Even if you have never visited the Seven Sisters you have probably seen the view before. Spreading from Seaford to Beachy Head in Sussex, it is a 10 kilometre banner of cliffs that are whiter than the white cliffs of Dover. A previous Discovering Britain viewpoint covered how the coastal feature is used in films as Dover’s more attractive stand-in. This longer walk, meanwhile, covers the histories that the iconic view has overshadowed. ‘Beyond its visual beauty, this idyllic landscape has other stories to tell – of conflict, sacrifice and forgotten heroism,’ says Caroline Millar, the walk’s author. The landscape is not as ideal as it seems.
A kilometre from the Seven Sisters is Seaford. Today, it is a peaceful seaside town. In any weather, people drive to the long promenade with flasks of coffee in the back, and park facing the sea as if visiting a drive-in movie. Seaford during WWI was a busy war barracks, with two camps: North and South. The North camp is now buried under the shops and houses, however, the remains of South camp are still visible if you know where to look – South Hill, an unassuming piece of farmland at the end of a narrow lane, on the outskirts of the town. What is now a small gravel car park, between fields, was once the camp – a busy, make-shift gathering of huts, tents, canteens and training grounds. ‘We can still make out the humps and bumps in the ground that were once trenches,’ says Millar.
The walk follows the path running almost due south. The sea is not in sight yet, but there are signs it is nearby. The air has that familiar salty charge. Here and there are opalescent scraps of shell on the ground – leftovers from the foraging of seagulls. The land also has that high-up and exposed feel of the South Downs coast, like the swell of a big wave. In this part of the country, wide green fields can suddenly end in right angles with a cliff drop beneath. The English Channel’s horizon comes into view, to the east the sweeping Seven Sisters, like the crest of the wave frozen to a chalky solid.
The arresting view is actually a river drainage basin from 14,000 years ago. The river Cuckmere empties into the shingle beach between here and the cliffs. Imagining the Cuckmere as a tree trunk, the dips of the Seven Sisters and Hope Gap, were its tributary branches. Over time, however, the sea has cut the rock inland, leaving a cross-section of the valleys, which no longer have tributary rivers within. The chalk itself is much older. It is the remains of sea creatures from 136 millions years ago, when this area was at the bottom of a shallow, tropical sea. Despite these changes over time, the cliffs have become a symbol of everlasting strength. The nearest peak, Haven Brow, stands as a sentinel over the sea border and its likeness was used in propaganda during WWII.
In fact, the landscape here is similar to that of the Western Front. ‘The same massive chalk deposit that forms the South Downs disappears under the Channel and rises again around Calais,’ says Millar. ‘Much of the fighting took place on this continuation of the vast chalk deposit that underlies most of southern England.’ When the soldiers came to train here in WWI, the viewpoint might have roused different sentiments in them. For some it may have been intimidating, looking out in the direction of the battlefields on the other side of the Channel. For others that had volunteered, it might have been inspiring as they waited in uncertainty for their day of deployment.
For another group of troops, the sight would have been one of the first they had ever seen of Britain – the British West Indian Regiment (BWIR). The view probably caused them frustration. ‘They were not allowed to have combatant roles,’ says John Siblon, PhD student at the University of Birkbeck. He studies the role of the 15,600 or so BWIR men who volunteered to fight. After an appeal to the colonies to fight for their ‘mother country’, the Caribbean troops travelled 4,000 miles to get here, only to find they were not allowed to take part. ‘Britain, like Germany, did not want black soldiers fighting on the battlefield in Europe,’ says Siblon. As a result, the BWIR were resigned to thankless, dirty and dangerous jobs such as cleaning toilets, carrying stretchers, loading ammunition and digging trenches.
The path towards the river passes the coastguard cottages, three small houses tightly ringed by gorse and hardy plants. If their buckled shapes are anything to go by, the wind can blast these hilltops. The fields are exposed, and mostly treeless. Without good cover it could quickly become intolerable. Unfortunately, the BWIR found themselves in such a situation. ‘The huts they were assigned were hastily-constructed and would not have not been warm enough in the summer time, let alone the middle of winter when they arrived,’ says Siblon. ‘Many contracted mumps, pneumonia and influenza.’
Eventually, the BWIR were moved from the Seaford and Withnoe camps in Plymouth to Egypt. However, for Siblon, Seaford is still a significant site to explore the treatment of the BWIR. ‘What happened here demonstrates that the war took place amid a time of empire and racial hierarchy.’
From the coastguard cottages and the nearby shingle beach, the walk switches inland, following a path that is sandwiched by two aspects of the Cuckmere river. They are almost opposites in character, the one on the right is fast-flowing and straight, the other slow with dramatic loops and oxbow lakes. Millar describes these loops as ‘pretty, but static’. Though the winding Cuckmere was the original river, it no longer flows into the sea. ‘The new river, running on the right-hand side is the man-made canal cut through the valley in the 19th century, in order to reduce flooding,’ she says. Now a nature reserve, the valley is relatively empty of buildings. But it hasn’t always been the case. The walk traces the site of the abandoned medieval village of Exceat, whose population was decimated by the plague. Except for the popular Cuckmere Inn and the visitors’ centre, the Cuckmere floodplain has remained mostly undeveloped.
Cutting across the valley is the main coastal road. On it, a double-decker bus passes by with dependable frequency. Its lime green colour makes it easy to pick out going up and over the open farmland. The service is a boon for walkers and brings them in from Brighton and Eastbourne on either side of Cuckmere Haven. Apart from farming, recreation has become the main activity in the valley. ‘Most visitors cite walking as the main reason they come to the area,’ says Millar. Taking the path in the direction of South Hill brings you to the wide, picturesque floodplain and the cliffs once more. From here, the well-trod footpaths looping over Haven Brow and the Seven Sisters seem to skirt dangerously close to the cliff edge. The coastguard services regularly urge walkers to stay clear of the edges, which are constantly eroding. Major falls occur two or three times a year. The cliffs might be used to symbolise endurance, but they won’t stay the same forever. It is a reminder that real landscapes are more nuanced and complex than the ideals they have come to represent.
This was published in the April 2019 edition of Geographical magazine
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