The Seven Sisters are a series of sheer chalk cliffs, up to 500 feet high, on the coast of East Sussex between Newhaven and Eastbourne. Geologically they are part of the South Downs and are now included in the South Downs National Park that was created in 2011.
The Seven Sisters were formed when a series of parallel valleys was cut into the chalk by streams that flowed when vast quantities of water were released by melting glaciers at the end of the last ice age. The amount of rain that falls under normal conditions is not enough to keep the streams flowing, given that most of the water percolates down into the soft chalk to leave “dry valleys” behind. As the cliffs have been eroded by the sea the valleys have been left as vertical indentations in the line of the cliffs, resulting in the “sisters” standing up prominently between them.
The name “Seven Sisters” comes from Greek mythology, in which they were the seven daughters of Atlas and Pleione. When they died they were turned into the stars of the Pleiades cluster, which is also known as the Seven Sisters. However, one small problem with the Sussex version is that there are, in fact, eight distinct peaks! To be fair, there were originally seven (named Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Brow, Flat Brow, Baily’s Hill and Went Hill) but cliff erosion has led to an eighth sister appearing which has been named Flagstaff Brow.
The best view of the Seven Sisters, except from out at sea, is from Seaford Head to the west, as the land sticks out into the sea at this point and affords a view all along the coast as far as the Belle Tout lighthouse (now used as a guesthouse, the lighthouse had to be moved back from the cliff edge in 1999 to prevent it from falling into the sea!). There is a track that leads across Seaford Head down to sea level, with the view changing all the way. Seen from the beach, the full height of the cliffs can best be appreciated.
It is possible to walk along the foreshore below the Seven Sisters from Cuckmere Haven at the western end to Birling Gap at the eastern end, but there are good reasons for not doing so. Although the distance is only about three miles it is across rough rocks that are covered in seaweed and thus extremely slippery. It is not safe to walk close to the cliffs, because of the danger of rocks falling from above, which is a regular event with unstable chalk cliffs. If you are caught by the incoming tide there is no way up the cliffs apart from at either end of the Seven Sisters.
However, there is nothing to stop you from walking a short way along the foreshore at low tide from either end, which you might want to do if you are interested in finding fossils, which are plentiful at this location. Great care should be taken when doing so, and anyone who ventures close to the cliff base should wear a hard hat. Given that chalk is composed of the remains of small marine animals, it is always possible to find microfossils in the chalk, which can be discovered from lumps of rock taken from the foreshore and then examined later under a microscope.
Apart from appreciating the full height of the cliffs from sea level, you might also take note of the different chalk strata that were laid down over millions of years during the Late Cretaceous period around 83 to 89 million years ago. Also notable are the dark bands of flint that run horizontally through the chalk. Along the foreshore are the remains of several shipwrecks, including a German submarine from World War I, which can be seen at low tide near Birling Gap.
Another way to appreciate this area is from the tops of the cliffs, by walking a section of the South Downs Way between the Seven Sisters Country Park and Birling Gap (or on to Beachy Head and Eastbourne). The walk, which is widely regarded as being one of the finest in south-east England, starts a short distance inland (there is no public road access to the point at which the Cuckmere River reaches the sea). The first part of the walk is across fairly flat ground alongside the river, but then the path rises steeply as it turns eastwards to surmount the first Sister. After that it is up and down all the way as you climb each Sister in turn! However, the effort is well worth taking for the spectacular views from the summits, both out to sea (you can see the French coast on a fine day) and inland.
The path takes you quite close to the cliff edge but it is sensible not to get too close, due to the crumbly nature of the chalk as mentioned above. The distance is about five miles, and there is a return route, if preferred, that takes you inland through Friston Forest. The full route from Seaford to Eastbourne via Beachy Head is about fourteen miles long.
While on the cliff-top path it is worth taking time to appreciate the very special fauna and flora of the downs. This is land that has been carefully managed and preserved and which therefore contains many rare plants that are seen in few other places, if any. These include species of orchid, horseshoe vetch, viper’s bugloss, autumn gentian and common centaury. In turn, these plants support a variety of unusual insects and butterflies such as the marbled white and chalkhill blue.
Birds that nest in the area include skylarks, meadow pipits and corn buntings, and where the grass is longer you may see stonechats, yellowhammers and dunnocks. The cliffs provide nesting sites for fulmars and herring gulls, and terns and ringed plovers may be seen in the nature reserve in the Cuckmere valley.
The Seven Sisters themselves will not be there for ever. As mentioned earlier, the Belle Tout lighthouse had to be moved as the cliff edge got worryingly closer, and a further move cannot be ruled out in the foreseeable future. It has been estimated that the cliffs are receding at about 18 inches every year. Given that the dry valleys slope downwards towards the cliff edge, this means that the point at which each valley meets the edge will gradually get higher and higher. A time will come when erosion has taken the cliffs back as far as the head of each valley, and when this happens the cliffs will be at the same height all the way along, meaning that the Seven Sisters, as such, will have disappeared altogether. Fortunately, that is unlikely to be within the lifetime of anyone reading this article!
The Seven Sisters area is fortunate to be a completely unspoilt piece of English countryside that is within easy reach of some quite large towns, such as Brighton and Eastbourne, that offer plenty of accommodation to suit all tastes and pockets. For those without a car there are frequent buses between Seaford and Eastbourne that pass the start of the walk at the Seven Sisters Country Park.