Britain’s newest national park, the South Downs, came into full operation on April 1st, 2011. The uplifting stretch of high rolling hills, its short chalk downland turf a mass of wild flowers and fluttering butterflies, runs 70 miles from Winchester to the western edge of Eastbourne. Its new status sets it apart as a treasured landscape and wildlife habitat. It includes woodland, heathland, downlands and the glorious Seven Sisters chalk cliffs near Eastbourne.
To mark the start of the park I visited Eastbourne, which no longer stands for sleepy and staid on sea. As the revival of the traditional coastal break continues, I celebrates the south coast resort’s new status as the pepped-up place to be beside the seaside. My list, as well as the magificent new park, includes extreme sports, sampling a busy theatre scene, and a modern architectural gem of a gallery.
Up the Downs!
The South Downs above Eastbourne now has the highest level of landscape protection afforded to an area in the UK. As Britain’s newest national park, the South Downs has been nationally recognised for its natural beauty and the space it offers for people to enjoy the countryside. The park came into full operation on April 1st, 2011. The uplifting stretch of high rolling hills, its short chalk downland turf a mass of wild flowers and fluttering butterflies, runs 70 miles from Winchester to the western edge of Eastbourne. Walk west along the prom and pick up the South Downs national trail to the nearby white chalk cliffs of Beachy Head. Or take buses 13 or 12 from outside Eastbourne station to the entrance of Seven Sisters Country Park at Seaford (www.sevensisters.org.uk). It’s three miles to the “Sisters”, where the South Downs meet the sea. The seven cliff peaks were made by ancient rivers cutting valleys into the chalk. I took the optional extra, the walk up the blissful meanders of the Cuckmere River to the pretty village of Alfriston.
Give me sunshine
“Welcome to Eastbourne, Sunshine Coast”, reads a big banner at the railway station. In 2010 GMTV weather data confirmed Eastbourne as the sunniest place on mainland Britain. Situation is everything. Sheltered from the north and west winds by Beachy Head and the South Downs, the town enjoys a rare microclimate. So often it basks under clear blue skies when it’s grey and damp just minutes inland. The sun certainly shone on my visit to this perfectly planned Victorian seaside resort. I took the train, just 90 minutes from London, with stirring views of the South Downs on the way in. www.thetrainline.com. It’s an easy 10 minutes walk down leafy roads to the promenade, which stood in recently for its racier near-neighbour in location shots for the forthcoming remake of the the 1947 film classic Brighton Rock.
It’s worth a stroll around Eastbourne’s grand old features. I headed north to the Old Town, through wide and stately brick pavemented streets to Motcombe Gardens and Hampden Park, both pleasant picnic spots. Then, via Avenue Snacks, the half timbered black and white kiosk on the edge of the park at Uppertown Gardens, on down to the 1872 pier, for views back to the elegant seafront. No time for the 45 minute boat trip to Beachy Head (www.VisitEastbourne.com) but I made it to the Bandstand, a famous old symbol of open air music-making under a handsome blue domed roof. It was built in 1935 to a unique semi-circular design (room for 1,600). There’s a string of 75th birthday concerts this year. Finally to the tiny lifeboat Museum, for an exhibition of their biggest rescue dramas.
Fresh proof that Eastbourne is updating its image comes in the new Towner Gallery, all tall windows, brilliant white walls and elegant curves to match the contours of the South Downs, clearly visible behind. Opened in 2009, this Royal Institute of British Architects 2010 award winner is the work of Rick Mather Architects, who did the recent renovation of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum. Fittingly in this sunshine town, the light floods in to reach nearly every corner. Paintings, sculptures and photographs from the old Towner Gallery’s collection – there are works by Picasso, Henry Moore and Vanessa Bell (one of the “Bloomsbury set” who live in nearby Firle). A recent exhibition, “Walk in the Park”, celebrated the new National Park status in paintings and photographs. There are wonderful views from the second-floor cafe. www.eastbourne.gov.uk
They’ve been pepping up Eastbourne’s attractions. I spotted an advert for an “extreme sports” festival. They say it’s the biggest in the UK, with powerboat racing, ION Man windsurfing, zorbing (rolling downhill in an orb), in-line skating, land yachting and many more daring things. One very sultry “Latin fever” poster promoted a Strictly Come Dancing duo at the Congress Theatre, where Calendar Girls is another summer attraction. Next door to Devonshire Park Theatre, one of Britain’s finest small Victorian Theatres, are the graceful Devonshire Park grass tennis courts. They host six major tennis tournaments a year. As for food, the choice ranges from traditional Victorian tearooms on the pier, to the Flamenco Tapas bar in Cornfield Terrace.
If you’re in town for longer than a day trip — and a wide choice of accommodation starts with the literally dazzling all-white Grand, the only five-star hotel on the English seashore (www.grandeastbourne.com) — one excursion I would suggest is the short trip to 1066 Country. It’s just 30 minutes on the train to Hastings, with optional stops at Pevensey where William the Conqueror came ashore. From here the 1066 walk continues to Battle (trains run there direct from Hastings) the site of the most pivotal clash on British soil. I took the audio tour for the one mile walk around the battlefield. Lusty whoops and yells from the school sports mingled with the whizzing arrows and neighing horses in my commentary. ( www.english-heritage.org.uk)