High on the chalky sward switchback of the South Downs, the skylarks are rejoicing once more. Violets and celandines peep through the grass. Spring is here and from April 12 self-catering holidays are allowed. Where better to celebrate your new freedom than a little place that feels like the middle of nowhere but is only a grassy stroll from the beach – and some nice food shops – and where the hiking is superb? Oh, and London is just 90 minutes away.
For the past fortnight, my father and I have been the first guests in the only self-catering accommodation on Beachy Head. Black Robin Farm cottages are three early 20th-century farmworkers’ quarters nestled in a fold of the South Downs, hidden from any roads.
Our stay is ‘essential’ as my octogenarian father would otherwise be homeless, mid house-move. So here we are in what must be one of the most spectacularly sited council houses in the country. Yes, Black Robin Farm holiday cottages – and the farm – are owned by Eastbourne Borough Council.
Nearly a century ago, the council made the pioneering decision to buy 4,100 acres of downland to the west of town. They wanted to save this headland – whose name is a corruption of the French ‘Beau Chef’ (beautiful head) – from being spoilt by developments of hundreds of bungalows as was happening a few miles away towards Brighton. Thanks to the council’s farsightedness, Beachy Head remains largely as it was in the 1920s, its whaleback hills undulating smoothly, unscarred by silhouettes of man-made structures save for the odd barn and the clifftop Belle Tout lighthouse.
The 1930s landscape artist Eric Ravilious would still recognise the downland scenes he painted, capturing the pale landscape that reflects sunshine from chalk. (Although the Long man of Wilmington was recently vandalised with the addition of a mask.)
Black Robin Farm’s ‘cottages’ are certainly not as pretty as a picture but white interiors, well-equipped kitchen, wi-fi, expensive fabrics and quality bedding all make for a comfortable stay. We are the first guests since the council undertook a £30,000 makeover to the properties which had been lying idle for five years.
“Tourism is a major earner for the town,” says Annie Wills, the council’s head of tourism and enterprise. With the cancellation of crowd-pulling events such as the tennis and the international air show, Airbourne, the coffers need topping up.
“Renovating the cottages so we can let them out is the first step in a plan for the Eastbourne Downland to earn the council more income.” It is an about-turn from a previous plan which was to sell off the downland to the highest bidder. The public outcry soon put a stop to that. After all, Eastbourne’s pioneering purchase of open countryside for conservation was heralded by royalty.
In 1929, when the then Duke and Duchess of York (later to become George VI and Queen Elizabeth) visited to celebrate the occasion the westerly winds blew so strongly that it was impossible to erect a marquee. The Times reported, no doubt with understatement, that the ceremony “took place in rather rough weather”.
For the first few days of our stay, those prevailing westerlies – that dramatically sculpt the hawthorns – barrelled up from Birling Gap and whistled through the windows.
“They’ll have to fix that,” said Dad, as smart William Morris blinds danced in the draught. But on other days, our south-facing cottage was warm and light-filled and we sat outside at heavy garden furniture with a glimpse of dazzling sea, feeling at peace in the gently rolling hills, watching early spring lambs on wobbly legs. Once or twice we saw the tenant farmer zipping about on his quad bike, a collie enjoying the ride.
Philip Fenner, 27, has been farming this land for just two years. He has 500 sheep and 50 cattle on the 1,000 acres. “I’m an environmentalist at heart,” he said as we chatted one day. “The chalk land needs to be grazed to allow the wildflowers – birdsfoot trefoil, lady’s bedstraw, orchids – to flourish,” he said. Philip rents one of the workers’ quarters as his home. He looks forward to the company of holidaymakers as neighbours “as long as they control their dogs and don’t let them run loose among the sheep.” The worry about canine attacks explains the unfortunately ugly fencing surrounding the rough patch of turf that passes for a garden. We soon learn to ignore it and enjoy the wave of sheep-flecked greenness beyond.
Although these single-storey ‘cottages’ (shall we call them bungalows?) feel isolated, there’s a bus stop – for a summertime bus service – just three minutes’ walk away at the end of the drive. Eastbourne town centre and train station is a 20 minute bus ride away while the nearest food shops are a 20 minute grassy sea-view walk over the Downs to the Meads village area of Eastbourne as is the local beach, Holywell, in the lee of the luminous chalk edge of the land. I walked there for pre-breakfast swims.
One morning, the sea whispered gently at the pebbles and was so finely rippled in an almost imperceptible breeze that it had the metallic sheen of a mackerel. Near the bottom of steep steps to the beach, a local man, Levi Gardner, was excavating the original Holy Well, a mineral spring that trickles down the cliff.
“People come from all over to drink this water. It has healing powers,” he said, taking a break, leaning on his spade, shirtless and tattooed. “Our bodies are mostly water and this is all natural, untreated, perfect.” Levi has become a messianic figure of sorts and he now has several followers, young people furloughed from their tourism jobs who turn up at the Holy Well from before sunrise to labour with him. Having dug several metres down through the pebbles, they are now constructing an amphitheatre of chalky boulders around the spring.
“I love nature and this feels like giving something back to the area and community,” said one, Jeff, as he heaved a boulder into place.
There are longer walks than the stride to the beach; miles of long distance routes such as the South Downs Way and Weald Way. Most day-trippers content themselves with a section of the well-trodden coastal path with its views of the lighthouse and coastguard cottages teetering on the edge at Birling Gap where there’s a National Trust tea room, a welcome break before tackling the serious rollercoaster of the Seven Sisters.
First-time visitors recklessly approach the precipitous cliff edges but be warned, these chalk faces are pristinely white because they are constantly crumbling away at some 70cm a year. If you’d rather steer clear of such dangers - and crowds - head inland, where lesser-visited bridleways and footpaths meander through gentle valleys, with distant sea views.
Eastbourne’s motto is ‘Meliora sequimur’, we follow the better things. As you explore these rolling hills, skylarks singing above you, spare a thought for those early councillors who took their motto to heart. Now, more than ever, we are thankful for such spaces.
You can find out more about Black Robin Farm here. There is availability from April 17.