Birling Gap Seven Sisters Photography
Yesterday saw the opportunity to visit one of the most dramatic parts of my local coastline – I haven’t been for a few years and it was interesting to see how the cliffs have changed. Since these cliffs are made of chalk, they’re receding by around 40 cm a year. That’s a lot, and it’s not surprising that some of the dwellings are now perilously close to the cliff edge, and some have disappeared entirely. Chalk cliffs cover many, many miles of the southern coast and many people simply think of the White Cliffs of Dover. The Dover cliffs in Kent are much further east than the more picturesque Seven Sisters which lie in East Sussex. The Seven Sisters are part of the South Downs and lie in between the villages of Seaford and the hamlet of Birling Gap adjacent East Dean (close to Eastbourne which is about 8 miles further east).
Chalk downland is absolutely beautiful and provides an iconic environment for walkers and nature lovers. It’s no surprise that this stretch of our coast is so popular and so lauded. Yesterday’s photo walk saw a start at the National Trust cafe at Birling Gap. Here the cliffs are at their lowest point as it’s possible to descend a staircase to the chalk beach underneath, where you can examine the geology and look for fossils. This is also one of the best positions from which to look West, where you can see the Seven Sisters in their entirety. You can walk in either direction for several miles, enjoying stunning views of the English countryside. It can get very busy during the tourist season, and I’d say the best time for photography is autumn when the light is lower and more golden. Yesterday we had a beautiful day but as usual the middle hours do involve some compromises if you’re taking pictures.
The National Trust cafe is now right on the edge of the cliff, thanks to the natural process of coastal erosion. And so are the adjacent Coastguard Cottages. The one on the end has already fallen into the sea, although the remaining cottages still appear to be occupied:
At the top of the staircase you can look West at the seven characteristic chalk cliffs known as the Seven Sisters. The gap in the distance, at the end of the row of seven, is Cuckmere Haven which we visited in the afternoon:
The beach itself provides plenty of interest for geologists, fossil hunters, and students:
We started our walk heading east from the cafe in the direction of Eastbourne. This took us towards a small lighthouse called Belle Tout. If you were around in the 80s you might have seen a popular television drama which was filmed there, The Life and Loves of a She Devil. As I recall this was quite steamy and starred Dennis Waterman and Patricia Hodge. Belle Tout is now a B and B:
As you walk east the cliffs start to undulate and climb steeply, and are hundreds of feet high in places. A relatively short walk east of Belle Tout will bring you to Beachy Head, which rises around 550 feet. This place is both famous and infamous, beautiful and terrible in equal measure. It’s one of the world’s most prolific suicide spots. Sadly there are so many deaths here that a chaplaincy service patrols the area and local bus and taxi drivers are primed to look for signs of distress. But not all of the deaths are deliberate. There seem to be an awful lot of numpties who like to stand on the very edge of the cliffs, or even sit on the edge with their legs dangling while they enjoy the view. Chalk cliffs are fragile and they crumble easily, and it’s hard to quantify just how silly some people are. In fact in one of the photographs below you can see three students standing about a foot and a half away from the precipice. As someone who is petrified of heights, I can’t imagine doing that. It was bad enough walking along the path which is right next to the cliff edge in some places, as you can also see. Luckily there is ample walking area to one side. My hands are sweating just thinking about it:
The walk from Birling Gap to Beachy Head is about 2 miles. Heading back there are views to your right of East Dean:
After a snack back at the cafe, we drove west to Cuckmere Haven, a flat area between the cliffs where the Cuckmere River joins the sea. From the visitor centre it’s a couple of miles onto the cliffs where you can observe the Seven Sisters from the other direction, looking east. This locality also has some Coastguard Cottages, and some of those have disappeared off the cliff over the years. Shoring up part of the cliff will prevent further erosion in that particular spot, at least for a period of time:
It’s unsurprising that this is also a popular spot for artists as well as walkers. Or simply those who want to sit on a bench and enjoy the immense sense of space which comes with it. Having said that, I’m not very good at sitting close to the edge of a cliff, but some people obviously don’t mind:
Both walks came to about 7 1/2 miles in totality – easily manageable for anyone with moderate fitness, particularly as you’ll find yourself pausing to enjoy the views and take photographs. We all came home tired but happy, but I’m looking forward to going back at a time when the light is softer and richer.