Walkies Over the Cliff and Other Stories
Beachy Head. The highest chalk headland on the English south coast. The stark vertical face of the white cliffs is dramatically attractive. But this place has a dark side; only yards away from the regularly used tracks and busy main road, is the unfenced, jagged cliff edge with a 500 feet drop down to the sea. Not only have human lives been tragically lost here, animals have fallen over, and many, amazingly, have survived. Retired Coastguard, Gary Russell, had seen it all in his time; reported sightings must all be investigated, whether bodies or bedsteads, cars, dogs, bikes, old fridges and pianos, even hoaxes, such as the ’body’ that turned out to be a black raincoat. With quiet modesty he said, “It was a job and somebody had to do it. I took it all in my stride.” But he has never forgotten the time he risked his life, and had his cliff rescuing skills challenged, when he was trying to save a large and surly tempered Doberman, ‘Simon’ who’d fallen onto a ledge 80 feet down. He said, “Animal rescues are given the same priority as human rescues, and in addition to our standard casualty equipment, we have a special net with draw-strings. Simon possessed a threatening set of heavy-duty teeth, a fiercesome growl and repelled all help. I did eventually manage to get the rescue net around him, swung it over my shoulder and signalled to be hauled up.” All that was between Gary and a stomach – churning drop were two strong ropes, two four-foot metal stakes, a portable petrol driven winch, a sturdy Land-Rover and 8 auxiliary coastguards. “As we were being hauled up together, Simon was chomping his way through the net and appeared to be fast heading for my throat. I could feel his hot breath on my neck; it was becoming a race to see whether I got to the top in one piece or several.” Called upon by a distraught owner whose three year old cocker spaniel, ‘Sonny’, had excitedly chased a seagull and fallen onto a ledge 300 feet down, Gary arrived and got into his rescue gear. They could tell by the non-stop barking that Sonny was still alive, and he was easily persuaded into the pet net. Gary got up to the cliff top and handed him over to an attending vet, who found, to the owners relief, that a slight back leg fracture and a hefty bruise were the only injuries that Sonny had sustained . Gary did not fare so well; he found, on changing back into his everyday clothes, someone had stolen his shoes. One of the luckiest dogs to survive a fall over Beachy Head was 11 month old, Springer spaniel, Sheba. Her owners, Tim and Tamsin Castle, and their two sons, Ben, 8 and Alex, 5, had come up to Beachy Head to watch the much heralded moving of the Belle Tout lighthouse. As they opened their car door, Sheba jumped out and they could only watch in frozen horror as she chased a seagull and disappeared over the cliff edge. Tim Castle said, “I was sure she wouldn’t have survived. My heart lurched when I saw her go over. We called the police who alerted the coastguards; but the inshore lifeboat was on an exercise in the area, and the crew could not believe their eyes when they saw Sheba running up and down the beach, in fact she was so full of beans, she was difficult to get hold of. After tumbling down 300 feet, she had, incredibly, sustained nothing more than a bruised eye.” Vet Richard Allport commented, “Unlike us, dogs don’t tense up when they fall, which helps reduce the injuries. But it is still a hell of a drop.” In recent years hang gliders and model aeroplanes have been added to the casualty list. A visitor flying his model plane, tried to retrieve his big boy’s toy after it crashed onto a cliff ledge some 80ft below. Having found he could not reach the plane, nor climb back up, rescuers were called. As he was being hauled up, a gust of wind blew the plane off the ledge and it broke up on the rocks below. This is a favoured area for hang gliding, although the occasional flight can go wrong; Unexpected air currents have spoilt landings, even experienced fliers can run into problems. In 1978 a visitor from France, eager to try out this popular location, borrowed a glider, but on coming in to touchdown was suddenly dragged sideways by turbulence whipping across the cliff face. Police Constable, Tom Daly, who witnessed the event reported,”…..he tried to regain control as he dropped downwards….but failed to make a proper landing…breaking an arm and a leg after plunging 100m to the rocky floor. …the pilot had to be taken off to safety by Eastbourne’s inshore rescue boat.” The borrowed glider was returned to its owner in a badly damaged condition. Gary could recall a lighter moment when one of the downland sheep took a fancy to a juicy clump of grass growing a few feet below the cliff edge. Only in Britain would a team of coastguards, three farmers and several members of the public turn out to try and rescue a sheep. Gary said, “This daft animal was balanced on a tiny bit of rock shaking like a leaf. One wrong move and it would have become a roast dinner, so we gently lowered a lasso and got that around its neck, gave its backside a whack with a long shepherd’s crook, it jumped into the net and we quickly pulled it up.” A dog with more lives than the average cat was TK, a Jack Russell terrier; having previously been kicked by a horse, gashed on a barbed wire fence and survived eating poisoned fox bait, he tried to top all that by trying to fly off of Beachy Head. His owner, racing pigeon fancier, Ian Brett, had travelled from Hackney to the coast, to give his birds a training flight. But, as the pigeons flew out to sea, TK gave an excited yelp and tried to follow them. The Eastbourne lifeboat searched along the shoreline, and volunteer crewman, Eddie Buckland said: ‘This poor, sopping wet dog was inside one of the coves, looking so upset. It was such a sight to see his face change when he saw somebody had come to rescue him.’ The discovery on Beachy Head in the 1970’s, of a plastic sack containing a pile of bones coated in rotting flesh caused some alarm, but further investigation revealed that, because of a strike by refuse collectors, someone had made alternative disposal arrangements. In May 1960, in a suicide attempt a young man drove over Beachy Head in a Volkswagen car. But the vehicle was made of tough stuff, it landed on the beach, some 350 feet below, virtually intact, with its driver inside in a similar condition. The VW Company was running a nationwide publicity campaign at that time with the slogan, ‘Underneath it’s still a Volkswagen.’ It wasn’t long before it was suggested that this ought to be rephrased, ‘At the bottom it’s still a Volkswagen.’ Walking your dog on Beachy Head, take care and keep it on a lead. With the temptation of gulls, rabbits and pigeons to chase, fascinating smells to follow, it is too easy for your pet to topple over the cliff edge.