Wednesday, January 15, 2014
When the Devil’s Chimney, a 200ft high chalk tower that was part of the Beachy Head cliffs, collapsed into the sea in April 2001, there were several theories as to the cause: the rough seas that had been battering the rock-face throughout the preceding winter; driving rain that had penetrated the chalk and then frozen and expanded, causing the cliff to crack; a curse that had existed since Aleister Crowley, the fin de siecle occultist, had climbed the tower in 1894.
Discounting the third theory, the Environment Agency was certain that climate change was responsible for the first two. Increasingly stormy winters had accounted for the collapse of an even larger section of Beachy Head two years earlier, and the sudden disappearance of the Devil’s Chimney was part of an emerging pattern. But since those events at the turn of the century, coastal erosion at Beachy Head has been within expected limits for an undefended rock formation. However, at other points of the East Sussex shore, it has been a different story.
Slightly to the west at Birling Gap - a dip in the high coastline - several cottages on the low cliffs have been lost to gradual erosion in recent decades, and the turn of this year brought a more dramatic alteration to the cliff-face. The powerful swelling sea that buffeted the south coast at New Year, claimed a 3-metre section of chalk, making the cliff edges unstable and closing the already precarious steps down to the beach. Much more spectacularly, at Rock-a-Nore to the east of Hastings, the sandstone cliffs suffered a dramatic collapse after days of heavy seas pounding their base. The remarkable day-time rock fall was captured on film by eyewitnesses.
The effect of the continuing winds, whipping up the power of the sea, is that the craggy East Sussex coastline has become a treacherous place and coastal paths have had to be closed, limiting access to cliff and shore in many places. Perhaps walking the more sedate coastal plain of West Sussex is the way forward for the rest of this wild winter.