction that you’ve just come from. Being on top means another thing, though: there will be A LOT of ups and downs from this point on.
There’s no consistent set path here, so we just kept a safe distance from the cliff edge and made our way up the grassy hills. There are many opportunities for taking photos along the way, with each hill and dip presenting different views over the coast and countryside.
It’s up to you whether you want to stop for lunch on the Seven Sisters cliffs or whether you’d like to stop at Birling Gap instead. We decided to push on as Birling Gap was only really the halfway point of our day’s walk.
We were getting tired (some of the hills are extremely steep) by the time we spotted Birling Gap, which marks the end of the Seven Sisters cliffs. It was a relief when we finally made our way down the last hill and rounded the corner to the parking lot filled with day trippers visiting Birling Gap and its beach. Birling Gap has an outdoor dining area, a gift shop, a cafe, toilets and a small exhibition explaining more about the cliffs we had just traversed. It’s here that we learned about there being an eighth cliff, as well as the fact that chalk is made up of an impossibly huge accumulation of calcite shells, or, rather, the fossils remains of tiny marine life.
Our packed lunch disappeared at an alarming rate and we refilled our water bottles for the rest of the walk. If you have time – and if the weather is warm – it’s also worth going down to the beach at Birling Gap. Since it was cold and windy on the day of our visit, we decided to keep going.
You may assume that the rest of the walk, now that the Seven Sisters are being left behind you, won’t be that exciting, but I’m happy to tell you that this is not the case at all.
Instead, you have two lighthouses to see, plenty of lovely sea views to appreciate and a varied coastal path to admire (as well as a pub stop if you’re so inclined).
The first lighthouse, Belle Tout, which was in use from 1834 until 1902, is located a short distance from Birling Gap. If you’re confused about its position away from the coast, that’s because the lighthouse was moved, and it now serves as a unique bed and breakfast. There’s also a cafe located just outside in case you feel like picking up some snacks.
Leaving Belle Tout behind, we made our way towards Beachy Head. Beachy Head, apart from being extremely picturesque, may look a little familiar. It was, after all, used as the Quidditch World Cup hosting grounds in the Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire movie, and has also been used as a backdrop in music videos for musicians including the likes of David Bowie and The Cure.
The red and white lighthouse of Beachy Head soon made its appearance, and this was one of the biggest highlights of our walk. It really is an amazing spot, and we stopped here for a long while to take as many photos as we could.
After filling up our camera memory cards to a satisfactory level, we started our last leg of the walk, which would take us all the way into Eastbourne. It was around this time that the sun finally managed to break through the clouds, with the sunlight turning the sea water into a unbelievably bright shade of blue.
The last stretch went on for a few kilometres and, like most of the walk up until that point, it was full of rises and dips. The path took us through flower-filled fields before hugging close to the coast again. But, before we knew it, Eastbourne appeared on the horizon, its cluster of buildings leaving us feeling surprised after seeing so few manmade structures for most of the day.
A very steep downhill marks the end of this walk, which is only one leg of the multi-day 160km South Downs Way walk, which starts all the way over in Winchester and ends in Eastbourne. I already had aspirations to do this entire trail one day, and doing this day hike only maximised my desire to do so.
Unfortunately, if you’re travelling by train like we did, there’s still a bit of a walk into central Eastbourne. Our legs were feeling a bit tired, but we enjoyed walking along the seaside promenade, which took us all the way along to Eastbourne Pier, where we had a very well-deserved cream tea before hopping onto our train back to London.
The next time you have a free weekend in London, I wholeheartedly recommend getting on the train and doing this hike. From walking the Seven Sisters to spotting lighthouses to being by the coast for a whole day – there’s so much to appreciate while hiking between Seaford and Eastbourne. If the Seven Sisters hike wasn’t already on your hiking bucket list, I hope that my post will inspire you to add it immediately.
What’s your favourite hike/walk in the UK? Have you visited the Seven Sisters? Let me know in the comments below!
Want to read more about some of my other favourite hikes around the world? Check out:
- On Top of the World at Isthmus Peak
- Experiencing the Midnight Sun at Kiilopaa Fell
- Climbing Mount Snowdon
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