Beachy Head, England
- darkometer rating: 4 -
A chalk headland on the south coast of Great Britain
that is notorious as the country's foremost suicide cliff. While I'm not suggesting you go there to follow the practice, it is still an eerie extra dark-tourism element undeniably present at this otherwise extremely scenic spot.
>More background info
>What there is to see
>Access and costs
>Combinations with other dark destinations
>Combinations with non-dark destinations
More background info:
The nearly 600 foot high cliffs (the highest chalk cliff in the country) have been a favoured suicide spot in Great Britain
for centuries. In fact it's even been ranked one of the world's premier such spots – together with e.g. the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, USA
Recent years have seen phases of increase, but also improved measures to counter the rise in suicides (once averaging at 20 a year). A telephone box has been installed with helpline numbers clearly displayed, and the local Chaplaincy is keeping a watch on the cliff. Still, tragedy at the spot doesn't go away. People still go over the edge here, either jumping or driving. At one particularly dramatic instance in August 2008, a car plunged past a rescue team while they were still busy retrieving the body of a previous jumper.
Another notable recent case was that of the joint suicide of a small family: the parents had lost their beloved young (disabled) son to meningitis and decided they couldn't live without him, and chose to "follow" him. In practice, the son's body followed the parents suicide, though. They jumped off, with the son's body in a rucksack – as the rescue team found to their astonishment when they recovered the two adult bodies. They also had a bag of their son's toys with them! (Maybe there are no playthings in Heaven?)
What there is to see: Basically: just the cliffs. Their aura as a "toppers' cliff" has to be felt through the power of imagination. It is in the air, I can vouch for that. And that's despite the fact that it's otherwise a superb beauty spot.
A particular sight is the famous lighthouse at the bottom of the white cliffs (carrying the same name as those cliffs) – it's a picture-book red-and-white ringed round tower standing in the water close to the cliff-face (or, at low tide, on the visible rocks of the seabed). If you had to pick the world's most prototypical looking lighthouse, this is a top candidate.
Further west there's yet another lighthouse, or in this case: ex-lighthouse, called Belle Tout, standing high on the cliff, right at its very edge. It is now run as a B&B and must offer some of the best coastal views imaginable. In 1999 the whole building had to be moved further inland because the eroding cliffs threatened to take the lighthouse with them. The whole operation will have to be repeated again some time, as erosion continues. By the way: it is this very erosion that keeps the cliffs so white. There simply isn't enough time for any coloration, let alone vegetation, to get a foothold before it crumbles away.
To the east, the cliffs are lower and give way to the seaside resort town of Eastbourne (where a whole plethora of accommodation options are available). To the west there's Birling Gap, where the cliffs are lower enough to allow access to the shoreline. Inland from Birling Gap is the picture-pretty little village of East Dean, which serves as another good base for exploring Beachy Head. Walking up to the clifftop from either end can be strenuous, but rewarding.
Of the dark side of the place, not much is to be seen as such. The only exception would be at a time when tragedy actually had just struck again. I do not encourage gawking at body recovery operations by the coastguards or police, nor, I hasten to add, would I encourage anyone to actually use the spot as a suicide cliff (see ethical issues
and suicide tourism
)!!! I should also add the warning that craning your neck over the cliffs in the faint "hope" that you might see a crushed suicide car or something carries the very real risk of falling off the cliff by accident.
There are indications of the place's tragic role and history: a bit north of the spot above the Beachy Head lighthouse you can see a few small crosses put up near the cliff edge, a couple of them additionally adorned with (plastic) flowers. One has a small wooden plaque at its bottom spelling out a name and date (25/3/05). You get the picture.
Near the public house there's a phone booth by the roadside, right next to a bus stop, and to the side of it there's a large sign giving the phone numbers of the Samaritans and the telling advice: "Always there Day and Night". Again, the hint is clear enough as to why such a sign should be standing here.
What is now the Beachy Head public house and restaurant, which had used to be a hotel, served as an RAF coastal radar station during WWII
. In the years after the war, at the beginning of the Cold War
, it also briefly served as a ROTOR station (cf. Hack Green
), and then the coastguard held on to part of the building for decades. It wasn't until the early 1990s, after the Cold War had ended, that the site was completely decommissioned from its military role and returned to serving only hungry and thirsty tourists.
There's also an octagonal brick structure, basically a wall with a couple of wooden benches inside, with a plaque on the side informing passers-by that this used to be a lookout for the Corporation of Lloyd's. Another plaque, moved to its current location after it had sustained damage during WWII, proudly testifies to the purchase of the land around Beachy Head for the public to enjoy freely.
The suicide jumpers, too, still benefit from that move, of course. However, other than the subtle indications through the Samaritans' phone numbers sign and the small crosses by the cliff edge, the role as a suicide spot is not spelled out at all on the various tourist plaques dotted around the walking paths along the coastline. They do warn of the dangers of the unfenced cliff edge but only admonish you to keep your dogs under close control …
The lighthouse, the sort-of centre spot of the cliff, is roughly three miles south of the centre of Eastbourne, East Sussex, Great Britain
. The cliffs stretch out either side of this for a couple of miles to Birling Gap (from where they continue westwards as the Seven Sisters).
Access and costs: free and easy (too easy?).
Details: to get to Beachy Head, you can simply take a local bus from Eastbourne station (line 3, via Compton Street and the university), which runs every 20 minutes (except Sundays, when it's only hourly). The service finishes fairly early in the evening (which is probably a good thing – suicides often take place at night).
To get there by car, take either the B2103 south from Eastbourne seafront, or the main overland A 259 west and turn left towards Beachy Head. Coming from the west, turn off the A269 after Friston towards East Dean and Birling Gap and continue east to the cliffs. It's well enough signposted.
Naturally there is no admission fee at this spot of natural beauty, but the main car parks are of the pay-and-display variety. However, if you pop into the Beachy Head pub, you can park there for free – and maybe walk over to the cliff edge from here briefly before returning to your car (just don't overstay your welcome – the pub car park is obviously for patrons only). The pay-and-display regime is also suspended after 6 p.m. – so if you come here late enough in the summer, you can park for free and enjoy the sunset.
You can also regularly park for free at all times at Birling Gap and hike from there up the two miles or so to Beachy Head – you'd want to take a good walk along the cliffs for a bit anyway, if you've made it here. Dedicated hikers could consider walking it all the way from Eastbourne or, a bit closer and more scenic: East Dean.
Time required: depends entirely on how long you want to take in the scenery (well, and on the weather). To get just a quick impression, 5-10 minutes could do. Strolling up and down the cliffs can take significantly longer (one to two hours could be whiled away that way).
Combinations with other dark destinations
: none nearby – for further afield see Great Britain
Combinations with non-dark destinations: the cliffs are a natural beauty spot in themselves. You can also hike down to Birling Gap and inland to East Dean. Pubs en route provide typically English sustenance.
A bit further inland, just before you get to the A27, there's the Long Man of Wilmington – one of those huge prehistoric figures carved into the chalk so that they look like giant drawings in the green hillside. The more famous counterpart of the Wilmington man is the Cerne Abbas Giant near Dorchester. Unlike the latter, the Wilmington man may be long himself, but lacks the elongated male member of his "rude" brother. Instead he is just holding two tall sticks – maybe prehistoric evidence that the concept of Nordic walking is much older than you had thought …
- Beachy Head 1 - place of beauty and tragedy
- Beachy Head 2 - offer of last-resort helpline
- Beachy Head 3 - old monument
- Beachy Head 4 - dangerous cliff edge
- Beachy Head 5 - dangerous erosion too
- Beachy Head 6 - evidence of tragedy
- Beachy Head 7 - still such a classic beauty spot
- Beachy Head 8 - chalk-milky waters
- Beachy Head 9 - Belle Tout ex-lighthouse and B-n-B