Rugged chalk cliffs skirt the coastline of East Sussex in Southern England. On the very first day of August, slightly orange sunbeams gild these impressive rock formations in a way that makes me believe they’re actually made of gold. The shiny cliffs and the sound of the foamy wave crests hitting the rocky shore make me fall into a peaceful trance. I’m spellbound by the surrounding beauty, gentle crashing of the waves and joyful chirp of the birds racing towards the horizon.
Despite the peaceful beauty, something dark is surging below the surface. In reality, the serenity that takes me over when I stroll on top of the cliffs suddenly feels like an illusion.
Seven Sisters photographed from the Birling Gap Beach.
The line of chalk cliffs begins from Seaford and stretches along the coast all the way to Eastbourne. The first seven ramparts are known as the Seven Sisters. A 22-km-long hiking trail follows the coastline between the two towns. It’s said to be the most beautiful trek in South-East England, and it’s really easy to believe.
After the seventh sister, Went Hill Brow, you’ll be able to spot Belle Tout Lighthouse. Once strolling pass Belle Tout, your gaze will be caught by Beachy Head, the hauntingly beautiful chalk headland with its lighthouse rising from the sea. The South-Eastern gate to the South Downs National Park that is as fatal as it is beautiful.
The Dark Truth Behind Beachy Head’s Beauty
Beachy Head rises up to 162 meters above sea level, which makes it the highest sea cliff in the whole of Britain. And due to this fact, approximately 20 people lose their lives at Beachy Head every year.
It’s said to be the third famous suicide destination in the world.
This year in June only, 10 bodies were found nearby the bottom of Beachy Head, including a mother with her 5-year-old son. They suspect it to be a murder-suicide.
Just a suspicion seizes me with grief.
So many people arrive at Beachy Head buried in such overwhelming agony that special patrols circle the area every night. Besides the guards, also the staff of Beachy Head’s pub stay alerted at all times, as well as the local taxi drivers, who use a secret code to get in touch with the police in case they suspect their customer is considering the one last leap.
Some of the rescuers consider the jumpers selfish. Who could blame; they’re putting their own lives at risk every time they dive in to look for a body or, to be more optimistic, a possible survivor.
And that makes writing about a place like Beachy Head so damn difficult. How can a place be so beautiful and yet, so hard to handle?
I can relate to the hate burning inside after losing a loved one. Whether it results from the person’s own decision, an act of a cold-blooded murderer or a false step when taking a selfie, it doesn’t matter. When you face sorrow that deep, how should you react? Could you possibly feel anything but hate towards the scene, even if it was as gorgeous as Beachy Head?
Yet, it would be grossly unfair to take away something this divine from travellers seeking natural beauty. Luckily, most of us arrive at Beachy Head for the breathtaking landscapes rather than the melancholic stories and destinies. Even though a phenomenon called dark tourism is becoming more and more popular all over the world.
Only one false step
We have spent a night in a beach hotel called The View in Eastbourne. The hotel truly lives up to its name. I’m sitting on one of the two balconies of our family room, and I can’t stop staring at the shiny moon bridge leading towards the endless horizon.
We have been driving along the South Coast for three good days now. Before continuing to our final destination, our ‘home in England’, a small town called Frinton-On-Sea, we plan to visit Beachy Head. The one destination I’ve wanted to see since the day one of our road trip.
We drive up to the cliffs and leave the car in the first parking lot we come across with. As we start walking towards the cliff edge, we meet the first signs warning about the unstable cliffs eaten by erosion.
Already back in 2016, the state of the chalk cliffs of Southern England was all over the news. The headlines explain how they’re eroding as much as 10 times faster than before. When you look into it, you realise it’s no news; back in 2001, one of the most famous ledges in Beachy Head, locally known as the Devil’s Chimney, collapsed without warning.
Thousands of tons of rock and gravel came crashing down with the Devil’s Chimney. Keeping in mind that approximately one million tourists visit Beachy Head each year, it’s a kind of miracle no one got hurt at the time of the event.
The signs of erosion are visible at Beachy Head. This cliff is only waiting for the day it decides to crumble on the shore.
The risk is real. It only requires one false step. One harmful selfie pose. One trendy Instagram shot.
Sadly, the locals, as well as the Beachy Head patrols, have to prove every single day how tourists are busier taking selfies than paying attention to the warning signs.
The problem isn’t limited to Beachy Head but concerns the whole line of chalk cliffs.
Only three days after our visit, on Saturday the 4th of August, one of the cliffs collapsed at the nearby Birling Gap Beach. It was the same beach where we had just taken a long stroll, and it was the same spot where we had stopped for taking photos of the massive rock formations, rocky beach and impressive Seven Sisters.
The steps leading down to Birling Gap Beach reopened to the public only a week ago, on Thursday the 23th of August.
It feels devastating to think that if we had taken our day trip just three days later, Daniel and I could be the couple telling the newspapers we had to run for our lives.
If we had been lucky.
Looking at the photos at the safety of home feels rough. That’s exactly where we stood. It’s the same spot where I took this shot. And suddenly, only three days later, it was covered by a mountain of rubble.
And yet, besides what happened and all the bans and warnings, tourists are risking their lives taking selfies at the edge of the crumbling cliffs.
Possibly for the one last Instagram shot.
Do you think it’s worth it?
Birling Gap is a popular beach right next to Beachy Head. This is where we strolled just before one of the cliffs came crashing down. You can find pictures of the even on The Sun article linked above.
Some destinations are simply so beautiful that they’re worth dying for, they say. Beachy Head is the kind of destination.
But no place and no selfie is worth a human life.
How to visit Beachy Head and Birling Gap
How to get to Beachy Head?
If you’re driving, you can find Beachy Head’s location on a map here. Both, Beachy Head and Birling Gap feature pay & display parking. Tourist buses run from the Eastbourne pier to Beachy Head every 30 minutes. Local buses take you to Beachy Head from both directions, Eastbourne and Brighton. Walking from Eastbourne to Beachy Head takes approximately 45-60 minutes.
Is it possible to stay overnight at Beachy Head?
Yes. Built in 1832, Belle Tout Lighthouse currently hosts a genuinely unique Bead & Breakfast with possibly the best views in Southern England. You can also book a room in Beachy Head’s pub The Tiger Inn. If you’re planning to stay in Eastbourne, I can warmly recommend The View Hotel that also features stunning beach and sea views. We paid for our 4-people family room with two balconies, sea view and breakfast 135 euros per night on high season.
Are Beachy Head and Birling Gap safe to visit?
Yes, as long as you follow the warning signs and common sense. Don’t get too close to the cliff edge and keep your eyes on the ground when walking along the path on top of the cliffs. There are quite large holes on the ground that could easily twist your ankle if you don’t pay attention to your feet. When visiting Birling Gap, make sure to check the tide times. You can find the current times at the top of the stairs. Be careful also at low tide; the danger might lurk above your head.
Interested in hiking the impressive chalk cliffs of Southern England?
Read the story of hiking the Seven Sisters from Seaford to Eastbourne on Lines of Escape blog here.
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