The White Cliffs of Sussex

All over the World people have heard about those White Cliffs of Dover – they have become a symbol for England itself: the little nation standing bravely alone against the threat of foreign invasion. Those cliffs are in the neighbouring county to my home, East Sussex, but we have our white cliffs too. Some eight miles away from my house in Lewes, the English Channel crashes against the cliff formation known as the Seven Sisters. It is an evocative sight that can be seen for miles along the Sussex coast and which looks positively inspiring when seen shining in the distance across unspoiled farm land. A view that has remained the same for centuries.

I went on a walk recently from this vantage point at Seaford Head to the cliffs themselves and beyond and I can still smell the ozone and the freedom.

Next to that distant farm building is an ancient dew pond created to water cattle and sheep but now protected for its vibrant and varied pond life. Worth seeing though just for the effects of light and wind on its surface.

My path took me downwards towards the first of those Seven Sisters at Cuckmere Haven where the River Cuckmere meanders through its flood plain to the sea.

Here is a natural gap in the cliff face, an opportunity to land your boat and go inland if you are a recreational canoer, a band of smugglers or even an invading army.

This place has a history.

That row of cottages was built in 1818 to house the Customs and Excise Watch with its 20 man armed militia. Their job was to crack down on Sussex’s thriving smuggling trade which had reached a serious and rather thrilling climax in 1783 when two gangs of smugglers (each consisting of at least two hundred men) fought off the forces of law and escaped with their booty.

This natural bay was a possible invasion point for Napoleon and over a century later, for Hitler. Those cottages became a military garrison during the Second World War and was bombed by the Germany airforce killing a platoon of Canadian soldiers.

Down on the beach, the landmines now long gone, it is still possible to feel the drama of English history standing there as the waves rush up to the shingle by the first of the Sisters, Haven Brow. On my way there I passed a Chinese woman, not an invader I was sure, as she smiled and said hello. She was a symbol of this small nation’s ability of taking in other cultures from all over the World. I was tempted to reply in Mandarin, ni hao, but thought better of it. I suspect now that she would have appreciated my attempt because when I got closer to those cottages, I found out that she lived in one of them where she teaches Mandarin Chinese to this nation of terrible linguists.

So I will say it now, ni hao Lin Yi Jin, I envy you your romantic home there on the cliff’s edge.

I can think of few more beautiful locations for a house than there on the shoreline with open views of the countryside on one side and then sea and sky on the other. It was a brilliant choice of location for the film Atonement for the couple’s dream Utopia. I think it might be mine too now.

Moving onwards from Haven Brow, five more Sisters take their turn before you reach the next gap in the cliffs. Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Brow and Bailey’s Hill – names that now sound poetic in their baldness.

This is Birling Gap which sits between the sixth Sister, Bailey’s Hill and the final Seventh one, Went Hill – after that begins the next stretch of white cliffs known as Beachy Head. Birling Gap too has a rich history of smuggling but traditionally it was a fishing village but now its row of fishermen’s cottages on the cliff top are gradually falling into the sea.

Now most of the surviving ones are derelict and it will be only a matter of time before they all disappear back into the watery origins of life on Earth.

Here is another inspiring place where we can look destiny in the face. There is nothing euphemistic about land and sea here, it is a battle – one that the sea will always win. It does us good to face up to the brutal but exciting ways of Nature.

It is good to face up to the dangers of life too – here at Birling Gap, on a windy Spring day, you really do feel as if you could be blown off the cliffs into the raging sea or even more unsettling, that the ground itself could give way under you taking you down to that watery grave of your nightmares.

This being England though, it is possible to contemplate your fate in the lonely Hotel bar that still sits precariously on the edge of the cliff. Like those musicians on the Titantic, I wondered if I would dare to play a game of pool on the day that the hotel and all in her makes that final and inevitable downward journey.


Whilst I was there a coachload of chattering foreign visitors clambered down the steps to the shore but soon they silenced by the magnificence and power of the sea. They stood there in rapt and humbled meditation.

It was just a few miles to the East that the French composer Claude Debussy came to escape a sex scandal and to complete his orchestral masterpiece, the symphonic poem La Mer. He could not have found a better place to contemplate marine mysteries.

No better way to listen to this French music that so vividly evokes this piece of English seascape than in this exciting performance of the first movement by the Youth Symphony Orchestra of Venezuela conducted by Gustavo Dudamel. The sea brings us all together.

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