The white cliffs of Eastbourne

The white cliffs of Eastbourne
Beachy Head, United Kingdom

Beachy Head, United Kingdom


As on our first day in London, we decided to use our first day in Eastbourne to explore the city a bit with the Hop on Hop off bus tour. The tour goes along the seafront, then up to Beachy Head and does a lap around the road through the Sussex Downs and the town of East Dean and back into town and back along the seafront.

Lil Sis was keen to see the white cliffs around Beachy Head and Birling Gap. These are much the same as the white cliffs of Dover, and of many other areas along the south coast of England. These cliffs are continuously retreating due to a natural process of erosion and rock falls, which is always exposing new white chalk, which gives the cliffs their renowned white colouring.

The rate of erosion averages about a metre per year, and the tour commentary said in one recent year almost 7 metres of cliff was lost in some areas. Apparently the erosion happens in fits and starts rather than being a gradual process.

The authorities have decided that they won’t do anything to the area, and will let nature take its course. This includes not protecting any buildings that are close to the cliff face – basically once the cliff retreats so close to a building as to make it unsafe, the building will be demolished.

To quote the visitor guide – ‘Change here is inevitable, and adapting to it rather than trying to hold back the tide is the best way to secure a sustainable future for people and wildlife.’

It’s a bit surreal. There is a series of photos in the Visitor Centre showing how much the cliff at Birling Gap has receded over the past 100 years, and how many buildings have been lost.

After a slight hiccup, we got off the bus at the Beachy Point Visitor Centre and walked up to the track that follows the edge of the cliff. The first thing we noticed was the lack of fencing around the cliff edge and the very few signs that warned of ay danger. I guess this is because they’d have to move the fence every couple of years, and they assume that people are sufficiently aware of the danger of getting to close to the edge of an unstable cliff to keep a safe distance.

The first point of interest was the Beachy Head lighthouse. It’s actually on the beach rather than being on top of the cliffs like you might think a lighthouse would be. The reason for this is that the older lighthouse, Belle Toute, at the top of the cliff, used to get so obscured by fog that ships didn’t see it. Not a particularly useful lighthouse then.

The other interesting thing about Belle Tout is that it was in danger of being a victim of cliff erosion and they went to the trouble of moving it back 17 metres from the cliff in 1999. By my calculations, this gives it an expected lifespan in the new location of 17 years, which will run out in 2016. Whether they’re going to move it again, no one said.

We continued on the track past Belle Toute to Birling Gap, Here there is a visitor centre, a row of houses and steps down to the beach. I feel a bit sorry for the row of houses, because some have already been demolished and you can see the patching of the side wall of the house that is now closest to the cliff, and you wonder how much longer that house has left.

Once we’d walked down to the pebble beach and had a close up look at the cliffs, we caught the bus back to town (eventually), and it was time to visit our Aunt.

We had a fun afternoon and dinner with her and our youngest cousin.

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