Taking tea on the edge


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On the 7th February 2014 I visited our local favourite beach and beauty spot – Birling Gap. We’re lucky enough to live on the south coast of England near the South Downs National Park. This is an area of outstanding natural beauty and a wonderful place to enjoy the coastal scenery. The beach at Birling Gap is one frequented by families during the summer and cliff walkers all year round. The recent rough weather with winds of over 80 miles an hour at times, has battered the coast and caused many cliff falls in the area. I went to the Birling Gap Café – now owned and managed by The National Trust – to see the extent of the damage and take photographs to record the sun lounge as I’d heard it had become too close to the cliff edge and was to be demolished this week. I was relieved to see the rest of the café still standing although it’s clearly visible that about 3 feet of the cliff has fallen away and the café is perilously close to the edge.

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The National Trust has been managing this area since 1983. There is some controversy as to whether the building of a ‘revetment’ would help the area but the National Trust are committed to letting nature take its course (see Solar Navigator.net for information on this issue). A number of images have been taken through the years, some in The famous Francis Frith Collection, showing the change in the cliff edge. The publication ‘Beachy Head’ by John Surtees, states: “It was The National Trust’s intention to ‘tidy up’ Birling Gap by knocking down most of the buildings and replacing them with a refreshment block and toilets. It has to be said that some of the buildings had become run-down and were an eyesore, but when a cottage White Horses was demolished to make way for a toilet block in 1985 there was an outcry. Finally the Collin’s family bought up the Hotel and two years later the National Trust shelved their demolition plans”.

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Photograph from the Francis Frith Collection taken around 1960

A series of photographs showing the gradual erosion of the cliffs can be seen on this website: CoastView

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This photograph, taken by French photographer Louis Levy in 1908, shows the cottages well away from the edge of the cliff.
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Birling Gap c.1970
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Birling Gap Hotel 1955 from the Francis Frith Collection

The hotel itself was built around 1898 and you can see the sun lounge to the left of the photograph above (from The Francis Frith Collection again). This is the section that has been demolished this week. In 2007 the sun lounge was used for a photo-shoot by designer Oral Kiely (I am a massive fan of Orla Kiely’s designs – especially her beautiful handbags – and still have the gorgeously produced catalogue from this Autumn and Winter collection ’07.). These images show the inside of the sun lounge area before the National Trust refurbished it. I spent time sitting in the café on sunny afternoons and revelling in the retro nature of the furnishings – as obviously Orla Kiely’s team did. I swear I took some photographs from this time of the interior – but can I find them?! Nope. I hope Orla Kiely/Kiely Rowan PLC/Chloe Mallett will forgive me for showing these lovely images from the catalogue in memory of the sun lounge at Birling Gap.

A la recherche du temps perdu…

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Orla Kiely Autumn/Winter ’07 collection catalogue.
Photograph ©Chloe Mallett
Styling Orla Kiely and Steph Wilson.
Orla Kiely Autumn/Winter '07 collection catalogue. Photograph ©Chloe Mallett Styling Orla Kiely and Steph Wilson.
Orla Kiely Autumn/Winter ’07 collection catalogue.
Photograph ©Chloe Mallett
Styling Orla Kiely and Steph Wilson.
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2 thoughts on “Taking tea on the edge

  1. Thanks so much for this wonderful article and it all brings back such memories. We used to rent the Belle Tout lighthouse in the 1980/90’s when it was a private house. We used to spend evenings in the hotel , playing pool and listening to records on the great jukebox and I will never forget all those dolls on the wall and the thatched bar . The guy that used to work there whose name I cant remember now and yes the sun lounge was just wonderful . Of course getting down to the beach was different then as you had to go down on the ladder and we had to do it every day to get collect firewood. The stone age well as long disappeared and the fossils then were amazing Thank god there was no health and safety then ! I do remember reading a local council report on Birling Gap and the plan was just to let it go into the sea which I suppose is all they can do now but it can take away those good times. Debbie

    1. Thanks Debbie, your comment makes my blog worthwhile. Must have been lovely living in the lighthouse, and I didn’t know there was a stone age well at Birling Gap – so you’ve taught me something else as well. Sarah

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