Either Side Of The Downs: Seaford & Alfriston
by Peter D’Aguilar
At the end of 2018 Peter d’Aguilar visited Seaford and Alfriston to enjoy their various offerings of beach, rolling countryside and many visitor attractions. Here are his recollections
Sandwiched between the rolling hills of the South Downs, the Seven Sisters Country Park and the English Channel lies the peaceful coastal town of Seaford. With a four-mile beach, promenade, museum, art gallery, cafes, pubs and restaurants, plus beautiful views across Seaford Bay to the white chalk cliffs of the Seven Sisters, Seaford has much to explore and enjoy.
Although there is some evidence of Stone Age inhabitation, the Romans were the first people to establish a settlement at Seaford; taking advantage of its natural harbour. Later it became a centre of commerce for Norman traders, but also suffered regular attacks from French invaders. In 1579 a major storm destroyed the harbour, which had an adverse effect on the town’s prosperity, resulting in an increase in smuggling, looting and wrecking. In the early nineteenth century the westernmost of the south coast’s Martello Towers – now a local history museum – was built at the eastern end of Seaford Bay as protection against Napoleonic invasion. The arrival of the railway and the Victorian fashion for sea bathing sparked a revival in Seaford’s fortunes, transforming the town into a popular seaside resort.
The town’s excellent natural beaches were all but erased in the 1980’s, due to dredging and a new breakwater at Newhaven which cut off the supply of sand generated by longshore drift along the coast. While this created ideal conditions for watersport enthusiasts, it discouraged more general seaside visitors. In 1987 Seaford initiated a massive beach replenishment operation, depositing on the shore around one million tons of sand from sandbanks out to sea. As a result, the beach is now Seaford’s main attraction. Current seaside initiatives include new beach huts, plans for tennis courts and a skate park and the Shoal, a sculptural community bench at Splash Point below Seaford Head.
Seaford has thriving cricket, football and rugby clubs, a bowls club and two golf courses. There is a large sports and health centre in Seaford which offers a range of sports and pastimes, including badminton, indoor bowls, children’s disco dancing, line-dancing and fitness classes. Newhaven and Seaford Sailing Club is situated at the western end of Seaford Bay and has two sites, racing off Seaford Beach and sailing at Piddinghoe Lake near Newhaven, which is home to an RYA accredited sailing school.
Arts@The Crypt is Seaford’s community centre for contemporary arts and crafts. The modern gallery is housed in the 13th century vaulted flint and stone undercroft close to the town centre. The free two-week Artwave Festival takes place each August across venues in Seaford, Lewes and Newhaven, showcasing local jewellery, textiles, metalwork, ceramics, glass, craft, furniture, illustration, painting and printmaking. Seaford Art Club meets every Friday. The not-for-profit Seaford Community Cinema is run entirely by volunteers, and features the best of world, art house, contemporary and current movie releases. Seaford Contemporary Illustrators & Printmakers is a local collective of creative minds. Seaford’s two theatres offer a range of professional and amateur productions. The Seaford Bonfire Society reformed in 2010 and holds a procession every October.
Seaford Christmas Magic captures the sounds, tastes and smells of the festive season. The town centre comes alive with food and gift stalls, plus a full range of entertainment and attractions, including live music, Santa’s grotto, reindeers, a lantern parade, as well as the Ice Queen and Snow Princess. The town’s range of independent shops are also packed with Christmas present ideas.
Notable former Seaford residents include art historian and Russian spy Anthony Blunt, Winston Churchill’s wife Clementine, comedian Dickie Henderson, fashion model Jordan, aka Pamela Rooke (who now works in the town as a veterinary nurse), actresses Penelope Keith and Margaret Rutherford, motorcycle stunt rider Eddie Kidd and woodcut artist Eric who lived, died and is buried in Seaford. There are also seven Victoria Cross holders associated with the town.
Four miles north east of Seaford lies the historic village of Alfriston. Set in the heart of the Cuckmere Valley, it was named in a 2018 national newspaper travel feature as one of England’s most beautiful villages. The South Downs Way crosses the Cuckmere river at Alfriston, before continuing up onto the Downs.
The village green, known locally as the Tye, lies on the east side. The Alfriston Festival takes place during the week leading up to the August bank holiday weekend, ending with a Grand Fair on the Tye, with the proceeds going to charity. Each December there is an Alfriston Christmas Weekend. The village also has cricket and clay pigeon shooting clubs. Along the High Street there are three charming country pubs. It also has no less than four art galleries. In 1931, inspired by the beauty all around her in Alfriston, Eleanor Farjeon wrote the popular hymn Morning Has Broken, which later became a big hit for Cat Stevens.
St Andrew’s, the Alfriston parish church, has Saxon origins; although most of the building dates from the 14th century. Built in the shape of a cross, it sits on a small, flint-walled mound in the middle of the Tye, overlooking the Cuckmere river and surrounded by a flowered graveyard. Because of its size, it is known as the Cathedral of the South Downs. The 14th Century Alfriston Clergy House, originally the vicarage, was the first property to be acquired by the National Trust in 1896. It is a classic example of a Wealden hall house; with a thatched roof and timber-framed walls, a tranquil garden and orchard set on the banks of the Cuckmere.
Alfriston, like much of Sussex, is fast becoming a mecca for wine lovers, with its own vineyard tucked down a cobbled side slip and wine centre to boot.