by Harry Pope
Nature has her own way of weeding out the weakest, but sometimes people have to be protected from themselves for their own good. Eastbourne’s Beachy Head is a case in point.
It is a sheer 600ft cliff face made up of millions of infinitesimal ancient crustaceans that died when the sea receded, forming the beauty spot we all now know and love. Unfortunately, nature being what it is, the cliff is crumbly, sections disappearing into the waiting sea below when the fissure cracks open. Sometimes the section will be big, taking with it what is on top. This can include grass, earth, shrubs, and if they are too close, humans. Hence nature taking those unable to appreciate properly the danger they place themselves in. This is despite warning signs in many languages, and paths that don’t take you too close to the cliff’s edge. Let’s face it, who wants to be the sign erector who has to place the warning to use your own common sense.
Beachy Head is the start of the South Downs Way, to the west of Eastbourne on England’s south coast. 10,000 years ago there was no such thing as the English Channel, England was connected to France so you could just casually stroll across as long as you didn’t encounter a woolly mammoth or some such predator. However the combined strength of the North Sea and Atlantic Ocean created sufficient pressure to separate, leaving at the eastern end the White Cliffs of Dover, and Beachy Head between Hastings and Brighton. Said cliffs were a constant threat to shipping, with sharp rocks at the base waiting for an errant mariner to be thrown on the shore in a strong lee wind. As recently as the 18th century plans were afoot for some kind of lighthouse warning, but there were various obstacles, such as strong winds, fog, and easily extinguishable fires. Not necessarily in that order.
Smugglers used Beachy Head with the surrounding cliffs and beaches, with customs men constantly patrolling. As many as three hundred small craft were used in a 1769 exercise, and in the early 1830s in successive springs firearms were discharged. There are many instances of the smugglers meeting their end swinging on a rope at Execution Dock.
Invention advancing by 1900, there was a new permanent lighthouse at the bottom of the cliff. The previous one was disused, because fog could potentially obscure the light. People still came to Beachy Head for the lovely views, you can see shipping in the Channel, Brighton and Newhaven to the west are there for the naked eye, on a clear day even eastwards beyond the Hastings peninsula. How pleasant to take a picnic, sit on the grass, watch other people stroll along, oblivious to the potentially crumbling cliffs. Which will disappear without any warnings. I have seen a 1935 photo of a man close to the edge, where a gap has occurred. He is actually standing in this trench, up to his chest, grinning only as a poser for a photo can do, unwilling to concede that he has placed not only himself in serious mortal danger, but the person with the camera. And he looks pleased with himself.
During WW1 many troops were stationed in the area, and I have previously written an article about a newly promoted officer who was on his honeymoon in Eastbourne. He had a new automobile, they took it out for a spin to Beachy Head. They parked, went for a walk, she returned to the car, he continued his stroll. When he returned, no car, no bride, they were both at the bottom of the cliff. She had inadvertently disengaged the hand brake, trapped and panicking, it had slowly rolled over the edge. For many years at least fifty people annually took their lives, but now the road has wooden stakes alongside to stop vehicles from driving onto the Downs. There are also a team of volunteer Chaplains permanently on site to talk to people with suicidal tendencies. They have had major success over the years, proving their worth over and over again.
The old Beachy Head lighthouse was empty for many years, but then converted after WW2 into an upmarket bed and breakfast. In 1999 the cliff was crumbling ever closer, so in one day the whole building was placed on rollers, very slowly edging away so it is now safe for many years to come.
Birling Gap is a couple of miles to the west of Beachy Head, originally with eight lifeguards cottages. Erosion has taken three already to the depths below, the other five are uninhabitable. The café across the car park saw some of its garden disappear one spring in the 2010s, you can still get really close if you really want to………………
A lot of visitors come from Asia, they are the ones who frequently get too close to the edge. I have seen photos of visitors sitting on the top, feet dangling over nothing except 600ft of air, posing as if it is the most natural thing in the world to place their lives in danger. What was it I said about nature taking the weakest?
The whole area is outstandingly beautiful, within three miles of Eastbourne with its long flat promenade. The nature has to be seen to be appreciated, flora in abundance, a large variety of wild birds, Eastbourne Borough Council owns some of the farmlands, it really is an area of outstanding beauty. Treat Beachy Head with respect, it has so much to offer all ages, mobility, and appreciation.