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Beachy Head, Birling Gap and the Seven Sisters

PUBLISHED: 16:32 25 April 2014 | UPDATED: 16:32 25 April 2014

Seven Sisters from Birling Gap Summer evening. Photo by Matt Gibson

Seven Sisters from Birling Gap Summer evening. Photo by Matt Gibson

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The Seven Sisters cliffs have been painted many times by both professional and amateur artists. They are also favourite photographic subjects for magazines, holiday snaps and for film locations, appearing in films as diverse as ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’, ‘Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves’, ‘Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire’, ‘Brighton Rock’ and even a James Bond film, ‘The Living Daylights’.

“Each brother bedazzled” refers to the 1954 musical film ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, nominated in that year for Best Picture Oscar and the 5th most popular film at the British Box Office in 1955. There have been several stage adaptations since.

“Their guiding light lost” refers to the Belle Tout lighthouse, overlooking the Seven Sisters on the cliff top near Beachy Head. Built in 1828, frequently shrouded in mist and constantly threatened with collapse due to recurrent cliff falls, it was decommissioned in 1899. In 1998, a successful major fundraising drive paid for the building to be moved, intact, on rails, further back from the cliff edge after 30 feet in front had collapsed into the sea. The cliffs are still eroding at an average 1 metre per year. The Belle Tout was used as the main location for the BAFTA award winning Drama Series (1987) ‘The Lives and Loves of a She-Devil’, a BBC dramatisation of Fay Weldon’s 1983 novel. It is now a holiday let.

“But regained” refers to the replacement Beachy Head lighthouse built at the foot of the cliffs which was brought into service in 1902. “Restored” refers to this lighthouse nearly losing its iconic red and white stripes when Trinity House announced in October 2011 that it could no longer afford to repaint them. The lighthouse would have been left to return to its natural granite grey. A widely supported fund-raising campaign avoided this fate by reaching the re-painting target of £27,000 in July 2013. The re-painting by a specialist team, including two abseilers, took just under three weeks, being completed on 9th October 2013. The campaign had attracted world-wide support. Notable supporters and donors included Eddie Izzard, The Duke of Devonshire, Ronda Armitage (who wrote ‘The Lighthouse Keeper’ books for children), Bill Bryson, Griff Rhys Jones, John Craven (a BBC Countryfile item) and many local organisations and individuals.

Turning our attention to the beach, “Where the chalk wall falls to the foam” is a line from the poem ‘Seascape’ by W. H. Auden. The complete poem is engraved on a brass plaque on a memorial bench beside a path called the ‘Friston Drencher’ (OS Explorer Map No 123 – Eastbourne and Beachy Head). This path leads from the South Downs Way above Jevington towards the Seven Sisters. The complete poem beautifully encapsulates the essence of the view.

“Rock-pooling” and fossil hunting are two of the activities put on by the National Trust at Birling Gap. Ten thousand year-old stone-age “flint tools” have also been discovered at this location, whose name derives from that of the Saxon tribe who settled there – ‘Baerlingas’.

In World War Two the cliffs and lighthouses were used as a landmark for bombers bound for Germany and for fighters returning to their bases. For many bomber crews, shot down on their missions, Beachy Head was their last sight of England. This sad reflection is now inscribed on a memorial on the cliff-top. The inspirational Gracie Fields wartime song contains the line “There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover”. As the real “white cliffs of Dover” are no longer white, cliff falls there having been halted, the Seven Sisters cliffs often stand in for them in films, TV and even the Dover Town Council publicity website!

“Gap years in cottages, lost to time and tide” remembers, for many, holidays spent in the row of holiday cottages at Birling Gap. The cottages are gradually disappearing over the cliff due to erosion.

Before the days of portable barbecues, both locals and holidaymakers gathered up driftwood on the beach to make fires for “sausage sizzles”, often in the evenings, when the sparks from the fire flew up to the stars. Come morning, South Downs Way walkers still had the best part of 100 miles to go to reach the end of the long distance footpath near Winchester.

***

Acknowledgement of sources:

National Trust Handbook, Website, pamphlet ‘Birling Gap’ and ‘What’s on’ flyer.

“36 hours in ... the South Downs”, feature by Nick Trend. Daily Telegraph (29/05/2013).

Relevant websites found by searches for ‘Seven Sisters, Sussex’, ‘Birling Gap’, ‘Belle Tout lighthouse’, ‘Beachy Head lighthouse’, ‘Seascape, poem by W. H. Auden’, ‘Seven Brides for Seven Brothers’, ‘There’ll be blue birds over the white cliffs of Dover’, ‘The South Downs Way’.

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