Birling Gap and Belle Tout

Saturday, February 11th 2015

We thought it would be a simple, pleasant outing but in that we miscalculated. But let me tell the story, with my usual diversions and meanders.

Birling Gap on the map
Birling Gap on the map
Click for the Google Map

The Eastbourne International Air Show was being held this weekend but, rather than go to Eastbourne itself  and fight the crowds, we thought we would go to Beachy Head where we could enjoy the beautiful scenery and perhaps catch sight of at least some of the aircraft performing their manoeuvres. This, of course, turned out to be a bad idea, as you will see…

Here comes the train
Here comes the train
St Pancras International Station

The journey started comfortably enough. We breakfasted at King’s Cross and then went across the road to St Pancras International Station where we caught a train for Brighton. We chose Brighton as our destination to avoid the inevitable crush in Eastbourne. On a warm and sunny day like today, you expect trains to Brighton to be crowded but we managed to find seats and everything seemed to be going well.

At Brighton, we took a coffee break at Divall’s Cafe near the station and then went to the bus stop to wait for the 13X bus to Eastbourne. We were not actually going to Eastbourne, for the reasons given, but to Beachy Head. All went well until the bus left Eastbourne and ran into heavy traffic. Thereafter, speed was reduced to walking pace. I tried to console myself by looking at the scenery but the cramped seats and the uncertainty that we were ever going to get to anywhere began to wear me down. When the bus crawled to the stop for Birling Gap and Tigger proposed that we disembark and have lunch at the pub there, I was only too happy to agree. Was this a good decision? Read on and see…

Birling Gap, looking west
Birling Gap, looking west

Birling Gap is a strange but beautiful place. The scenery consists of sweeping views that conventional photos cannot capture. Panorama shots are necessary and even then can give only an impression of the views. As you stand on the cliff, looking over the waves, you are caught between three immensities: the immensity of the sea, the immensity of the sky and the immensity of the green land behind and around you.

Birling Gap looking east
Birling Gap, looking east

The casual observer may notice nothing unusual about this place. What he sees is a line of cliffs with a shingle beach below, an ideal spot for sun and sea bathing. But this is a place of drama: the scene is continually changing because of erosion of the cliff face. Where you see the building with three chimneys there was once a row of houses. One by one they have fallen onto the beach or been demolished as the cliff dropped away and undermined them.

To give you some idea of this continuous destruction, here is, first, a video sequence showing part of the cliff falling away: Cliff collapse at Birling Gap caught on camera. And, second, here are ‘before and after’ photos, taken a century apart, showing the area of the houses as it was then, compared with now: Britain’s vanishing coastline. That will give you some idea of the drama of the place.

The place was pretty crowded
The place was pretty crowded

On a fine day, you expect to find visitors enjoying the scenery and the beach but today it was pretty crowded. We managed to get a lunch of sorts and then considered what to do next. By now, the road was becoming jammed in both directions. Partly, this was because of the large number of vehicles but also because of the typical selfishness of car owners. Despite the notices telling them not to park on the verges, that’s precisely what they did. With cars parked on both sides of the road, this was reduced to single file in places. As a result, traffic moving in one direction would be blocked by oncoming traffic and would have to wait for a rare gap in this in order to move.

Crowds everywhere
Crowds everywhere

You may wonder where the name Birling comes from. I wonder that too. I do know that there has been a manor here for several centuries called Birling Manor. It appears in William the Conqueror’s Domesday Book as belonging to Odo, Bishop of Baieux, the king’s half-brother. The name, however, obviously predates the Conquest and its form suggests that it is Anglo-Saxon. This leads me to make the following tentative suggestion.

English place names ending in –ing or –ings often reflect an Anglo-Saxon place name composed of a personal name plus -inga, meaning ‘folk’, ‘followers’ or ‘people’. Thus, for example, Hastings was founded by a man called Hæsta who was head of a group of followers. So, my suggestion for Birling is that it was settled by a man called Bærla with his people or followers. That is pure conjecture, of course, but it seems plausible to me, if lacking in historical detail.

We decided that we would walk up to the lighthouse and then take the bus back to Brighton. This seemed reasonable because, at this point, though the traffic was slow, it was moving, and there seemed no reason to doubt that there would be buses, the service here being quite frequent.

We started up the hill
We started up the hill

We climbed up from the car park and looked back. The land undulates here, rising to high cliffs with low gaps between them, the highest being Beachy Head, a favourite place for suicides. The height provides splendid views which, of course, is why they had the idea of building a lighthouse here. (Click on the panorama shorts to see larger versions.)

View west along the cliffs
View west along the cliffs

In fine weather this is a beautiful place and you can walk for miles and the views are spectacular. Just don’t get caught out in rain or storm. There is no cover!

Sun on the sea
Sun on the sea

As the clouds pass overhead, the light continually changes and so does the colour of the sea, now green, now blue, now reflecting the sky like a mirror. The sun shines on the water and makes a dazzling continent of light.

To the Lighthouse!
To the Lighthouse!

We walked up towards the lighthouse which is called Belle Tout. Why? Well, I hope to explain that in a moment. If you click on the above image, you will se a slideshow of six pictures taken as we approach the lighthouse.

Belle Tout Lighthouse
Belle Tout Lighthouse

There seems to be a certain amount of disagreement about the details of the lighthouse’s history, so let’s start with a definite fact: Belle Tout Lighthouse is a Grade II listed building. Other details are disputed. According to English Heritage, it was built in 1831 by [Robert] Stevenson. According to Trinity House (and surely they ought to know, oughtn’t they?), it was erected in 1828 by James Walker.  According to Rob Wassell, who has written a book called The Story of Bell Tout Lighthouse and runs an informative Website on it, ‘Belle Tout was designed by William Hallett and James Walker in 1831. Construction commenced in 1832.’ Take your pick.

The lighthouse was called Belle Tout, sometimes Belle Toute, because that was the name of the area in which it was built. This name is the result of a process called popular etymology, whereby people change a name that means nothing to them into one that has a meaning, albeit the wrong one. People thought the name must be French, like that of the nearby Beachy Head1 and that it meant ‘beautiful everything’ – clearly nonsense. Hence, too, the reason for the intrusive ‘e’ of Belle Toute, as a result of people thinking the word ought to be ‘corrected’ to agree with ‘belle’, which is feminine in French.

The name in fact derives from an ancient hill fort that was once here and goes back possibly as far as the Neolithic era. It seems that this was dedicated to Bael (also known as Bel, Belenos, Beli Mawr and other names), the Celtic sun god. The Celtic name meant Bael’s Lookout.

The lighthouse was not a success and was abandoned in 1899 (Trinity House) or 1902 (other sources). The main reasons for this were that it was often hidden by fog, because of its elevated position, and was threatened with collapse by the erosion of the cliff. It was for a while a private home and is now a bed and breakfast place. How did it survive collapse?

In 1999, it was pushed in one piece by hydraulic jacks along greased steel-topped concrete beams 50ft (70m) away from the edge. The building’s new foundations have been designed to make it easier to move if this should prove necessary in future.

Looking towards Beachy Head
Looking towards Beachy Head

The above view was taken just past the lighthouse. We are looking towards Beachy Head. If you look down at the lower centre of the picture, you can see that the road is now fairly clear. A red tour bus is moving along it. This made us optimistic that the buses to Brighton would be running and we would have no trouble boarding one. Were we right?

Beachy Head Lighthouse
Beachy Head Lighthouse

Belle Tout Lighthouse was replaced in 1902 by the red and white striped Beachy Head Lighthouse (also Grade II listed) which was built at sea level. Originally, three lighthouse keepers were assigned to maintaining and running the light but in 1983 it was fully automated and is now monitored remotely from Trinity House Operations & Planning Centre at Harwich. In order to save costs, it was proposed in 2011 to stop painting it red and white and to allow it to revert to its natural granite finish. In response, the Beachy Head Lighthouse Campaign was formed in order to raise money to maintain the red and white paintwork of the lighthouse. As you can see, it has been successful so far.

Silhouette of Belle Tout
Silhouette of Belle Tout

Taking a last look at the lighthouse, we descended to the road and made our way to the bus stop at Birling Gap. By now, however, the traffic was building up again and although it was flowing fairly well in the direction of Eastbourne, in the direction of Brighton (where we needed to go to catch the train for which we had tickets) the flow was reduced to less than a crawl. We debated whether it would be better to wait for a Brighton bus or take a bus to Eastbourne and travel from there.

At last a Brighton bus appeared so we opted for that. The queue at the bus stop was long and, just as we reached the door, the driver decided the bus was full and drove off. We stood and waited and waited. We were now at the head of the queue but what if the bus were already full when it arrived or if there were no buses at all, all being blocked by the traffic?

After an hour or so, we saw a bus coming in the opposite direction and decided to go for it. We pushed across the road, sprinted across a car park and got to the stop in time to board the bus. We even  got front seats upstairs!

Eastbourne was crowded and every cafe and restaurant we tried was accepting only customers who had already booked tables. In stead, we found a little coffee shop and made do with coffee and cake. Not exactly a hardship Smile

At the station there was a queue but it moved fast and we were able to board a train bound for London Victoria. At Gatwick we changed to the Brighton to St Pancras train that we were supposed to travel on. I thought it would be packed but it wasn’t. We easily found seats and finished our journey in comfort. It seemed only right to reward ourselvrs with dinner in an Indian restaurant!

________

1What is today Beachy Head was called by the Normans Beau Chef (‘beautiful headland’). This became Beauchief (pronounced ‘beecheef’) and then, by popular etymology, Beachy with the addition of Head to replace the now missing Chef.

Copyright © 2015 SilverTiger, https://tigergrowl.wordpress.com, All rights reserved.

About SilverTiger

I live in Islington with my partner, "Tigger". I blog about our life and our travels, using my own photos for illustration.
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4 Responses to Birling Gap and Belle Tout

  1. WOL says:

    Oh, well. You got what looked to be a nice walk in the outdoors. People have an amazing ability to convince themselves that no one else will have thought of driving a particular route or considered a particular place to park and that they will thus be the only ones and beat the crowds. They also have an amazing ability to be selectively disobedient to requests and to common sense, witness all the people parking on the verge when asked not to.

    • SilverTiger says:

      I think the police and the local authorities allowed themselves to be caught out. They did nothing to keep the roads clear or signpost alternatives routes. They are all the more culpable given that this is not the first air show and they obviously haven’t learned from past experience.

      Some effort was made at the railway station to provide space for the queues and, as a result, conditions were much pleasanter.

  2. Shannon says:

    From your stunning photos, it still looks like it was a lovely and worthwhile trip.

    I always love reading about your adventures. Not only do I get to see the beautiful photos you take, but your posts are so informative and educational.

    I must admit to being confused until I finally arrived at the footnote about how “Beachy Head” was French. Beecheef. That one gave me such a giggle.

    • SilverTiger says:

      Place names in Britain often have a hidden history. A typical process is that a place will have started with a Celtic name which will have been ‘translated’ or modified by the Romans, then translated into Norman French, then Anglicized and corrupted by popular misunderstanding. Using documentary evidence and topological clues, linguists have sometimes been able to disentangle the history of a place name but in other cases, the origin remains obscure and will probably never be explained.

      In Cornwall, the process is complicated by the fact that many places have names in the Cornish language. For example, Penzance (Pensans in Cornish) is derived from Cornish Pen (meaning ‘head’) and sans (meaning ‘holy’), so it is the Cornish equivalent of ‘Holyhead’.

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