Sounds like an epsiode of Foyles War, or a train station from the twenties. It conjours up a sense of history, age, yesteryear, clipped vowels and received pronunciation.
I’ve been driving past the sign to Birling Gap for some years now as i traverse the A259 back and forth, as the work takes me. The A259 is a gloriously English coastal road which curves in a steep climb out of Eastbourne Old Town and plonks you up on the edge of Sussex Downs, rolling cliff tops, wind-blown hedgerows, sheep, lambs, cows (season permitting) the odd glimpse of a lighthouse here and there… I hesitate to reccommend it as I’m loathe to share but as it’s not mine to withold… if you’re passing pack a flask, a camera, your walking shoes and a sandwich and get yourself over to the A259. It’s a jumbled journey of coastal gloriousness and industrial shipping, commercial decline and upcline (I invented that word just now, in case you’re wondering).
Yesterday I had the dog with me and thought, as I was buffeted along the road past Beachy Head that it might be nice to turn off at East Dean and see what Birling Gap was all about. On a day when Northern Ireland and Scotland were suffering severe weather conditions and the sky was a steely blue gray and spitting rain, it possibly could have waited. The narrow road to Birling Gap takes you past the East Dean village green and past green pastures and the Sheep Centre which includes a pretty 17 century flint barn, it all looks picture postcard perfect even in the rain. A bend in the road and the scene opens out before you as the chalk cliffs suddenly sweep up before your very eyes and the road curves gracefully round to the left and back to Beachy Head. On that corner is Birling Gap, little more than a car park with a low lying but dainty wooden Hotel and Cafe, opposite a more austere row of cottages, one offering B&B.
Birling Gap was busy, considering the weather. As we got out of the car the whole place vibrated with the boom and whine of sea and wind. We cautiously wandered over to a temporary fence where abrubtly the cliff dropped away and just beneath the sea pounded against it with elemental force. It was exhilarating and scary, the white chalk cliffs shone in the cold light all the way back to Newhaven but the sea swelled and swirled like a scene from ‘Perfect Storm’. Sea foam whipped by the wind and giant waves booming like distant artillery and adding to my sense of Birling as something to do with the war.
I didn’t make it onto the steel structure that stuck out into the sea and probably had steps leading down to the non-existent beach. I opted for a short trek up the cliff path to look back at the scene and wildness of it all. It was short, the sheeting rain and wind was too much for me and the dog, we retreated back to the shelter of the car. I wanted to take a photo but my phone had no battery and in any case probably wouldn’t have done the forces of nature at work, any justice.
When I got home, I googled images of Birling Gap they were all taken in sunshine, with people sunbathing on the shingled beach, just one of a boat smashed and broken up against the foot of the cliff, nothing that resembled my visit there.
I discover that the soft undulating chalk cliffs are called the ‘seven sisters’ and that the hamlet of Birling Gap built as a row of six coastguard cottages by the Admiralty in 1878 will soon be no more as the coastline is eroding at a rate of a metre a year. Even the cluster of 1920’s bungalows set back a bit further from the sea may eventually be claimed.
When I replace my broken SLR, I will have to go back and take photo’s but I suspect when I do the sun will be shining and people will be skimming pebbles from the beach.