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Beachy Head - the End of the Downs

Just a few miles west of Eastbourne, a seaside resort in East Sussex, lies the town’s best-known attraction - Beachy Head. Its white chalk cliffs, which form the termination of the South Downs, are with over 330 feet the highest in East-Sussex. By the way, the name Beachy Head is derived from the French word Beau Chef (beautiful head).

When I first arrived there in 1985 Beachy Head’s beauty captured me immediately. Looking towards the west I saw nothing but the sea and white chalk, looking east, I was greeted by a green landscape.

A woman, I met there, told me that you can sometimes see Dungeness in the east and the Isle of Wight in the west  - but I never managed to spot them!


Beachy Head's Lighthouse

However, the scene most visitors remember first, is that of the red and white lighthouse at the foot of Beachy Head. If you stand at the top of the cliffs, you may think that the tiny looking building comes straight from Lilliput! I had at first difficulties to find it because Beachy Head seemed so big. I was not the only one. ”Daddy, where is the lighthouse?” asked a little girl during my second visit.

You can make a cruise from Eastbourne to Beachy Head and I was surprised how big the 153 ft tall lighthouse seems when viewed from a boat.

Beachy Head has always been a notorious danger to shipping. First attempts to display signals during bad weather were made by Reverend Jonathan Darby, who spent many nights in a cave equipped with a lantern to warn passing ships. Mad Jack Fuller built the first lighthouse - Belle Tout - in 1828 on top of a cliff, but frequent mist obscured the lamp. The building was abandoned and is now privately owned.

The present lighthouse is of Cornish granite and was constructed between 1899 and 1902. The building materials and workmen had to be lowered from the top to the shore in baskets on an aerial ropeway. The lighthouse operates automatically now, and has a beam that is visible for 25 miles.


Exploring the downs

You can spend hours - yes, even days - exploring Beachy Head and the surrounding downland that is rich in history. Human activity has been taking place on this site even before the formation of the English Channel. The numerous tumuli and historic field systems in the vicinity are a testimony that people settled on Beachy Head in ancient times.

Agriculture played a significant part in the development of the Sussex Downs, but especially sheep farming helped to create the present landscape. When sheep frequently graze the land they browse off saplings and so there are hardly any shrubs and trees left. The high headland of Beachy Head is an important staging post for thousands of annually migrating birds and the home of a wide variety of flora and fauna.

If you want to learn more about the area’s history and wildlife, do not miss visiting the Beachy Head countryside centre of which the Sussex Wildlife Trust is in charge. Among the exhibits are a talking shepherd, a Bronze Age man, a maritime aquarium and a 3D slide show. The Wildlife Trust holds a series of special events and walks throughout the summer. The downland is ideal for those who love walking. A gentle stroll leads along a path that is dedicated to the United Nation’s international year of peace. The path is suitable for all, including wheelchair users. The long distance South Downs way that leads to Winchester (Hampshire) begins also near Beachy Head. If you are exhausted after all these activities, you can end your stay with a delicious meal or just a cup of tea at the Beachy Head Hotel. I always enjoy the walk from Beachy Head to Birling Gap. Here is the only beach between Eastbourne and Seaford. When you have reached it, you can refresh yourself at the restaurant there. Steps lead down to the pebble beach.


The Seven Sisters

The chalk cliffs on the right are the Seven Sisters, one of Sussex’s most photographed objects. You can always make a detour to the Seven Sisters Sheep Centre at East Dean. Here you can find a variety of breeds of sheep. Demonstrations are held on milking and shearing. Children will love it! If you still are fit, you can walk now across the Seven Sisters to the Seven Sisters Country Park, where nearly 700 acres of unspoilt countryside wait to be explored. A walk on the Seven Sisters (whose names are Haven Brow, Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flat Hill, Baily’s Hill, Went Hill Brow) is a unique experience but quite exhausting!

The river Cuckmere glides through this wild landscape. The meanders belong to the old course of the Cuckmere, as a new channel was cut in 1846. Sheep and cattle are roaming peacefully in the Country Park and you will find a broad range of flora and fauna. Majestic white cliffs encircle the river’s mouth at Cuckmere Haven; the Seven Sisters are on one side; opposite is Seaford Head. If you continue to walk across Seaford Head, which has a nature reserve and great views you reach Seaford.



This small town is not as busy and elegant as its neighbours Brighton and Eastbourne, but worth a visit. In the Middle Ages Seaford became a “ limp“ of the Cinque Port of Hastings. During the great storm of 1579, the river Ouse burst through its banks and was diverted to Newhaven. The loss of the river impaired Seaford as a port. Today it is a pleasant seaside resort, although it lacks grand attractions like a pier.

The parish church is dedicated to St. Leonard and was built by the Normans. In Church Street is a medieval crypt.

The Martello Tower on the seafront is the last of the seventy-four that were originally erected along the coast from here to Folkestone. It houses a local history museum. The word Martello is a corruption of Martella. The British army fought without success against such a tower in 1794 at Martella Point (Corsica). None of the towers were used for their initial purpose. Later, some of them were used for military and naval communication and as coastguard lookouts.

Copywright Rebecca Haertel