Alfriston, East Sussex: The ancient village packed with pubs and watery walks

For a small South Downs village, Alfriston has plenty of stories to tell. It is one of the oldest settlements in East Sussex, with Saxon foundations and Neolithic long barrows flanking its edges.

Visitors are drawn to its pretty, listed high-street, whose buildings include 18th- and 19th-century flint cottages, historic shops such as a former blacksmith and timbered pubs.

On the village green, the Tye, is the unusually large St Andrew’s Church, known as “the Cathedral of the Downs”. Beside it is the Clergy House, an early 15th-century, Wealden hall house that was the National Trust’s first acquisition in 1896. While it closes over winter, you can admire its timber-frame, medieval structure from the Tye or behind the reed beds of the Cuckmere River.

The village has a long tradition as a place of pilgrimage – it is on the long-lost Old Way from Southampton to Canterbury – and pilgrims can still overnight at the Old Chapel Centre.

There are many easy and interesting walks in the surrounding South Downs National Park and water-laced Cuckmere Valley, with curious hill figures the Long Man of Wilmington and Litlington White Horse a precursor to the chalky Seven Sisters cliffs, four miles south.

Getting there and around

The nearest stations are Berwick and Polegate, no more than 10 minutes’ drive (the 125 bus connects all three, compass-travel.co.uk). They are served by Southern Trains from Brighton, Eastbourne and London Victoria. Buses also run here from Seaford, Eastbourne and Lewes (cuckmerebuses.org.uk).

To mark this week’s Turner Prize in nearby Eastbourne, the Sussex Art Shuttle connects the host Towner Gallery with Alfriston, Charleston Farmhouse, Seven Sisters Country Park and Lewes four times a day at weekends. Hop-on, hop-off day tickets are £2.50 (sussexmodern.org.uk/artshuttle).

The cathedral of the Downs reflected in winter flood water
The cathedral of the Downs reflected in winter flood water (Photo: SeanEvisonSussex/Getty/iStockphoto)

Drop your bags

The Star is a 15th-century inn that once hosted pilgrims walking to the shrine of St Richard, patron saint of Sussex, at Chichester Cathedral. Now owned by local Olga and her daughter Alex Polizzi (Channel 5’s “Hotel Inspector”), it reopened two years ago with exquisite attention to detail – hand-painted stencils on timber floors, gnarled wood beams, a library with a secret door and 60 elegant bedrooms in a modern extension, as well as a historic suite above the pub. There is one room adapted for wheelchair use. Doubles start at £250 B&B, thepolizzicollection.com/the-star.

On the southern fringes of the village, Alfriston Cabins is a cluster of four timber cabins and shepherd’s huts in an orchard with river views. Some have hot tubs. From £125 for two, alfristoncabins.co.uk.

Browse the shops

Tucked away off Waterloo Square is Much Ado Books, a cabinet of curiosities in which books are intertwined with homemade crafts, pottery and antiquarian editions. There is a shepherd’s hut selling books for £2 (money supports a social enterprise), an art studio and a glass box of a room containing a working printing press (muchadobooks.com).

On the high street, Scandi-style homeware boutique Fern sells jewellery, ceramics, kitchenware, lotions and potions. Objet Trouvé has an interesting mix of items to liven up the smartest homes. And Emmett and White has an interesting collection of antiques, interiors and vintage clothing.

Much Ado About Books Alfriston Image supplied by Rowena Moore
Much Ado About Books
is a treasure trove (Photo: Rowena Moore)

Cosy cafés

The Old Village Bakery dates to 1510; villagers once carried their cakes to bake in its ovens. Now it hosts Badgers Tea House (closed Sun and Mon), where you can tuck into pancetta sandwiches or a decadent afternoon tea.

Rainy day refuges

On a south-facing slope of the Cradle Valley, the family-owned Rathfinny Estate has been producing sparkling wine for a decade on 230 acres on the outskirts of Alfriston. This year, it became the first sparkling wine grower-producer in the world to achieve B Corp status.

On a dry day, you could follow the Rathfinny Trail to see the vines, but the best way to experience it is on a guided tour and tasting at the Riba-nominated winery, which costs £27.50pp and takes place twice a day at weekends. There is also a restaurant, refreshment hut and accommodation, rathfinnyestate.com.

Around 20 minutes’ drive is the eye-catching Towner Eastbourne, where the Turner Prize will be announced on Tuesday. The gallery is hosting a free-to-visit exhibition of the nominees’ work until next April. Booking recommended, closed Mon (townereastbourne.org.uk).

Turner Prize 2023 Towner Eastbourne Jesse Darling - Turner Prize 2023 - Towner - Angus Mill Photographer Provided by nj@nicolajeffs.com
The Turner Prize 2023
at Towner Eastbourne
(Photo: Angus Mill Photographer)

A drink by the fire

For a village with a population of 760, Alfriston is well served by pubs. There are four to choose from, including The Star. Opposite, The George Inn dates to 1397, its garlanded hops and glowing inglenook fire offering a tempting retreat from winter weather.

On the Tye, The Six Bells is slightly more modern, dating to the 15th century, with brightly painted walls beneath its beams, while The Smugglers, a timber-fronted historic inn that speaks to the smuggling history of the Cuckmere Valley, serves ales from local microbreweries.

Dinner time

The Star is the heart of the village for drinks, Sunday lunches and elegant dinners. The cosy inn serves bar food from 3-6pm, but the Italian-leaning restaurant is worth booking for dinner, with the menu including sumptuous gravadlax, roast venison and braised Sussex beef tortelloni and fish dishes.

Beachy Head Visit Eastbourne Image supplied by Rowena Moore
Follow the white cliffs on a winter walk (Photo: Rowena Moore)

Winter walks

At the eastern end of the South Downs National Park, the heart of the Cuckmere Valley and five miles from one of the south’s longest stretches of undeveloped coastline, Alfriston has a wealth of walks on its doorstep.

The 160km South Downs Way skirts the village – you can follow it all the way to the end in Eastbourne, 12.5 miles away.

Alternatively, tackle a section along the Cuckmere River to Seven Sisters Country Park to follow the rise and fall of the white cliffs along the coast to Birling Gap. A shorter loop is along the river to neighbouring Litlington, where you can warm up in The Plough and Harrow or have a pint at the Long Man Brewery.

The Cuckmere Pilgrim Path connects the area’s historic churches. The longest section of 3.7 miles covers Alfriston to Wilmington (with its 1,600-year-old yew tree) via the Long Man (cuckmerepilgrimpath.org.uk).

Three things you might not know about Alfriston…

1) It is thought that children’s writer and poet Eleanor Farjeon was inspired by Alfriston when she wrote the hymn “Morning Has Broken”. Contemporary children’s writer Jacqueline Wilson lives in the village.

2) The Litlington White Horse consists of six tons of chalk and is the length of around three buses. The figure was first carved in 1836.

3) Nearby Charleston Farmhouse is well-known for its Bloomsbury set heritage. Less known is Berwick Church, whose beautifully painted interior was decorated by Duncan Grant, Vanessa Bell and Quentin Bell.