One night in September, I looked up at one of the most impressive night skies I have seen for years. Thanks to most of us living in areas blighted by light pollution, it’s easy to forget how awe-inspiring a truly starry night actually is. Then I looked down and realised there was a hedgehog snuffling around just a metre or so away from me. It’s been years since I’ve seen a wild hedgehog, their numbers having collapsed over the last couple of decades due to their habitats being destroyed. Sadly, we have cut ourselves off from so many natural experiences like these, but for a couple of days I was able to recapture them, staying at Southease Youth Hostel, and it was all because of Southeast Communities Rail Partnership!

When I’m doing my day job, I’m a community rail support officer for Community Rail Network in the southeast, and that was how I first became aware of YHA Southease. One soggy winter’s day, I attended a meeting of Southeast Communities Rail Partnership’s Brighton-Seaford line’s steering group at Southease YHA, and thought to myself that I would have to come back (on a warmer day!). The YHA is a partner in the Brighton-Seaford line partnership, because it is keen to promote non-car access to its Southease site in particular, and the local area in general. Southease is nestled in the eastern end of the South Downs National Park, and the National Park Authority is also a partner in Southeast Communities Rail Partnership, with similar interests in promoting sustainable access to protect the National Park.

Southease YHA is perfectly located for a non-car holiday. I caught the Seaford train from Brighton, admiring the views of the city from the tall railway viaduct just beyond the station. If they could only get round to painting all the houses white and fitting them with red tiled roofs, you might think it was a Tuscan hill town! The train is soon into the South Downs, calling at little stations with evidence of community input into artworks and gardens, all brought together by Southeast Communities Rail Partnership. The Seaford line branches off to the south just past Lewes and the first stop on the branch line is Southease, a tiny halt in the Ouse Gap. I left the train, and as it hummed off down track, I was left on the platform with only the sounds of the wind in the trees, birds in the hedgerows, and just the distant swish of traffic on the A26.

The little three-carriage trains which serve Southease and the rest of the Seaford line are among Britain’s oldest. One-time inner-London commuter trains, they have retired (as many city folk do) to the more restful surroundings of the south coast. Refitted by train operator Southern, they now handle the Seaford line traffic quite ably, with spaces for wheelchairs and bicycles included in the middle carriage. That was very welcome, because I had brought my bike with me too, carrying clothes and provisions for my holiday.

At YHA Southease, I had booked one of their four wooden ‘pods’. It’s not quite glamping, but it’s certainly a step-up from a tent. With made-up beds inside, it is a cosy option, and there was a porch at the front for sitting on, watching the sunset, and cooking food on the camping stove I brought. During Covid restrictions, the YHA was offering only a limited takeaway service, but in more normal times there is a splendid café if you don’t want to cook your own food. The YHA has given a lot of thought to cycling, too. There was a cycle hoop by my pod, and a covered bike store near reception, with a lockable door for peace of mind. There was even a bike repair station on site.

The YHA is directly on the long-distance South Downs Way footpath/bike route. On my first evening, I walked a short distance along it to Southease’s village green. With an unusual round-towered church and surrounded by characterful houses, I’m amazed it isn’t constantly in use for filming period dramas. Then I walked the other way and up the youth hostel’s next-door hill for amazing views of the local area. If long-distance walking is your thing, the South Downs Way is one of the better organised ones, with plentiful signage and regular fresh water points. The one at Southease church even has a soap-on-a-rope!

There’s plenty to see and do along the Seaford line, especially if you have a bike to extend your range beyond the stations. The National Park Authority is building a segregated cycle path between Lewes and Newhaven on the coast, called the Egrets Way. Construction has started in the middle, and there is an excellent section at Southease, but it peters out a bit towards Newhaven and Lewes. It runs alongside the peaceful river Ouse for most of its length; you’ll almost certainly see the Egrets after which it is named, and possibly a kingfisher or two (I did).

If you’re a less confident cyclist who doesn’t want to deal with the yet-to-be-completed sections at the outer ends of the route, you might find it easier to pop your bike on the train and cycle once you get to your destination. At Newhaven, I looked in on Tidemills village, which I’ve seen from the train many times but never explored. It was abandoned during the Second World War but had been in decline for decades after its tidal mill closed. Now it’s just atmospheric ruins (including a more-or-less complete abandoned railway station) but with plentiful interpretation boards helping you make sense of what you’re seeing.

Pushing on towards Seaford, you can either cycle along the seafront or save your legs by taking the train. You’ll pass through Bishopstone station if you do, a curious inter-war building notable for the wartime pillboxes stuck onto its roof. Having suffered years of neglect, the station is finally getting some TLC from the rail industry, encouraged by the very active Friends of Bishopstone Station who are working on plans to restore the building to its inter-war glory and use it as a community meeting place.

Seaford is the end of the line, but I continued uphill by bike, to reach South Hill Barn. From there, it’s an easy walk down again to the sea at to Cuckmere Haven. You’ll recognise it as the classic view of the Seven Sisters white cliffs, with the old coastguard cottages in front (not least being featured in the recent film ‘Hope Gap’). It’s a popular but very beautiful place to spend time contemplating the sea, and generally doing a bit of mindfulness.

If you’re tired at the end of the day, putting your bike back on the train to return to Southease is easy from the centrally-located Seaford station (which has the most planters of any single platform station I ever did see, thanks to the Martello Rotary of Seaford, which is the station partner).

Following my night of star gazing and hedgehog spotting, the next day I headed up to Lewes for a more urban day of exploration. The town has a historic Norman castle, and there are plenty of intriguing streets to explore. I swear every time I visit I find a new one I didn’t know about. This time I spent a happy few hours pottering around the antiques shops on Cliffe High Street. The same street is also home to Harvey’s Brewery which to judge by the smell was busy brewing that very day. Lewes station has plenty of cycle parking if you’re keen to explore the town on foot, but it’s not hard to cycle round despite the hills. The station is also the headquarters of Southeast Communities Rail Partnership – so it’s one I’m very fond of. It boasts a very impressive station garden, tended to by the Friends of Lewes station, where waiting for a train becomes an absolute pleasure, which is exactly what I did before I headed for home.

So that was my community rail-inspired short break. I’d spent a happy few days seeing the South Downs without any need for a car, and finding getaway spots in the busy southeast of England. I even came back with a suntan!

Daniel Wright

Community Rail Network

Community Rail Support Officer