Having worked at the Tourist Information Office at Seaford for a while, I was surprised about the large number of Asian visitors who wanted directions to the beautiful white cliffs of the Seven Sisters.
This mystery was solved when I discovered that the iconic view of our cliffs is a very popular screen saver in the orient! Is it any wonder that people are willing to travel for thousands of miles away to see our cliffs? They are one of the most visited tourist spots on the south coast and subject to countless photographs and paintings. They are also featured in many films including ‘Robin Hood - Prince of Thieves’, ‘Atonement’ and even “Dads Army”. I was pleased to see that local poet Peter Martin had used the image of the sisters on the front of his latest collection of poems – ‘Kindred Spaces’. Peter’s poems reflect his affinity with the Downs and coastline. His thoughtful words show his love for Sussex and I recommend this book to anyone who has a love of nature, the Sussex coast and folklore.
The cover shows the Seven Sisters from Hope Gap in one of Sarah Gregson’s wonderful paintings. Sarah is a local artist who took up painting rather later in life (there is hope for me yet) and I have often admired her paintings of the Cuckmere Valley and the Downs when displayed at the Crypt Gallery in Seaford.
But back to that iconic view (often cheekily used by film companies in place of the White Cliffs of Dover) Do you know that every ‘sister’ has a name as does every one of the sisters’ bottoms? (‘Bottom’ is a local name for a valley)
As you climb from Cuckmere Haven the first is Haven Brow which at 255 feet (78 metres) and is the tallest of all the sisters. Next is the much shorter Short Brow (214 feet). This was the site of the Cuckmere Station which was in situ from 1822 until 1921. It was a coastguard look-out station and was taken over by the military during the Great War when the focus of operations changed to looking out for the enemy rather than ships in trouble.
The valley between Short Brow and Rough Brow (216 feet) is called Limekiln Bottom, which was surely the site of an ancient kiln. Lime was extracted from the chalk and was used as mortar and also for agricultural purposes as an early form of manure. The Sussex County Magazine once suggested that Rough Brow was named after its course grass - but I must say I haven’t noticed an difference between the grass here and anywhere else on the Downs.
The fourth sister is Brass Point (160 feet), although this in the past was sometimes referred to as “Bran Point”. Beyond this is Gap Bottom (Crowlink Gap) where there is a footpath that leads up to the hamlet of Crowlink. This was the area that was regularly used by smugglers until the Government built another coastguard station here in the early 1800s. Although the buildings have long since gone, the coastguard station is clearly outlined in the short turf. So much contraband gin was landed here by the smugglers that “Crowlink Holland” (Holland being an alternative name for gin) was a recognisable brand in the taverns of London in the late 1700s.
After Crowlink Gap is the climb up Flagstaff Point (153 feet), the site of one of the communication flagpoles which could be used to swiftly send messages along the coast before the telegraph. A cairn made of flint and a Sarcen stone have been erected here and it is a good place to stop for a rest. The cairn was erected by the Society of Sussex Downsmen in 1926 to commemorate the generosity of William Campbell who purchased the land here and handed it to the nation (The Seven Sisters are now part of the South Downs National Park and much is managed by the National Trust).
The next hill is a Flat Hill although it is not officially one of the sisters - The Eight Sisters does not have the same ring!) At 194 feet, Baily’s Hill is the second highest sister.
Presumably Baily was once the land-owner here. The last bottom is Michel Dean. It was probably once pronounced ‘mickle’ which has been suggested is an old English word meaning ‘great’. The last sister before the land drops down to Birling Gap is Went Hill which is 143 feet high. This is the start of the Went Road - an ancient track that led inland through Friston and Willingdon towards the Weald. Birling Gap has been taken over by the National Trust and there is a pub and tea-room here, as well as steps that lead down to the beach.
This delightful walk is now part of the South Downs Way but two words of warning. Firstly in hot weather do take plenty of water and secondly do not stray too close to the edge as there have been several land-slips along the cliffs here.
If you want to know more there can be no better book than Monty Larkin’s “Seven Sisters - the History behind the view”. It is available at the Tourist Information Centre in Seaford.