Most of us are familiar with the iconic view of the Beachy Head lighthouse from on top of the cliffs. It is a popular beauty spot with a great view across the English Channel, on a fine summers day with a gentle sea breeze there is no better place to be for a picnic.
Many people walk across the cliff tops from Eastbourne to Birling Gap. Here there is a cafe ideally situtrated for a cuppa and a piece of cake before making the return journey. But did you know that you can also walk under the cliffs along the beach, however this is a walk for the more adventurous. In fact it is possible to walk the whole length of the beach from Eastbourne to Cuckmere Haven.
Isn’t it dangerous?
Potentially yes. You have to get the tides right with the timing of your walk. If you get caught out by the tide you will certainly need rescuing, and the chances of drowning before help comes are very high. It is not an easy walk either, it is very rocky and the rocks can be very slippery because of the liberal coating of seaweed. Good sturdy footwear is required and a certain amount of agility.
So why do it?
Well for me part of it was the challenge of beating the tide, that slight danger of being cut off and our lives being in peril, and part the appeal of doing a walk that was out of the ordinary – it had an edgy feel about it. Having grown up near the south coast the light house was a very familiar land mark to me which always seemed ‘over there’ far out to sea, temptingly drawing but always out of reach. To have actually stood in its front door was a feeling I cannot explain. Perhaps it was like stealing into the headmasters office, being somewhere that had been until that moment, really taboo.
Walking the beach
It is easy to find out the tide times on Google, but it is important to leave plenty of time before high tide. The sea will cut you off before it reaches it’s highest point. It is of course possible to start the walk before the sea hits it’s low tide point. I think that probably there is 3-4 hours when it is possible to walk along the beach.
The cliffs are quite awesome as they tower high above you, they are also very dangerous. The chalk cliffs are very unstable and each year tons of chalk falls onto the beach and into the sea. We walked well away from the cliffs. On the day that I walked along the beach, at one point I heard a rumbling noise behind me, looking back I saw a small landslide of rocks which thankfully I was no where near. But I took note of the warning
These huge white walls bear testimony to the passing of time, like wrinkles on an old mans face the cracks and fissures speak of their longevity. Their pure white faces are marred by the forces of the weather and the sea, and vegetation desperately clings to to any slopes they provide. Occasionally small caves have been washed out of the chalk, like sirens they tempted me to come and explore their seeming innocence hiding the true danger of possibly collapsing.
The beach itself is a field of rocks and boulders and traversing it is as hard work as scrambling up any mountain. Progress is slow and the chance of slipping on the seaweed covered rocks is great, the challenge though is not to be denied. Small rock pools are everywhere demanding investigation, a hopeful eye looking for some strange small sea creature like a crab, and there are plenty of them caught in the shallows. There is no shortage of flotsam and jetsam washed up on the shore line, much of it is nothing more than drift wood or old fishing netting but their is always the chance of finding something more interesting or valuable.
The lighthouse stands solid and defiant against the waves and the crumbling cliffs. Built from Cornish Granite stone, for 117 years it has stood its ground warning sailors of the dangers of the cliff. Until 1983 the lighthouse was manned by three keepers, today it is fully automated and maintained by Trinity House. To stand on the platform of the lighthouse strictly speaking is trespassing, but who can resist standing on that once forbidden land.
We started our walk from Eastbourne and walked west along the beach to Birling Gap where a wooden stair case takes you back up onto the cliff top. By the time we reached the steps we were ready for a drink and a snack at the cafe. It was quite delightful sitting drinking a coffee watching the gentle waves of the English Channel. After our break we headed back to Eastbourne across the top of Beachy Head, a much easier walk. By the time we were able to see the lighthouse from the cliffs the tide was in, and again the lighthouse was cut off from all intruders.
It is not a walk I would recommend on a bad weather day, ours was cold and sunny which was just perfect.
If you want a little adventure and doing something different then try this. We went back another day and did the stretch from Birling Gap to Cuckmere Haven. The main feature of that stretch of the beach are the remains of shipwrecks that sadly the lighthouse did not manage to save.