Beachy Head has a long and tangled history, both as a landmark for seafarers and as a home to communities in nearby East Dean. The name ‘Beachy Head’ is believed to be a corruption of the original French, meaning ‘beautiful headland’, and East Dean is recorded as connected to Nunna, King of the Saxons, in 689.
The Beachy Head area has a murky history as a haven for smugglers. Smuggling became commonplace because of high taxes placed on imports. By evading customs officers and avoiding taxes, goods could be sold for much lower prices, making popular items such as tea and alcohol affordable for ordinary citizens.
So while smuggling is usually viewed as the work of violent criminals, it was common for entire villages to assist the smuggling operations, aiding the smugglers while hampering the customs men.
Landmark for seafarers
Beachy Head’s prominence has long made it a landmark for sailors. All too often the cliffs and the rocky seas below were a danger to vessels – leading to many wrecked ships.
From 1834 the Belle Tout lighthouse worked to warn sailors of the approaching cliffs, but occasional low fog obscured the cliff-top lighthouse, so work began on a second lighthouse.
The second lighthouse was erected in the sea below Beachy Head. The 43 metre tower was manned by three lighthouse keepers, who took turns maintaining the light, until 1983 when the lights were automated. With satellite navigation systems now commonplace on ships, the need for lighthouses diminishes.
Shipwrecks and Parson Darby
Jonathan Darby became curate of St Michael's church in Litlington in 1692 and later, Rector of Wilmington and Parson of Friston and East Dean. His duties included the burials of bodies washed up from wrecks, which happened often enough to sadden him and to spur him into action.
It is believed that some ships were wrecked not just because of difficult conditions, but because sailors were deliberately tricked into wrecking their ships. It is said that people attached lanterns to grazing animals to mimic the effect of lights on other ships, so sailors would believe they were near other ships and far from land.
Parson Darby was appalled by the number of shipwrecks and drowned sailors. He knew that what was needed was a reliable, fixed light that would warn the men at sea of the whereabouts of the coast. So he excavated "Parson Darby's Hole" in existing caverns. He created a chimney that led up from the coast and "rooms" above it where he set lights on ledges on stormy nights. He often spent whole nights in his caves watching the sea, saving many lives in the process.
Even when ships were actually wrecked, some sailors were saved by being pulled to safety into Parson Darby's Hole. There is controversy regarding how much active wrecking was done by Sussex people, but there is no doubt that wrecks were seen as a source of goods and income by most people, and were quickly stripped of all equipment and valuables.
Parson Darby died in 1726 and is buried in East Dean Parish Church yard beneath an epitaph: "He was the sailors' friend."
Beachy Head and the Seven Sisters are famous for their bright white chalk cliffs. The chalk was formed during the Late Cretaceous period (up to 100 million years ago), a time when the area was submerged by the sea.
The chalk was gradually pushed up, and rising sea levels cut into the chalk, forming the English Channel and creating a stunning range of undulating cliffs.
The cliffs continue to be eroded by the waves below. While large movements of the cliff are rare, slabs of chalk frequently fracture and fall away. As the lower cliff material is worn by the waves, the cliffs above are undermined until they eventually collapse.
Wars at Beachy Head
Beachy Head has played a part in a number of wars:
- First Anglo-Dutch War, 1653
- Nine Years’ War, 1690
- World War II
- Beachy Head on Wikipedia
- Beachy Head (book) by John Surtees