Thursday, 10 September 2009

Sussex Coast Path Day 9 Brighton - Newhaven

Palace Pier
Back to the coast again and the next section of this walk is along the coastline of my childhood. I grew up in Newhaven and during my early life I travelled along the A259 along this stretch of coast more times than I can remember. Yet, to my knowledge I have never actually walked the whole stretch and never before embarking on this journey had I even considered it. Yet, I have looked forward to walking this stretch for some time, mainly because it is the first time since I set out that I have actually gained some height!
Madeira Drive

Getting between the two ends of the route is very easy, with a half hourly train service or a bus ride every ten minutes, both taking around the same time to get between the two places. I made my way down to the coast from the train station to reunite with the path at the bottom of West Street. Given that it was early September and with people in a summery mood, it was perhaps not surprising that the seafront was packed with tourists. The sun was quite hot, although a fresh breeze came onshore making it absolutely perfect for the walk ahead.
Volks Railway

Along the seafront between the piers, I soon became aware that a lot of people were wearing Wycombe Wanderers football kits and I remembered that they were playing Brighton and Hove Albion today. The fans from visiting teams at this time of year must love the opportunity of a weekend at the seaside. I wasn’t prepared though for seeing the entire Wycombe football squad wandering along there and they were getting some attention as they passed.
Brighton Marina

I soon reached the Palace Pier (I still can’t bring myself to call it Brighton Pier) and the air was filled with the smell of frying, with doughnuts and fish and chips trying to compete for all the passing nostrils. I couldn’t decide whether it was a smell I liked or one that made me feel slightly ill. When I looked over the pier I couldn’t help but be sad at the vandalism at the end of the pier, where the original Oriental Theatre was removed in the mid 1980s and will most likely never return despite noises by the current owners that it would restore it. Still the old pier is still vibrant and has plenty of visitors unlike its erstwhile neighbour further west.
Marina Village

Black Rock
Across the road from the pier is another building that I remember looking more grand than it does now it has modern additions. The old Aquarium (now a Sea Life Centre) has a number of restaurants and food places tacked on to the roof, giving it a much more modern feel than I remember and making the famous gateway look a little lost among the rest. Iconic buildings and man-made features abound along this stretch of coast and I have to confess to being very tempted to ride along the Volks Railway to Black Rock to save a mile or so of the walk. I managed to resist, helped by the fact that a train wasn’t waiting as I passed. This railway is the oldest electric railway still running anywhere in the world, although it was rationalised from when I rode on it as a kid. The Aquarium station only operates from one platform these days, and although the trains themselves still look in great nick for their age the track and the stations could benefit from a little work.
Roedean School

As I headed along the eastern part of the promenade and Madeira Drive, the number of people lessened and the beach became less interesting. I did see though that it would be holding another speed trial next week along here and I was glad to be passing when it was quieter. All I had for company were Volks railway trains and people just down here for a walk or a run. The old Playground that was a mini theme park when I was a kid is long gone but some attempts are being made to bring more people to this bit of the beach, with some volleyball courts on offer and a smart looking children’s play area. I was starting to realise how much had changed along this seafront since I was a boy, without me even really noticing.
St Dunstans

At Black Rock, the Marina blocked my way and although the undercliff walk is now newly reopened and restored, I felt that walking along the clifftops would be much more interesting. It actually felt a bit weird going uphill on the coast, after more than fifty miles of pretty flat coast to get here. As I walked along the clifftops I was interested to see how much had changed at the Marina. I can just about remember it being built when I was a child and in the early days the only occupants were many many boats. Now it is a different story, with at least half the area taken up by luxury apartments and retail outlets – I’m sure they pay better than mooring fees. The question is, will we see more cities built out to sea in the future? Even after living near this place most of my life, I still find the sight of the place quite odd especially now it is almost a self-contained town in itself.
Rottingdean Windmill

The clifftop walk along to Rottingdean was not as interesting as I thought it would be, although in the warm sunshine it was very pleasant. The path though passes too close to the main road to make it truly enjoyable and on a lesser day this section would have been rather tedious. There are two more iconic buildings on the way, very different in style but I couldn’t imagine the cliffs without either one of them. The first is the enormous structure of Roedean School, now resplendent in a new coat of cream coloured paint (I remember plain pebble-dash when I was young), while the second is the centre for blind service personnel at St Dunstan’s. This big brick edifice dates from the 1938 and still incorporates some fine looking art-deco features. As I passed by I also became aware of another feature of this part of the coast – the vast numbers of buses that ply their trade between Rottingdean and Brighton. I counted a line of six buses at one point, all starting from different places but all heading into Brighton and all full up with people.

The green clifftops came to an end at Rottingdean, a place that once was probably a very charming village but now with a feeling of suburbia having been swallowed by Brighton. The first building I came to was the old windmill, distinctively pitch black and hearteningly in better condition than I have ever seen it, complete with sails and restored. When I was a child it wasn’t in grand shape, with no sails and looking fairly derelict. The rest of Rottingdean wasn’t faring quite so well, with one of the prime shops on the high street completely boarded up, bringing the tone of the street down with it. I was disappointed that it was high tide as I passed for I would quite like to have had a look at the remains of the old ‘Daddy Long Legs’ railway that once ran to Brighton from here. I never realised that any remains existed until I saw them featured on Coast the other week. Maybe another time I shall come down and have a look.

I soon passed through Rottingdean and into the next place to have started life in the 20th Century; Saltdean. This is more non-descript than Rottingdean but the cliffs here are actually my favourite along the whole stretch of coast for their shape and undulation. On the landward side of the road here is the exquisite Saltdean Lido, a real survivor having been under threat many times over the past few years. It now looks better than it has done for many years, although I was disappointed to note that even on such a hot day there appeared to be only two visitors! Up on the hill the redevelopment of the other famous building in Saltdean, the erstwhile Ocean Hotel (formerly run by Butlins), seemed to be mostly complete and formed a more pleasing crest of the hill than all the scaffolding and cranes that had been there for what has seemed a very long time. After I passed the centre of Saltdean I became aware of the handiwork of the health and safety police. Along the cliff line was a couple of parallel lines of chain link fencing, a new section recently installed about five metres in from the edge to replace the original line that was now perilously close to the edge. In some places there was evidence of more fencing, making for a curious spectacle.
Saltdean Lido

As I left Saltdean I paused for a minute at the top of the hill by the memorial and enjoyed the view behind me back across Brighton, Worthing and so clear was the day back to Selsey in the very distance. In fact I was so taken with the view that I didn’t pay attention to what the memorial was for! After a few minutes I continued on my way, a lot closer to the road than I would have liked since the clifftop path is interrupted here by a sewage works that has caused much local controversy in recent years. On rejoining the path just by the Badgers Watch path, one of the reasons for this controversy hit my nostrils, the pungent smell of sewage! I looked up to see that the pub beer garden was full, suggesting perhaps that my nostrils were keener than the diners only a few yards from me?
Saltdean Obelisk

Shortly after I entered the long section through the next 1920s development – Peacehaven. This was once known as New Anzac on Sea until Gallipoli happened and Peacehaven was chosen instead. It really is a fairly monstrous place and I can’t imagine it being allowed to be built today. Now occupying a couple of miles of cliff frontage, it is responsible for keeping the sea at bay, since the base of the cliffs is highly protected. Fortunately the view from the top of the cliffs more than compensates for the rather faceless and characterless slab of suburbia that is wholly out of place in this environment. The one interesting feature along here though is the rather momentous crossing from Western into Eastern Hemisphere as I crossed the Greenwich Merdian, which actually meets the English Channel here and is marked by a magnificent monument.
Approaching Peacehaven

Thankfully the Peacehaven stretch allowed me to pick up the pace a bit and I continued along the clifftops of my youth into my final destination at Newhaven. I am very fond of these cliffs, although to my shame I have not been up here for a very long time. The sea defences run out at the end of the built up area of Peacehaven and from here to Newhaven the sea is allowed to do what comes naturally. I was shocked at how much erosion had taken place in the last few years since I had last ventured up this way. Many of the topographical and histrorical features that I remembered as a child had now disappeared entirely or were in grave danger of being lost to the sea as the cliffs continue to crumble. As I got closer to Newhaven the remnants of the World War 2 defences that fascinated me as a child were still in evidence but some of the lookouts and lumps of concrete that were left behind are almost gone and it is conceivable that in my lifetime there will be virtually none of this left. On the landward side of the path the area known as Harbour Heights was once dominated by fields of barley and corn but no longer – there was almost no arable agriculture left, just swathes of rough pasture punctuated by the same houses built by speculators in the 1920s and 1930s. The town is threatening to swallow these houses though, with Court Farm Road now full of newish houses and the area above Tideway School sporting a housing estate of several years vintage. Even the old caravan park I remember is now full of semi permanent houses rather than the rickety old mobile homes that were once there.

Despite the changes I thoroughly enjoyed walking along the clifftops and taking in the view across Seaford Bay. The sea was a beautiful turquoise blue inshore and further out it suddenly changed to royal blue. All across the bay were hundreds of sailing boats all taking advantage of the perfect sailing conditions and adding to the spectacle. Eventually I reached the old gun emplacements at Newhaven Fort and was surprised to find that the lower path that I had usually taken around this end of the cliff was now closed because of landslip activity. I heeded the warning and went past the coastguard station instead. At least up here I got a better view of Newhaven Breakwater, an obstacle to longshore drift along these parts, and built to ensure that the ‘new haven’ which opened up in the early 1800s is kept open for shipping.
Heading Into Newhaven

After leaving the fort behind, I dropped down the hill to walk alongside the harbour. Newhaven has been in constant change since I was a child, but seeing the near desertion of the harbour was a sad sight. I remember coming down to the docks as a young schoolboy to have a look at the shipping, the fishermen landing their catches, watching the roadstone depot in action and looking around the lifeboat station. The port today was completely empty except for the lifeboat and 3 fishing boats, one arriving just before I got there. The port infrastructure is largely gone and the West Quay, once the centre of the fishing activity is now slowly being replaced by des res blocks of flats of the kind being built up and down derelict dockfronts all over Britain.
Harbour Entrance

Of course this decline is not new to me, for I frequently travel to Newhaven to visit family, but there is something about walking through a place that has changed so much that focuses the mind. For me though this was the end of today’s walk; I could have continued on to Seaford if time had been on my side for I felt I had plenty left in the tank, but sadly family matters were calling once again.
Newhaven Harbour


  1. Thank you so much Paul for this excellent blog.

    I'm sitting in my office (at home) in Christchurch New Zealand feeling ever so home sick. My wife and I moved to NZ in 1997 and apart from one short visit back in 2001 have not been back to blighty since. I was born in Woodingdean and my whole life up to 1997 was spent in and around Brighton, Rottingdean, Saltdean, Peacehaven and Newhaven.

    The photos and descriptions were so evocative that I felt I was walking the route with you. I could sense the sight, smells and views as easily as if it was yesterday.

    Thanks again.

  2. Thank you so much for your kind comments Alan. I am pleased that you enjoyed my piece - I can't believe I walked this stretch a year ago now! Have you twigged that there are more pictures available on my Flickr site if you click on the article titles? You will find a complete set of my pictures from the day's walking there.

    I have only to finish a section of Sussex Coast from Hastings to Camber now - hopefully I will complete this in October, subject to the weather of course!

    I hope you managed to escape the worst of the earthquake recently?

    Kind Regards