Cycling from Guildford

Cycling routes throughout the South East, accessible from Guildford in a day

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Route E: East Sussex Coast: Eastbourne to Rye

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Summary This route continues the circuit of England's South East coast, following NCN2. Starting from the car park at Pevensey Bay and a short diversion to visit Pevensey Castle, the route ambles across the Pevensey Levels to Bexhill-on-Sea, where it's well worth stopping to visit the art deco De La Warr Pavilion. Then a traffic free path beside the beach brings you to Hastings, where the old quarter is a pleasant contrast to the new. After a stiff climb through Hastings Country Park you descend onto the Pett Level. If you have time, call in at the interesting Cinque Port town of Winchelsea before pressing on to the equally interesting ancient town of Rye. Get the train back to Eastbourne and return, in part along the sea front, to Pevensey.
Distance/time: 28 miles Pevensey to Rye (plus 6 miles ride back to car from Eastbourne); whole day
Start: Car Park at Pevensey Bay
Free in low season, pay and display in high season.
Finish: Rye Railway Station
Take the train back to Eastbourne and ride back to your car.
Transport: Load your bike on your car and drive to Pevensey Bay from Guildford (about 1hr 40mins via the M25, M23, A27, A22).

From Rye there is usually 1 train per hour to Eastbourne, journey time approx 40 minutes. The trains generally have only two coaches and hence can get very crowded.

Conditions under the tyre: The NCN2 from Pevensey to Rye generally follows sea front promenade, quiet roads or tracks (from Bexhill to Hastings, through Hasting Country Park and between Winchelsea and Rye).

The route from Eastbourne back to Pevensey Bay has a short stretch of cycle path along the promenade, and some roadside cycle track, otherwise on quite busy roads.

The main hill is the climb out of Hastings up to the Country Park. As their name suggests, the Levels are pretty flat!
Reverse route: If the wind is an easterly you may do better to reverse the route (ie cycle to Eastbourne first, train to Rye, cycle back to Pevensey.
Route variations:
You could cut the route short by catching the train at Bexhill or Hastings back to Eastbourne (or Pevensey).

Instead of taking the inland road across the levels from Pevensey Bay, you can take the coast road, which passes through housing until emerging into the open nearing Norman's Bay.

A novel alternative to the gruelling climb out of Hastings is to take the East Cliff Railway.
Route description: From Pevensey Bay car park, head north to Pevensey village to A259. A short diversion into the village on the B2191 takes you to Pevensey Castle.

Back on the NCN2, continue on the A259, to a roundabout where take the last exit onto a minor road across Pevensey Levels and join the B2182 through Cooden. (Alternatively, from Pevensey Bay car park take the Coast Road which emerges from the Pevensey sprawl at Norman's Bay; cross the railway and rejoin the main route.) At Cooden, you can take the quieter side roads (Beaulieu Road, Hartfield Road, S Cliff) to the Bexhill seafront. Stop off at the De La Warr Pavilion, then continue on the sea front road and then the traffic free path along the clifftop and descending quite steeply to Glyne Gap. The cycle path continues on the shingle bank sea defence next to the railway and pleasingly close to the shingle beach: the path is underpinned by mesh, making for good riding all the way to Bulverhythe where the cycle path along St Leonard's sea front is joined.

The cycle path carries on past (sadly derelict) Hastings pier (the shared use path can be quite busy with pedestrians, so take care), then rejoin the main road and look out for the High Street to your left. Ride up the High Street till it ends at A259 London Road. Cross this road into Harold Road. This rises steeply: keep following the NCN2 signs up Barley Lane. (NB A novel alternative is to take the East Cliff Railway from the Stade area of Hastings. This carries bikes: you emerge on the shoulder of the hill, with good views over Hasting Old Town. Now make your way approx NE rising quite steeply over grass to the hill crest and exit via Rocklands Lane to rejoin Barley Lane on the main route.) On Barley Lane, pass through a gate and continue along the traffic free road through Hastings Country Park, soon turning sharp left (approx North) to join Fairlight Road, where there is a car park with toilets. Then descend to cross the Royal Military Canal at Cliff End. There is then a long, flat stretch on the road behind the sea wall which defends the Pett Level.

This road curves round to pass Winchelsea - if you have time, do take Strand Road and climb through the last remaining medieval gate to visit this fascinating town. Otherwise carry on till, at a hair pin bend, Station Road will take you past Winchelsea Station, and on along a trackway beneath the escarpment to Rye. Take some time to visit the town, before making your way down to the station.

Refreshments: You pass through many towns and villages along the way, so refreshments and facilities are never far away. Here are some possibilities.

Cafe on the beach adjacent to Pevensey Bay Car Park.

Cafe in De La Warr Pavilion (with great sea views from the terrace).

Plenty of fish and chips in Hastings.

Pub in Winchelsea.

Numerous cafes, tea rooms, pubs in Rye.

Points of Interest

Pevensey Bay and Pevensey Levels Pevensey Bay is the site of the landing of William the Conqueror in 1066 (possibly this is how Normans Bay gets its name). Whilst the present shingle beach was probably in existence at that time, the area now called the Pevensey Levels was a tidal lagoon, with Pevensey Castle built on a peninsula jutting into the mouth of this lagoon.

Pevensey Castle Beginning in the 4th century as one of the last and strongest of the Roman 'Saxon Shore' forts, two-thirds of whose towered walls still stand. During the century after the Conquest a full-scale Norman castle, with a great square keep and a powerful gatehouse, was built within one corner of the fort. In the 1250s the towered bailey wall was constructed, and soon put to the test during the great siege of 1264.

The Pevensey Levels comprise low-lying marshland supporting a rich community of plants and animals including the rare Fen Raft Spider, twenty-one of Britain's 38 dragonfly species, twenty per cent of Sussex' breeding population of yellow wagtails and four of Britain's rarest freshwater snails. Sadly, there has been a decline in the numbers of breeding and wintering birds, probably due to the installation of pumped drainage in the late 1960s.

The De La Warr Pavilion at Bexhill was commissioned by the 9th Earl De La Warr in 1935 and designed by architects Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff. It was the UKs first public building built in the Modernist style. The Pavilion reopened in 2005 following a major renovation.

Hastings is situated in the valley between East and West Hills, which are both served by steep funicular railways. The Normans moved their camp to outside the old town from their landing place at Pevensey Bay, and after the conquest built the castle on West Hill. The attractive old town, in marked contrast to the more recent developments, is clustered around the High Street. Hastings became a Cinque Port in medieval times, and still hosts the largest beach based fishing fleet in England: the area called the Stade under East Hill is occupied by their tall, black wooden net houses.

The Stade is the home for the Jerwood Gallery of contemporary art, an ambitious but controversial project to help Hastings' regeneration; unfortunately, the choice of black for the gallery's walls did not allow for the effect of sea gull droppings.

The Royal Military Canal, which is crossed at Cliff End, was not really a canal in the transport sense, rather it was built between 1804 and 1808 as a defensive ditch to stop a French invasion across Romney Marsh (it was known by locals as 'Mr Pitt's Ditch'). Running from Seabrook, near Folkestone around the back of the Romney Marsh to the River Rother near Rye, a distance of 19 miles, it was hugely expensive and, since Napoleon lost interest in invading England, was viewed in hindsight as a monumental folly. Today it serves to regulate water levels on the Marsh, and as a focus for leisure activities - such as cycling.

The beach and cliffs of Fairlight can be accessed from the village of Pett Level: they are said to be good for fossil hunting. On the foreshore at Cliff End, the peaty remains of a much younger submerged forest can be seen. This forest grew below the cliffs at Pett some 6000 years ago at a time when sea level was about 30 m lower than today. A rise in sea level gradually flooded the forest the remains of which can be seen at low tide.

The grazing marshes of Pett Level are part of the Dungeness, Romney Marsh and Rye Bay Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), that is protected for its wide range of nationally important habitats that make up the largest and most diverse areas of shingle beach in Britain. The habitats attract all sorts of rare animals from water voles, great crested newts and wading birds like curlew, to rare invertebrates like the fen raft spider.

The ancient town of Winchelsea was founded by Edward I to replace the town originally sited beneath the current hill top site which was lost to the sea. It has a grid pattern layout of streets, many delightful lanes and buildings, an impressive church (St Thomas') and 3 remaining medieval gates. The harbour was at the base of the hill, but soon silted up, and the town is now some way from the sea.

North of Winchelsea, you cross the River Brede Valley. During the Ice Age, the valley was considerably deeper than it is today, but it later filled with sediment, leading to the surprisingly wide flat valley lying between the Icklesham and Udimore 'ridges': the cycle path between Winchelsea and Rye passes beneath the prominent preserved cliff line of Cadborough Cliffs.

Rye is a humdinger of a town. Its origins date back before the Conquest. From 1205-1247, it came under French rule. As a thriving and important port, in the thirteenth century, Rye along with others, was granted special taxation rights as a Cinque port, in return for which the town had to provide ships and men to the King. (Originally, as the name Cinque Ports suggests, the Confederation originally comprised the five ports of Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover and Sandwich). The sea hereabouts has progressively withdrawn. In the 13th century it is said that Rye was a town on a promontory almost surrounded by the sea, with a harbour below. From this time storms caused shingle to accumulate and the surrounding area to progressively silt up. In the 16th century, for example, nearby Camber Castle was built by Henry VIII at the high water line, but by the time of Charles I the sea had receded 2 miles rendering the castle useless. Rye's function as a major port inevitably disappeared, but it seems to have survived as a sleepy market town. There are many fine buildings. There were originally 4 gates, but only the Landgate remains, along with the Ypres Tower. Climb the Church Tower for views over the town to Romney Marsh, and wander the cobbled streets. Visit Lamb House, home of novelist Henry James.

Finding your way The route from Pevensey on NCN2 is well signed as such. Navigating your way from Eastbourne Station to the sea front is reasonably easy: if you get lost, follow the 'sea front' signs. It's a pity more of the esplanade is not open to cyclists: watch for the esplanade cycle path between Princes Park and the Marina.

Most of the route is covered by Ordnance Survey 1:50,000 sheet 199 Eastbourne and Hastings, but you will need sheet 189 for the last mile or so into Rye. For greater detail you need OS Explorer 1:25,000 sheets. The bulk of the route - from Pevensey to Winchelsea - is covered on sheet 124, but you will need 123 for the return from Eastbourne Station, and 125 for the final mile or so into Rye.