Beachy Head

English Channel

View of the channel from the cliff edge, at Beachy Head.

English Channel

Slivers of sunlight reflected by the channel waters, with a boat sailing by. At this height, the horizon is over 25 miles distant.

Beachy Head Lighthouse

Conventional late evening view of Beachy Head lighthouse, built as a replacement for the Belle Tout lighthouse. Beachy Head rises 162 metres above sea level, making it the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain.


I found this woolen bobble hat, hanging on the edge of a cliff face to the west of Beachy Head.

Belle Tout Lighthouse

Two walkers approach the first headland to the west of Beachy Head. The object in the foreground is a bunch of flowers.


View of Beachy Head lighthouse, over 150 metres below, with a crucifix memorial in foreground, on the cliff edge.


On 25th August 2008, the Dover Coastguard rescue team worked on retrieving a body stuck on a ledge, 120 metres below the cliff top, when a suicidal man drove this Toyota 4 x 4 vehicle off Beachy Head. Members of the Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team attempted to stop the man, who swerved his vehicle past them, before plunging 150 metres to the shore, at high tide. The
Dover Coastguard team had the shock of their lives when the vehicle landed near them, killing the driver. See Argus report for further details.

Beachy Head is a notorious suicide spot, with an estimated 20 suicides per year. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team regularly patrols the headlands during the day and evenings. There is a telephone box at Beachy Head, with a direct line to the Samaritans. Following a marked increase in suicides between 2002 and 2005, there was a notable decrease in 2006, thanks to increased efforts by the chaplaincy team.

Beachy Head Shoe Sole

Sole from a size 11 shoe, on the shore.

Belle Tout Lighthouse

The above photograph illustrates the effects of wave action on cliff retreat.
However, a second process aids wave action by reducing the overall height of the intertidal zone.

The intertidal zone (marking the former extent of the cliffs) offers some protection for the cliffs from wave action. However, limpets attach themselves to chalk on the intertidal zone and secrete an acid to aid adhesion, causing deterioration of the platform structure and the formation of craters. This process happens across the intertidal zone, reducing its overall height, and increases erosion by allowing more seawater to reach the cliff base.

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 (note the piles of chalk slabs underneath the failure areas). 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.

These cliffs are the "lowest" of the section between Beachy Head and Belle Tout Lighthouse (pictured above). They are "only" 50 metres above sea level. Beachy Head is more than three times the height of the cliffs shown here.


Beachy Head experiences small high-frequency rock falls. Slab failures caused by wave action on chalk layers in the lower cliff gradually undermine the upper cliff, resulting in catastrophic failure. Occasionally, mass movements occur. On 11th January 1999, a 180 metre long section of chalk suddenly disintegrated and fell into the sea. The mass movement disrupted the electrical supply from the mainland to the lighthouse, requiring the activation of a local diesel back-up generator. Later, in April 2001, another mass movement destroyed a 60 metre high chalk stack, known as the Devils Chimney (see You Tube video for a BBC report about this event). The above photograph illustrates what is left of the Devil's Chimney: thousands of chalk boulders, some 3 metres in diameter, slowly eroding into the channel.

Beachy Head Lighthouse

Beachy Head lighthouse, at sunset.
The automatic lighthouse beacon emits a beam of 635,000 Candela, which is visible for 20 miles. When the visibility is poor, an electric horn produces a 500Hz pure tone fog signal for six seconds, every 30 seconds. This is one of the most remote parts of Sussex, with no amenities, roads, or people for miles in either direction, just you, a lighthouse, seaweed, and the elements. You can reach this section on foot, from Birling Gap (a very arduous 2.5 mile walk, with huge slippery boulders and sharp flints under foot), or from Dukes Drive, Eastbourne (less arduous, and 2 miles). Please check the tide tables for Eastbourne before embarking on this walk. If the tide comes in, you will get stranded, and you will have to summon the coastguard. If this happens, dial 112, the European emergency code, and give the operator the information they ask for. Landslides can happen without warning and at any time on the coastline between Cow Gap and Beachy Head. Always tell someone where you are going, and when you expect to return, and take a mobile telephone.

Cow Gap

The sign at the bottom right says: "Micheal 25-03-05 Don't let your child die like this".

One man and his tent, Cow Gap

One man and his tent, Cow Gap.

Have you ever wondered why the land and cliffs at Cow Gap are slumped, while the cliffs between Beachy Head and Rottingdean are vertical? Well, here's why. The sudden change in geology at Cow Gap marks the end of the South Downs Chalk Formation. At Cow Gap, the geology is as follows: 85 million year old Chalk is the top and thickest layer; 100 million year old Upper Greensand is the next, followed by the bottom layer, 100 million year old Gault Clay. Water passes through the permeable chalk and Upper Greensand and reaches the impervious Gault Clay. The water acts as a lubricant, causing the rocks above to slide over the clay. You may observe water seeping out of the cliff base.

Fossil collectors and palaeontologists can spend hours at Cow Gap with their geologists' hammer and chisel, prising out bivalves, ammonites, sponges and echinoids from fallen rocks. There are so many fossils at Cow Gap, that I will often travel to Eastbourne with the specific intention of fossil hunting. I can spend hours here, without taking a single photograph. This geologically rich area is a Site of Special Scientific Interest, so please don't hammer directly into the situ rock. Constant erosion ensures that there are always plenty of loose fossils or fossil-rich boulders available for collectors to work on. Please avoid Cow Gap after prolonged periods of heavy rain - landslides happen more often in these conditions.


View of Eastbourne, in late evening, from Cow Gap, which is just east of Beachy Head. Click on image for larger view.

Crisis Lines:

Samaritans 08457 90 90 90 or 08457 90 91 92 for people with hearing or speech difficulties. Open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. All calls are confidential.

SANELINE 0845 767 8000 1pm to 11pm every day. All calls are confidential.

All images and text are © Alan Mackenzie with the following exception. Since the text in sentences 2 - 4, paragraph 13 of this article appears in the Wikipedia entry for Beachy Head, the excepted text is released to the public domain under the GNU Free Documentation License.

See also:

More photographs of Beachy Head.

Technical details: Canon EOS 3 with a booster pack,
Canon 100 - 400 mm USM IS L, Canon 17 - 40 mm F4 USM L, Sigma 150 F2.8 EX mm macro, Fuji Velvia 50 II, Manfrotto 055 PROB tripod. Location: Beachy Head, East Sussex, United Kingdom.

8 Comments - Post a comment:

Anonymous said...

I like your photos. They are really wonderful. Thanks for sharing.

Alan Mackenzie said...


Thanks for your comment. Have you visited Beachy Head before? Try the walk from Birling Gap (along the shore) to Cow Gap. Don't forget to wear sturdy walking boots and check the tide forecast.


Anonymous said...

Great Foto

Anonymous said...

Great Photo

Anonymous said...

Magnificent Photograph

Tin Larrick said...

Hi Alan,

I really love the pictures of Beachy Head and Birling Gap - they are extremely evocative and capture the eerie atmosphere perfectly.

I have written a novel based in Eastbourne with the Beachy Head area forming a key backdrop. I intend to publish it as an ebook and would dearly love to use one of your pictures as a backdrop. How would you feel about this? If you would be happy to discuss further with any questions etc please drop me an email at

Many thanks and I look forward to hearing from you.

Best wishes,

Tin Larrick

Clare Johnson-Smith said...

Fantastic Shots. :)
Could you please tell me if these were actually shot on Friday 26th September 2008 and if so on what time?
Thank you

Clare Johnson-Smith said...

Sorry email is