Monday, March 28, 2016

Close to the Edge

I have an old black and white photograph of myself taken - out of focus - at Beachy Head by my dad on a Kodak Instamatic camera, probably in 1971. I am standing close to the cliff edge, rictus grin of fear frozen on my face, pointing down at the sea 500 feet below. Barely discernible at the bottom of the photograph is the tiny smudge of a lighthouse. Out walking to Birling Gap recently I came across, not only that lighthouse, but another that I have no recollection of from that family holiday forty-five years ago.

The Beachy Head lighthouse is an enduring image: with its red and white marker stripes and its position nestling close to the coastline at the foot of the high cliffs, it has entered our collective consciousness. Ask any child to draw a lighthouse and it is likely that they will produce something like this 140-foot structure that shines a warning light nine miles out to sea just west of Eastbourne.

For the past thirty years, the lighthouse has been automated; throughout the years before that it had been maintained and operated by a team of at least three keepers since its construction in 1902. But the perilous Beachy Head cliffs were not just a 20th century danger to shipping: there had been numerous shipwrecks there during the 17th and 18th centuries which led Sussex Member of Parliament ‘Mad Jack’ Fuller to fund the construction of the first navigational aid for mariners at Beachy Head in 1829, the Belle Tout lighthouse.

The Belle Tout was originally made of wood but the decision was soon taken to invest in the construction of a permanent granite structure. However, it was not a great success as a lighthouse: its location at the top of the huge cliffs meant that it was not easily seen by shipping close to the shoreline and it was eventually replaced by the current sea-level lighthouse.

Despite this, the Belle Tout still exists today but not as a functioning lighthouse. Currently a bed and breakfast hotel, it has had many incarnations since it was decommissioned: private residence, historic monument and film location amongst them. It is perhaps best known as the setting for the BBC’s 1986 adaptation of Fay Weldon’s novel, The Life and Loves of a She-Devil, starring Julie T. Wallace and Patricia Hodge. What is most remarkable about the Belle Tout lighthouse, though, is its escape from coastal erosion: in 1999 the building was moved, whole and intact, away from the crumbing cliff, using hydraulics and rollers, to a new location 50 feet further inland. I know what it is like to be too close to the edge.

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