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Visiting the dizzying cliffs at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne, England; or: keep away from the edge!

Updated on March 14, 2016
Flag of England
Flag of England | Source
Beachy Head, Sussex
Beachy Head, Sussex | Source
Battle of Beachy Head, 1690, engraving by Theodore Gudin
Battle of Beachy Head, 1690, engraving by Theodore Gudin | Source
Map location of Eastbourne, East Sussex
Map location of Eastbourne, East Sussex | Source

Scenically impressive, with a moral challenge, too

This is a scenic spot in England's East Sussex county, but, remember: don't go too near the edge of the cliffs!

This chalk headland, near Eastborne, at its highest point is 162 metres high. Unusually, the visitor can look down at a lighthouse far below, at the foot of the cliffs. The current lighthouse, replacing an earlier one, dates from 1899. The previous lighthouse, known as the Belle Tout, served from 1834. This former, clifftop structure became increasingly endangered toward the close of the 20th century, owing to the ever present threat of erosion. It was thus moved 15 metres inland in 1999.

Seasonally, boat tours during which the cliffs may be viewed closely from the English Channel, are sometimes available; the berth from which the tour begins is at a jetty west of Eastbourne's pier.

A linguistic note

The name 'Beachy Head' is actually tautology. From the French beau chef , meaning 'beautiful head', these French words were corrupted in time to 'Beachy'. Then, because the memory faded of the meaning of the French words from which it was derived, the English word 'Head' was added to the name; leaving us literally with a name which means 'Beautiful head head'.

But it gets more complex. Try telling French people about Beau Chef, and they will probably not know what you mean. But among more historically aware French people, there may be those who remember another French name which exists for this geographical feature: Le cap Bézeviers .

The fact is that in French historical accounts of a famous sea battle in 1690, known in English as the Battle of Beachy Head, the name le cap Béziviers is the French equivalent, which is often cited.

History in the mind of the reader

But it gets even more complicated than this. Some French accounts of the battle tend to refer to it as a French victory, which technically it was. Some English accounts tend to stress that Anglo-Dutch forces (which, incidentally, had been fighting each other a number of years previously) withdrew after the battle, and the overall result was strategically inconclusive. So depending on where one reads about the battle of Beachy Head or cap Bézeviers , accounts may differ in emphasis to the extent that the superficial reader might be forgiven if he or she thought the accounts were about two, different events. Or as Blaise Pascal (1623-1662) summed up French eternal relations and perceptions: 'Truth on this side of the Pyrenees, error on the other side' (French: Vérité en deçà des Pyrénées, erreur au-delà .)

Scandinanvian visitors and memories

The south coast of England receives many Scandinavian visitors. These will surely agree that Beachy Head from a scenic and geological perspective closely resembles Moens Klint, in Denmark.

Macabre reputation

But as well as popular among visitors, who return home impressed by the scenery and the nearby nature interpretive centre at the top of the cliffs, Beachy Head has another, more sinister reputation. It is one of the world's most grimly 'popular' suicide spots. Teams of advisers and chaplains are available by telephone, the helpline number for which is prominently posted at the top of the cliffs. I understand that some of the local police force in Eastbourne have found the task of frequently going over the cliff to retrieve human bodies to have been so distasteful that they have opted for early release from the force.

Given the issues which repeatedly arise at a location such as Beachy Head, it is a place with a wider moral challenge, too.

Another sobering, historical memory

In World War Two, antennae at the top of Beachy Head picked up electronic waves: it was a television signal from the Nazi German occupiers of France, who were already establishing a TV broadcast there. (A local guidebook has even published a 'still' of the signal.) This, too, is very sobering, when one considers how close England came, from a geographical perspective, to the Nazi invaders. It is also a reminder of how advanced Nazi Germany was technologically and of how technological progress is no guarantee of a society's moral maturity. (But I fear I digress ... .)

Also worth visiting

Nearby Eastbourne , within the boundaries of which Beachy Head is situated, is regarded as the main resort of the Sunshine Coast , because of its high average of sunny days. Its pier is a popular visitor attraction.

The Seven Sisters cliffs, which may be viewed for good effect from Birling Gap (distance: 1.5 kilometres) are situated west of Beachy Head, and are also impressive.

Pevensey (distance: 17 kilometres), with its ancient Roman and Norman castle, and quaint village with a former royal mint, was historically known as a Limb of Hastings , one of the Medieval Cinque Ports .

Newhaven (distance: 19 kilometres) this port town has a poignant memorial remembering Canadian sacrifice during the Dieppe Raid of 1942; Fort Newhaven is of interest to military history buffs.

Lewes (distance: 30 kilometres) with its castle, its picturesque, narrow roads and old churches, is a very picturesque and historic English town. North Americans of Irish heritage may recall that Ireland's veteran leader, Eamon de Valera , was once incarcerated at Lewes prison. Ever year on November 5, a large bonfire is traditionally held at Lewes, with its origins in commemorating the burning of Protestants in the 16th century under the reign of Queen Mary I .

The Royal Pavilion at Brighton (distance: 32 kilometres) has attracted many visitors for the best part of two centuries.


How to get there: United Airlines flies to London Heathrow Airport, where car rental is available. (Distance from London Heathrow to Eastbourne: 146 kilometres.) For access by road, take M25/M23/A23/A27. There are rail links to Eastbourne from London Victoria railroad station. Please note that some facilities may be withdrawn without notice. Please check with the airline or your travel agent for up to date information.

MJFenn is an independent travel writer based in Ontario, Canada.


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    • MJFenn profile image

      MJFenn 6 years ago

      Ancillotti: The views at Beachy Head are indeed impressive; thank-you for your comment.

    • Ancillotti profile image

      Ancillotti 6 years ago from Brasil, Vitoria - ES

      Beautifull pictures and great tips for travel.