A bracing start
I was up early to hear that gales were forecast across the country.
Adrian is a keen cyclist himself, and he advised me to get up onto Beachy Head via Duke’s Hill, rather than the route along the main road that I had planned. He warned me that it was quite steep, but that it should only take around fifteen minutes if I took it steadily.
‘Oh! And another thing,’ he said, ‘As you turn the final bend it sometimes gets a bit choppy on the top!’
I left Adrian at around nine-thirty, and reckoned on being at Beachy Head by about ten. Nothing, though, could have prepared me for what was to come. For a start, I could have climbed Ben Nevis in the time it took me to push my bike up Duke’s Hill. And secondly, as I made the final turn which Adrian had warned me about, the wind was so strong that it blew me into the bushes with my bike wedged firmly on top of me. I saw a large, empty car park about half a mile ahead of me, which I took to be where tourists parked to walk onto the South Downs. But no matter how hard I pushed, I made no progress towards it whatsoever. Twice more the winds pushed me into the side of the road. I tried getting off the road altogether, and onto the slightly more sheltered South Downs Way footpath. For a while, it seemed like a good call. But as I emerged from the shelter of a group of gorse bushes, the wind was just as strong, so for an hour or so I just stayed where I was. I must have been more than fifty yards from the cliff edge, but I didn’t feel at all safe.
With my strength renewed, I pushed back from the footpath to the road, and this time made it to the car park, where by now a solitary ice cream van was its only occupant. I lay my bike flat on the ground, tapped on the van’s window, and shouted my order for a large cornet. The man sealed inside the van made my ice cream, but as soon as it was ready, we both realised we had a problem. The moment he passed my cornet through his window, the ice cream would surely blow away. On the other hand, I wasn’t prepared to hand over my money until the ice cream was safely delivered. There was only one solution, and it was not a dignified one. He opened his sliding window just wide enough for me to poke my head through into his van. For as long as my head remained inside his van, I could eat the ice cream safely. It was only a small van, and I dislike invading people’s space at the best of times. But this really was the only solution. I ate quickly, paid up, locked my bike to a bench, and strode off towards the cliff edge to search for Beachy Head Lighthouse.
Worth the push up to Beachy Head! pic.twitter.com/uXTfeh226k
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 5, 2015
For a lighthouse enthusiast it’s unfortunate that I don’t like heights. The closer I got to what I knew to be a sheer cliff edge, the more frightened I became. And with the wind unrelenting, I was simply unable to get too close from fear. Eventually I found a single spot where I could remain on safe, solid ground and take a very quick photo of the lighthouse hundreds of feet below me.
With wind like this I'm not getting any closer to the cliff edge! Beach Head lighthouse folks! pic.twitter.com/No6MU586SQ
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 5, 2015
The current lighthouse at Beachy Head was commissioned in 1899 after the former Belle Tout lighthouse was abandoned due to being regularly shrouded in mist and fog, and threatened with collapse as the chalk cliffs surrounding it were disintegrating from erosion.
The current tower was brought into service some three years later, in 1902, and is sited at sea level, about 165 metres from the base of the cliffs.
It has a tapering granite tower, 142 feet tall, with lantern and gallery above. It flashes a white light, twice every twenty seconds, which is visible for sixteen miles.
The lighthouse was electrified in 1920 and automated in June 1983.
In 2011, Trinity House announced that it could not justify the expense of repainting the distinctive red and white stripes that acted as a daymark to shipping, and that the lighthouse would have to be left to return to its natural granite grey. A local petition and sponsorship campaign was started, the required funds were raised, and the repainting was completed later that year.
The ride from Beachy Head to the car park below Belle Tout lighthouse should have been a joyous, five-minute freewheel downhill. Cycling into a fierce headwind, however, my bike stopped in its tracks the moment I stopped pedalling. At one point I wondered if I was actually going backwards. I was glad that there was so little traffic, because the wind would periodically blow me forwards, backwards, out into the middle of the road, or off it altogether.
Belle Tout lighthouse is currently a luxury bed and breakfast, and its location alone makes it a wild and romantic place to stay. Its proximity to the South Downs Way, however, evidently encourages unwanted visitors, and as I circled the perimeter of the tower taking photographs I noticed signs everywhere discouraging the riff-raff:
Private. No entry. Keep out. No access. No parking. Residents only.
They gave the place an austere and inhospitable feeling, and although this had been a lighthouse I had long wanted to visit, I wasn’t sorry to leave.
Belle Tout was built on the cliff top above Beachy Head in 1832, with its location meticulously planned so that the light would be visible for twenty miles out to sea, but would be obscured by the edge of the cliff if sailors sailed too close to the shore. However, its position so high above the shore was flawed, and the light was frequently obscured by sea mists, significantly reducing its range.
More importantly, the chalk cliff face suffered intense coastal erosion, and the light was decommissioned in 1899, and replaced by the more familiar Beachy Head lighthouse at the base of the cliffs in 1902.
The lighthouse has had a varied and chequered history ever since. During the Second World War it was damaged by Canadian artillery fire when used as target practice. After the war the building changed hands several times, and was at various times a tea shop, a private dwelling, and even a film location before continuing erosion left it perilously close to the cliff edge. The lighthouse came to public prominence in 1999, when its owners undertook to move the entire structure seventeen metres back from the cliff edge. This extraordinary feat of engineering was filmed and turned into a television documentary.
After an indulgent lunch at the National Trust Cafe at Birling Gap, I pushed on to Seaford. I had wanted to dislike the place, because I once rented a flat in London from an appalling woman who lived in Seaford. She had insisted on leaving most of her belongings in the flat’s cupboards and drawers, spent every day for a month painting a single window frame, disappeared whenever there was a problem, yet always appeared punctually to collect her rent.
As it was, I rather liked Seaford. It felt calm and unfussy. Along the Esplanade I passed a row of well-maintained beach huts and a Martello tower. Between them, a tiny seafront cafe serving the richest and most welcome homemade tomato and basil soup. I was their only customer, and I devoured three bowlfuls.
I reached Newhaven at four o’clock, much later than I had planned, and headed straight for the harbour. Newhaven lies at the mouth of the River Ouse in East Sussex, and unlike the Kent ports at Folkestone and Ramsgate, further east, Newhaven is still an important harbour providing cross-channel connections to the continent for both passengers and freight.
The harbour comprises east and west piers, with a light on each. On the west pier, the original light was built in 1883, but was rebuilt in 1976 after both the pier and lighthouse suffered storm damage.
The east pier originally had a wooden lattice tower with wooden lantern room, but this was rebuilt in steel in 1928, and eventually demolished following vandalism in 2006. Now a forty-one-foot circular steel pole, painted white with three horizontal green bands, stands in its place.
I could not reach either light up close. The sea was so rough that the walkway along the west pier was closed. The modern east pier light is now controlled by the harbour authority and DFDS Seaways and is inaccessible to the public. I cycled to a large car park close to the west pier, and was able to take good photographs of both lights.
I was left with one remaining mission in Newhaven. My guidebook informed me that after the light on the west pier was demolished and rebuilt in the 1970s, the lantern from the original 1883 light was moved to Paradise Park, a local garden centre and visitor attraction. I knew that this closed at 5.15pm, and it was now 4.45pm. I made it with a few minutes to spare, and when I explained my mission at the front entrance, I was ushered in and escorted to the very edge of the gardens, where I found the red, rusting remains of the original Newhaven harbour lantern. It was a slightly sad sight, but I guess the lantern was better off here than sold for scrap when the replacement lantern was built.
A really satisfying find. The lantern from the old Newhaven's pier light, now on display at Paradise Park. pic.twitter.com/w2ya3uyEVa
— Edward Peppitt (@thebeaconbike) May 5, 2015
Leaving Newhaven shortly before six, the route to Brighton was a straight dash along the coast, passing through Peacehaven and Saltdean, before descending down onto Brighton Marina.
At the end of the west arm of the breakwater, there is a modern light that I hadn’t seen before. It is a cylindrical concrete tower, seventeen feet high, painted white with a single, red horizontal band. It has a lamp on top, which displays a quick-flashing red light. It is not a landmark of great beauty, but I took a handful of photos dutifully and was glad to move on.
I was due to stay with Jacqueline and Andy, who had responded to a request for help from Shift MS and had offered to put me up. They lived in an elegant street a mile from the sea front, together with their three children Dylan, Lauren and Natasha, who turned out to be, unquestionably, the most polite and well-mannered kids I have ever met.
I arrived at around seven and by half past, at their recommendation, I was sitting in the nearby Preston Park Tavern with my food ordered and a pint of Hop Pocket in my hand.