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The Snake River and the Seven Sisters

Follow a breezy trail beside the Cuckmere River as it winds in erratic fashion towards the sea.

Distance 3 miles (4.8km)

Minimum time 1hr 30min

Ascent/gradient Negligible

Level of difficulty Easy

Paths Grassy trails and well-used paths. Mostly beside the Cuckmere or canalised branch of river

Landscape Exposed and isolated valley and river mouth

Suggested map aqua3 OS Explorer 123 South Downs Way - Newhaven to Eastbourne

Start/finish TV 518995

Dog friendliness Under close control within Seven Sisters Country Park. On lead during lambing season and near A259

Parking Fee-paying car park at Seven Sisters Country Park

Public toilets Opposite car park, by visitor centre

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1 Make for the gate near the entrance to the Seven Sisters Country Park and follow the wide, grassy path towards the beach. The path gradually curves to the right, running alongside a concrete track. The Cuckmere River meanders beside you, heading for the open sea. Continue ahead between the track and the river and make for a South Downs Way sign.

2 Avoid the long distance trail as it runs in from the left, pass it and the Foxhole campsite and keep ahead, through the gate towards the beach. Veer left at the beach and South Downs Way sign. On reaching the next gate, don't go through it. Instead, keep right and follow the beach sign. Pass a couple of wartime pill boxes on the left, an evocative reminder of less peaceful times, and go through a gate. Join a stony path and walk ahead to the beach, with the white wall of the Seven Sisters rearing up beside you.

3 Turn right and cross the shore, approaching a Cuckmere Haven Emergency Point sign. Branch off to the right to join another track here. Follow this for about 50yds (46m) until you come to a junction and keep left, following the Habitat Trail and Park Trail. Keep beside the Cuckmere and the landscape here is characterised by a network of meandering channels and waterways, all feeding into the river. Pass a turning for Foxhole campsite and follow the footpath as it veers left, in line with the Cuckmere. Make for a kissing gate and continue on the straight path by the side of the river.

4 Keep ahead to the road at Exceat Bridge and on the left is the Golden Galleon pub.Turn right and follow the A259 to return to the car park at the country park.

One of the few remaining undeveloped river mouths in the south-east, is the gap or cove known as Cuckmere Haven. It is one of the south coast's best-known and most popular beauty spots and was regularly used by smugglers in the 18th century to bring ashore their cargoes of brandy and lace. The scene has changed very little in the intervening years with the eternal surge of waves breaking on the isolated shore.

The Cuckmere River joins the English Channel at this point but not before it makes a series of extraordinarily wide loops through lush water-meadows. It's hardly surprising that this characteristic has earned it the occasional epithet 'Snake River'. Winding ever closer to the sea, the Cuckmere emerges beside the famous white chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. Extending east towards Birling Gap, there are, in fact, eight of these towering chalk faces, with the highest one, Haven Brow (253ft/77m), closest to the river mouth. On the other side of the estuary rise the cliffs of Seaford Head, a nature reserve run by the local authority.

The focal point of the lower valley is the Seven Sisters Country Park, an amenity area of 692 acres (280ha) developed by East Sussex County Council. The site is a perfect location for a country park and has been imaginatively planned to blend with the coastal beauty of this fascinating area. There are artificial lakes and park trails, and an old Sussex barn near by has been converted to provide a visitor centre which includes many interesting exhibits and displays.

However, there is more to the park than these obvious attractions. Wildlife plays a key role within the park's boundaries, providing naturalists with many hours of pleasure and enjoyment. The flowers and insects found here are at their best in early to mid summer, while spring and autumn are a good time to bring your binoculars with you for a close-up view of migrant birds.

Early migrant wheatears are sometimes spotted in the vicinity of the river mouth from late February onwards and are followed later in the season by martins, swallows, whinchats and warblers. Keep a careful eye out for whitethroats, terns and waders too. The lakes and lagoons tend to attract waders such as curlews, sandpipers and little stints. Grey phalaropes have also been seen in the park, usually after severe autumn storms. These elusive birds spend most of their lives far out to sea, usually off South America or western Africa.

The walk explores this part of the Cuckmere Valley and begins by heading for the beach. As you make your way there, you might wonder why the river meanders the way it does. The meltwaters of the last Ice Age shaped this landscape and over the centuries rising sea levels and a freshwater peat swamp influenced the river's route to the Channel. Around the start of the 19th century, the sea rose to today's level and a new straight cut with raised banks, devised in 1846, shortened the Cuckmere's journey. This unnatural waterway controls the river and helps prevent flooding in the valley.

Where to eat and drink

The Golden Galleon by Exceat Bridge is a popular 18th-century inn thought to have inspired Rudyard Kipling's poem Song of the Smugglers. The menu is traditional English, with various Italian, Oriental and Indian dishes. The ales are supplied by the pub's own micro-brewery. The visitor centre at the Seven Sisters Country Park has a restaurant and tea rooms and in summer there is often an ice cream van in the car park.

What to look for

Shingle plants thrive on the sheltered parts of beaches and a stroll at Cuckmere Haven reveals the yellow horned-poppy and the fleshy leaved sea kale. Sea beet, curled dock and scentless chamomile also grow here.

While you're there

If you have the time, take a look at the Seaford Head Nature Reserve, which lies on the west side of Cuckmere Haven. This chalk headland, which rises 282 ft (85m) above the sea, is a popular local attraction and from here the coastal views are magnificent.

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