Beachy Head

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, forming part of the Eastbourne Downland Estate. 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 common suicide spots in the world.[1]


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.[2] 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.[3]


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 the word "beach." Instead it is a corruption of the original French words meaning "beautiful headland" (beau chef).[4][5]

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.[6] This land became known as the Eastbourne Downland Estate.

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:[7]

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.[4]

Human remains discovered in the 1950s were later subjected to forensic reconstruction, carbon dating and radio-isotype analysis, and found to be those of a woman of Sub-Saharan African origin who grew up in the Eastbourne area in about 200-250AD. She has become known as Beachy Head Lady.[8][9][10]


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.[11]

During the Second World War, the Royal Air Force (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.[12] 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.[4]


West from Belle Tout, the cliffs drop down to Birling Gap, then ascend through the Seven Sisters to Haven Brow, overlooking the Cuckmere valley. The area is a popular tourist attraction. Birling Gap has a restaurant and, in the summer, multiple ice cream vans serve the area. There are many choices of walking routes.

Suicide spot

Estimates vary of the number of annual deaths at Beachy Head, from 20 per year to many more.[13] In 2010, it was the third most common suicide spot in the world, after the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Aokigahara Woods in Japan, according to The Wall Street Journal.[14]

The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team conducts regular day and evening patrols of the area in attempts to locate and stop potential cliff jumpers. Workers at the pub and taxi drivers are also on the lookout for people contemplating suicide and there are signs with the telephone number of the Samaritans urging potential jumpers to call them.[15]

Deaths at the site are often covered by the media,[16] and Ross Hardy, the founder of the chaplaincy team, says that this encourages suicidal people to choose the site.[15] Eastbourne Borough Council drew media coverage in 2018 of its policy of removing shrines and crosses left at Beachy Head by families of suicide victims.[17]

The earliest reports of deaths by suicide at Beachy Head come from the 7th century. 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.[16] After a steady increase in deaths between 2002 and 2005, there were only seven fatalities in 2006, a marked decrease.[18] The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, whose Coastguard Rescue Teams are responsible for the rescue of injured jumpers and the recovery of the dead, attributed the reduction to the work of the Chaplaincy Team and good coverage of services by the local media.[18][19] At least 26 people died at the site in 2008.[20]

Use in entertainment and media

In film

In literature and publications

  • Romantic poet Charlotte Smith's final collection of poems, "Beachy Head and Other Poems" (1807), includes an eponymous poem about Beachy Head and the surrounding area.
  • 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.
  • In Howard Jacobson's 2010 Man Booker Prize-winning novel, The Finkler Question, the bereaved widower Libor Sevcik commits suicide by jumping off the cliff at Beachy Head.

In music

  • 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.
  • The location was used as the setting for the music video of the 1980 David Bowie song "Ashes to Ashes".
  • The Cure used the location for the music video of their 1985 single Close to Me (The Cure song).
  • The location is referenced in the song "Running Wild" on the album Undertow by the British band Drenge.
  • Progressive Celtic rock band Iona included a song titled "Beachy Head" on their 1993 album, Beyond These Shores.
  • Beachy Head was used as a film location for the video of 'Quello Che Faro', an operatic cover of Bryan Adams' "Everything I Do, I Do It For You", recorded by classical-crossover artist, Katherine Jenkins on her 2006 album, Serenade.
  • Alternative rock band Nada Surf mentions Beachy Head in "The Fox", a song from their 2008 album Lucky.[22]
  • British indie pop band Veronica Falls released a song titled "Beachy Head" urging people not to commit suicide in September 2010.

In television

In technology

  • A photo of Beachy Head[25] was used as a desktop wallpaper on Windows 7.


  1. Meaney, Thomas (15 April 2006). "Exiting Early". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
  3. Cold, wet winter blamed for cliff collapse at Beachy Head, Michael McCarthy, The Independent, 5 April 2001 (retrieved 8 July 2013)
  4. Surtees, Dr John (1997). Beachy Head. Seaford: SB Publications. ISBN 978-1-85770-118-0.
  5. Ekwall, Eilert (1960). The Concise Oxford Dictionary of English Place-names (4th ed.). Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-869103-7.
  6. Times, 30 October 1929. P. 11
  7. Palmer, Roy (1986). The Oxford Book of Sea Songs. Oxford: Oxford University Press. ISBN 978-0-19-214159-0.
  8. Miller, Ben (28 March 2014). "Beachy Head Lady was young sub-Saharan Roman with good teeth, say archaeologists - Culture24". Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  9. "Centuries old Beachy Head Lady's face revealed - BBC News". BBC Online. 1 February 2014. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  10. Mintz, Zoe. "Face Of 'Beachy Head Lady' Revealed, Roman Era Woman Is A 'Fantastic Discovery'". International Business Times. Retrieved 21 February 2017.
  11. Reagan, Geoffrey. Military Anecdotes (1992) pp. 118 & 119, Guinness Publishing ISBN 0-85112-519-0
  12. Ockenden, Michael (April 1983). "TV Pictures from Occupied Paris". After the Battle. Battle of Britain Prints International (39).
  13. "Suicide jump child 'already dead'". BBC News Online. BBC. 2 June 2009. Retrieved 2 June 2009.
  14. Meaney, Thomas (15 April 2006). "Exiting Early". The Wall Street Journal. Retrieved 16 November 2010.
  15. Leitch, Luke. "Beachy Head: no ordinary beauty spot". The Times. 3 June 2009. Accessed 10 August 2011.
  16. Surtees, S. J. "Suicide and accidental death at Beachy Head." (subscription required). British Medical Journal 284 (6312): 321–324. 30 January 1982.
  18. "Beachy Head suicide numbers down". BBC News Online. BBC. 20 December 2006. Retrieved 2 June 2009.
  19. "Beachy Head Press Release". MCA Press Release. UK Maritime and Coastguard Agency. Archived from the original on 27 September 2007. Retrieved 2 June 2009.
  20. Smyth, Chris. "Man, woman and child found at foot of Beachy Head". The Times. 2 June 2009. Accessed 10 August 2011.
  21. "The Living Daylights (1987)" via
  22. "The Fox by Nada Surf Songfacts".
  23. "New series of Luther comes to Beachy Head".
  24. "Black Mirror Season 2, Episode 1".
  25. "Beachy Head: England's Most Spectacular White Cliffs". Passport Collective. 4 October 2018. Retrieved 13 November 2019.

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