Beachy Head

Beachy Head

Beachy Head, high chalk cliffs (575 ft/175 m), on the south coast of East Sussex, S England. The battle of Beachy Head, in the War of the Grand Alliance, was fought (1690) between an Anglo-Dutch fleet under the earl of Torrington and the French fleet under the comte de Tourville. Although the French won, they failed to exploit their victory over the damaged opponent to deal a decisive blow to Anglo-Dutch seapower. Torrington, meanwhile, was court-martialed for retreating but, arguing that his action prevented an invasion, was acquitted.

Beachy Head is a chalk headland on the south coast of England, close to the town of Eastbourne in the county of East Sussex, immediately east of the Seven Sisters. The cliff there is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 162 m (530 ft) above sea level. The peak allows views of the south east coast from Dungeness to the east, to Selsey Bill in the west. Its height has also made it a notorious suicide spot.


The chalk was formed in the Cretaceous period when the area was under the sea, 65 million years ago and earlier. During the Cenozoic Era the chalk was uplifted, and was later eroded to form the dramatic cliffs of the Sussex coast (see Geology of England#Cenozoic Era).

The cliffs are constantly being eroded by the sea; a particularly dramatic collapse came in 2001 when, after a winter of heavy rains, a chalk pinnacle known as the Devil's Chimney collapsed into the sea.


The name Beachy Head appears as 'Beauchef' in 1274, and was Beaucheif in 1317, becoming consistently Beachy Head by 1724, and has nothing to do with beach. Instead it is a corruption of the original French words meaning Beautiful Headland.

In 1929 Eastbourne bought 4,000 acres of land surrounding Beachy Head to save it from development, costing the town around £100,000.

The prominence of Beachy Head has made it a landmark for sailors in the English Channel. It is noted as such in the sea shanty "Spanish Ladies" :

The first land we sighted was called the Dodman,
Next Rame Head off Plymouth, off Portsmouth the Wight;
We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover,
And then we bore up for the South Foreland light.


The headland was also a danger to shipping. In 1831 the construction of Belle Tout lighthouse was started on the next headland west from Beachy Head, but it did not become operational until 1834. Because its light could not be seen in mist and low cloud, it was superseded by a newer lighthouse, 43 m in height, built in the sea below Beachy Head and operational from October 1902. Until the lighthouse was fully automated in 1983, the red and white striped tower was manned by three lighthouse keepers. Their job was to maintain the light that rotated two white flashes every 20 seconds, 26 miles out to sea. Belle Tout lighthouse was moved more than 17 m (50 ft) further inland in March 1999 due to cliff erosion.

Beachy Head at war

The third day of fighting in the Battle of Portland, 1653, took place off Beachy Head during the First Anglo-Dutch War. The Battle of Beachy Head, 1690, was a naval engagement during the Nine Years' War. During World War II, the RAF established a forward relay station at Beachy Head to improve radio communications with aircraft. In 1942, signals were picked up at Beachy Head which were identified as TV transmissions from the Eiffel Tower. The Germans had reactivated the pre-war TV transmitter and instituted a Franco-German service for military hospitals and VIPs in the Paris region. The RAF monitored these programmes hoping (in vain) to gather intelligence from newsreels. There was also an important wartime radar station in the area and, during the Cold War, a radar control centre was operational in an underground bunker from 1953 to 1957.


West from Belle Tout, the cliffs drop down to Birling Gap, and beyond that the Seven Sisters. The whole area is a popular tourist attraction, and Birling Gap has a restaurant and, in the summer, multiple ice cream vans.


Since the 1600s Beachy Head has been notorious as a location for people to attempt suicide, estimated at 20 each year. There are regular day and evening patrols by the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team, and a special telephone box with a direct line to The Samaritans. After a steady increase in deaths between 2002 and 2005, there was a marked decrease in 2006 with only seven fatalities, a reduction attributed by the Maritime and Coastguard Agency to the actions of the Chaplaincy Team and local media. During a recovery effort in 2008, British coastguard crew were nearly crushed by a second suicider who drove off the cliff and narrowly missed rescuers.


Images of Beachy Head

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