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Beachy Head

Beachy Head from the air
Looking towards the cliffs and lighthouse from the west near Birling Gap

Beachy Head is a chalk headland in East Sussex, England. It is situated close to Eastbourne, immediately east of the Seven Sisters.

Beachy Head is located within the administrative area of Eastbourne Borough Council which owns the land. The cliff is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 162 metres (531 ft) above sea level. The peak allows views of the south east coast from Dungeness in the east, to Selsey Bill in the west. Its height has also made it one of the most notorious suicide spots in the world.


  • Geology 1
  • History 2
  • Lighthouses 3
  • At war 4
  • Tourism 5
  • Suicide spot 6
  • Use in entertainment and media 7
    • In film 7.1
    • In literature and publications 7.2
    • In music 7.3
    • In television 7.4
    • On Radio 7.5
  • References 8
  • External links 9


Aerial view of Beachy Head

The chalk was formed in the Late Cretaceous epoch, between 66 and 100 million years ago, when the area was under the sea. During the Cenozoic Era, the chalk was uplifted (see Cenozoic Era). When the last Ice Age ended, sea levels rose and the English Channel formed, cutting into the chalk to form the dramatic cliffs along the Sussex coast.

Wave action contributes towards the erosion of cliffs around Beachy Head, which experience frequent small rock falls. Since chalk forms in layers separated by contiguous bands of flints, the physical structure affects how the cliffs erode. Wave action undermines the lower cliffs, causing frequent slab failures - slabs from layers of chalk break off, undermining the upper parts of the cliffs, which eventually collapse.[1] In contrast to small rock falls, mass movements are less common. A mass movement happened in 2001 when, after a winter of heavy rain, the water had begun to seep into the cracks which had frozen and caused the cracks to widen. This then made the cliff edge erode and collapse into the sea, destroying a well-known chalk stack called the Devil's Chimney.[2]


The name Beachy Head appears as 'Beauchef' in 1274, and was 'Beaucheif' in 1317, becoming consistently Beachy Head by 1724, and has nothing to do with beach. Instead it is a corruption of the original French words meaning "beautiful headland" (beau chef).[3][4]

In 1929 Eastbourne bought 4,000 acres (16 km2) of land surrounding Beachy Head to save it from development at a cost of about £100,000.[5]

The prominence of Beachy Head has made it a landmark for sailors in the English Channel. It is noted as such in the sea shanty Spanish Ladies:[6]

"The first land we sighted was called the Dodman,
Next Rame Head off Plymouth, off Portsmouth the Wight;
We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover,
And then we bore up for the South Foreland light."

The ashes of German social scientist and philosopher Friedrich Engels, one of the fathers of communism, were scattered off the cliffs at Beachy Head into the Channel, as he had requested.[3]


The headland was a danger to shipping. In 1831, construction began on the Belle Tout lighthouse on the next headland west from Beachy Head. Because mist and low clouds could hide the light of Belle Tout, Beachy Head Lighthouse was built in the sea below Beachy Head.

At war

The third day of fighting in the Battle of Portland in 1653 took place off Beachy Head during the First Anglo-Dutch War. The Battle of Beachy Head in 1690 was a naval engagement during the Nine Years' War. The so-called Second Battle of Beachy Head took place over a week in September 1916 during the First World War. Three German U-Boats sank 30 merchant ships between Beachy Head and the Eddystone. This was despite a major effort involving the Royal Navy and 49 destroyers, 48 torpedo boats, seven 'Q' ships and 468 auxiliaries.[7]

During World War II, the RAF established a forward relay station at Beachy Head to improve radio communications with aircraft. In 1942, signals were picked up at Beachy Head which were identified as TV transmissions from the Eiffel Tower. The Germans had reactivated the pre-war TV transmitter and instituted a Franco-German service for military hospitals and VIPs in the Paris region. The RAF monitored these programmes, hoping (in vain), to gather intelligence from newsreels.[8] There was also an important wartime radar station in the area and, during the Cold War, a radar control centre was operational in an underground bunker from 1953 to 1957.[3]


West from Belle Tout, the cliffs drop down to Birling Gap, and beyond that the Seven Sisters. The area is a popular tourist attraction. Birling Gap has a restaurant and, in the summer, multiple ice cream vans serve the area.

Suicide spot

Phone booth and sign advertising The Samaritans at Beachy Head
The lighthouse under the cliff

There are an estimated 20 deaths by suicide a year at Beachy Head.[9] The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team conducts regular day and evening patrols of the area in attempts to locate and stop potential jumpers. Workers at the pub and taxi drivers are also on the look-out for people contemplating suicide, and there are posted signs with the telephone number of the Samaritans urging potential jumpers to call them.[10]

Deaths at the site are well-covered by the media;[11] Ross Hardy, the founder of the chaplaincy team, said this encouraged people to come and jump off.[10] Worldwide, the landmark's suicide rate is surpassed only by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Aokigahara Woods in Japan, according to Thomas Meaney of The Wall Street Journal[12] (although this claim is challenged by other data on famous suicide spots around the world).

Between 1965 and 1979, there were 124 deaths at the location. Of these, S J Surtees wrote that 115 of them were "almost certainly" suicides (although a coroner's verdict of suicide was recorded in only 58 cases), and that 61 percent of the victims were from outside East Sussex.[11] The earliest reports of deaths come from the 7th century. After a steady increase in deaths between 2002 and 2005, there were only seven fatalities in 2006, a marked decrease.[13] The Maritime and Coastguard Agency (whose Coastguard Rescue Teams are responsible for the rescue of injured jumpers and the recovery of the deceased) attributed the reduction to the work of the Chaplaincy Team and good coverage of services by the local media.[13][14] At least 26 people died at the site in 2008.[15]

David Scarboro, EastEnders's original Mark Fowler, committed suicide there in the late 1980s.

Use in entertainment and media

In film

  • The 1980 film Hopscotch with Walter Matthau and Glenda Jackson had a flying scene that included a mid-air explosion over the cliffs with the lighthouse in view below.
  • The 2010 remake of Graham Greene's Brighton Rock was filmed extensively on Beachy Head as well as in nearby Eastbourne, which was preferred to Brighton.
  • It made a short appearance in Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, where Chitty fell off it and then flew for the first time.
  • The area is used as a backdrop in many key scenes in Jenny Downham's 2007 young adult novel Before I Die and in its 2012 film adaptation directed by Ol Parker Now Is Good.

In literature and publications

  • Eastbourne born poet Andrew Franks includes a number of references to Beachy Head in his work, including Belle Tout in his collection, The Last of the Great British Traitors.
  • The British Romantic poet Charlotte Turner Smith published a poem entitled Beachy Head. This prospect poem places its reader at Beachy Head and uses its expansive view to discuss nature as well as political power and cultural dominance.
  • The female protagonist in Brian Sibley's Yet Another Partridge, a radio play, throws herself off Beachy Head in despair.

In music

  • The location was used as the setting for the music video of the 1980 David Bowie song "Ashes to Ashes".
  • Beachy Head was also the setting for The Cure's Just Like Heaven and Close To Me videos.
  • Downtempo group Mechanical Me's 2000 four-track EP I Like included a song called "Beachy Head" which was then remixed by the British electronic music artist Bonobo. After releasing the remix "Beachy Head (Bonobo Mix)" on their second EP I Like Mixes in 2001, Bonobo featured it on his compilation album One Offs... Remixes & B-Sides in 2002.[17][18]
  • Local Eastbourne band The Removalists also shot the video for Last Train to Soul Bay at Beachy Head.
  • The cover photo of English avant-garde quartet Throbbing Gristle's 1979 record 20 Jazz Funk Greats was taken at Beachy Head. There is also a track named "Beachy Head" on the album.
  • British indie pop band Veronica Falls released a song titled "Beachy Head" urging people not to commit suicide in September 2010, in reference to this location.
  • The band Easyworld originally formed and recorded demo's under the name "Beachy Head", before changing their name just prior to signing with Fierce Panda Records.
  • Comedy musician Mitch Benn makes mention of Beachy Head in his 2013 song "The South Downs Cowboy".
  • Alternative rock band Nada Surf mentions Beachy Head in "The Fox", a song from their 2008 album Lucky[19]
  • The location is referenced in the song "Running Wild" on the album "Undertow" by the British band Drenge.

In television

  • Beachy Head was mentioned on the British sitcom "Are You Being Served?" season 2 episode 1: The Clock and "My Hero" season 6 episode 2: Here’s One I Made Earlier.
  • Beachy Head is briefly shown in a segment in "Many Happy Returns", an episode of the British TV series The Prisoner, starring Patrick McGoohan. When Number Six temporarily escapes from The Village, he arrives on shore beneath the cliffs of Beachy Head. After he makes his way up the cliffs, there is a brief view of the lighthouse as seen from the top of the cliff.
  • Beachy Head was a topic in the tenth season of QI (Quite Interesting) (Series 'J'). The episode is the 7th installment to the series and is titled "Journalism".
  • For the British television show Top Gear, one of the shows presenters Jeremy Clarkson paid tribute to the Jaguar E-Type on its 50th anniversary atop Beachy Head. Series 17 episode 1 26 June 2011.

On Radio

  • In the Goon Show episode "The Curse of Frankenstein", Eccles tells the story of how a man paid him to commit suicide for him by jumping off Beachy Head. He had to repay the money because when he got back to the top he discovered the man was still alive.


  1. ^ Beachy Head - Photographs and Geological commentary
  2. ^ Cold, wet winter blamed for cliff collapse at Beachy Head, Michael McCarthy, The Independent, 5 April 2001 (retrieved 8 July 2013)
  3. ^ a b c Surtees, Dr John (1997). Beachy Head. Seaford: SB Publications.  
  4. ^ Ekwall, Eilert (1960). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  5. ^ Times, 30 October 1929. P. 11
  6. ^ Palmer, Roy (1986). The Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press.  
  7. ^ Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 118 & 119, Guinness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  8. ^ Ockenden, Michael (April 1983). "TV Pictures from Occupied Paris". After the Battle (Battle of Britain Prints International) (39). 
  9. ^ "'"Suicide jump child 'already dead. BBC News Online (BBC). 2 June 2009. Retrieved 2 June 2009. 
  10. ^ a b Leitch, Luke. "Beachy Head: no ordinary beauty spot". The Times. 3 June 2009. Accessed 10 August 2011.
  11. ^ a b Surtees, S. J. "Suicide and accidental death at Beachy Head." (subscription required). British Medical Journal 284 (6312): 321–324. 30 January 1982.
  12. ^ Meaney, Thomas (15 April 2006). "Exiting Early". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 16 November 2010. 
  13. ^ a b "Beachy Head suicide numbers down". BBC News Online (BBC). 20 December 2006. Retrieved 2 June 2009. 
  14. ^ "Beachy Head Press Release". MCA Press Release (UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency). Retrieved 2 June 2009. 
  15. ^ Smyth, Chris. "Man, woman and child found at foot of Beachy Head". The Times. 2 June 2009. Accessed 10 August 2011.
  16. ^
  17. ^
  18. ^
  19. ^

External links

  • Beachy Head, Eastbourne website
  • Beachy Head walk to East Dean
  • Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team
  • Beachy Head Countryside Centre
  • Online video of Broekhoven's film
  • Landslides at Beachy Head British Geological Survey

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