With a hint of early spring in the air it seemed like a good idea to escape London. In an hour-and-a-half we arrived in Hastings, one of England’s oldest seaside towns. It’s a place that will sound familiar to anyone ever taught in the British school system. Home to the infamous 1066 Battle of Hastings – the one where William, Duke of Normandy became the Conquerer and King Harold met his end with an arrow through the eye, as illustrated in the Bayeux Tapestry. Despite the grisly past, today’s seaside ports of Hastings, Rye, (and nearby Battle where the war was actually fought), are all charming destinations in East Sussex worth a visit.
Setting out beneath a clear-blue sky the plan was simple: to walk 13.2 miles from Hastings to Rye, then catch the train back again. But as we all know, not everything always goes to plan. Still, our walk began as expected, joining the Saxon Shore way above Rock-a-Nore beach. In sunnier seasons, a Victorian funicular railway operates, carrying people up the 300-foot vertical cliff face to Hasting Country Park. But it was February, so we contend with the stairs.
From the map, our intended path roughly traces the coastline. But from the outset, signs warn of an up-coming area of coastal erosion. Less than a quarter of a mile into the walk we traipse inland, across boggy fields making very slow progress. Eager to re-join the Saxon Way, we end up bush-whacking through Ecclesbourne Glen, something I wouldn’t recommend. Once back on the trail, the undulating path provides views out across the English Channel towards France. The odd ship appears on the horizon.
The Saxon Shore Way has another unfortunate break further along the trail. Not shown on our GPS, we come to a dead-end in Fairlight Cove where the road has literally fallen into the sea far below. A local, out tending his lawn informs us the road has been like it for years. So we follow a series of quiet residential roads without sea views, until the trail returns in Cliff End. From our vantage point we see Pett Level Beach stretching out in the sun below. We opt to get closer to the beach, so we descend down and depart the trail to walk along the raised sea wall. Only once we join the long, straight beach, do I realise its made of shingle, not sand. I spot the odd tree root poking up from the surf, remnants of the ancient forest that once grew here before rising sea-levels buried it. On the opposite side of Pett Level Road, expansive wetlands attract bird-watchers, who sit in their cars with binoculars and probably flasks of tea milling away the hours.
It’s taken us longer than it should have to reach the end of the beach, so we sit outside the beach cafe with a drink to decide what to do. We want to return to Hastings before it gets dark so we can explore it today. I’m also really hungry! So at that point, based on the train and bus timetables, we elect to shorten our route by around 1.5 miles to end at Winchelsea instead of Rye. This involves cutting across the nature reserve – completely soaking my feet – to enter the small town through the imposing 13th century New Gate. Winchelsea is an attractive little place. It centres around the very grand, gothic St Thomas’ Church. Unfortunately we don’t have time to visit the local pub, due to the expected bus, so instead we take a quick stroll through the churches graveyard. Within it lies the final resting place of the much-loved British-Irish comedian Spike Milligan.
Whilst today wasn’t the prettiest coastal walk I’ve ever done in England, this may partly be due to the time of year and various diversions. But it’s accessibility from London, and the attractive towns on route make it a great choice for an easy day-trip. It’s possible to travel to Hastings by train from various London stations. I believe the quickest route is from Cannon Street in 1 hour 29 minutes. The return from Rye station (into St Pancras) can be done in little over an hour.
On a side-note I really should invest in some hi-top waterproof shoes. The number of water-logged fields we crossed during this hike definitely slowed us down. I just need to find a comfortable pair so I don’t end the day in one big squelching, wrinkled-footed mess!