Dear fellow travellers
The white cliffs at Dover, on the Kent coast of England, have long been a place for pondering national identity. Just down the coast, at Beachy Head in Sussex, there are some equally grand cliffs - and these evoke more melancholic associations.
Charlotte Smith’s ambitious poem Beachy Head shows intimate cameos of the coastal landscapes within the context of difficult Anglo-French relations. It was published in 1807, the year in which Smith died. But there’s also a hefty dose of personal lament in Beachy Head. Smith describes a hermit called Darby who lives on the beach below the cliffs at Beachy Head. Darby is on hand to assist shipwrecked sailors. Some survive, others don’t.
Beachy Head has always been a perilous place. But shipwrecks are not the real issue. By the car park at the top of the cliffs, a sign advises those who are distraught and troubled that help is just a phone call away. For this great promontory that juts out into the English Channel attracts those inclined to end their lives by jumping from the grassy clifftop onto the rough beach below.
The Samaritans are indeed just a phone call away. Members of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team (BHCT) are often closer. They patrol the area, ever on the lookout for visitors in distress. Those inclined to jump are gently counselled and most do indeed step back from the brink. Over the last 16 years, BCHT members have on average handled two incidents every day, skilfully lacing a landscape of despair with a glimmer of hope.
But still there are many tragedies at Beachy Head. In one grim month (June 2018), ten bodies were found at the foot of the cliffs. There can surely be few places with such deadly associations.
Poets and painters have travelled to Beachy Head, among them William Turner and Edward Lear. So there is barely a soul in England who doesn’t have a mental image of the cliffs which drop sheer down to the beach. And it’s no surprise that the cliffs have attracted climbers. Edward Whymper, the man who famously and controversially conquered the Matterhorn in 1865, often claimed to have climbed the cliffs at Beachy Head in 1855, but the wider climbing fraternity was sceptical.
The first recognised ascent of the crumbly chalk cliffs was by Aleister Crowley, who between April and October 1894 spent very many days exploring all parts of the cliffs, naming many topographical features for the first time. As climbs go, the fragile chalk at Beachy Head is ultra-challenging and laced with danger. The cliffs have claimed their sporting victims, adding to the grim toll of deaths enumerated on the rubble beach below.
Beachy Head is just a short distance from the resort and retirement town of Eastbourne. Tourist brochures make much of the bracing sea air and the pleasures of walks along the cliffs. No mention, of course, of the more morbid side of Beachy Head. But those who venture to the cliff tops will usually find a scatter of posies and wreaths by the wire fence which prevents visitors from straying too close to the edge. Here is a bucolic stretch of coast which captures the tensions of the human spirit. We know of few other places with such a challenging psychogeography.
Nicky Gardner and Susanne Kries
(editors, hidden europe magazine)