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Belle Tout – The Beachy Head Lighthouse That Moved

By Elizabeth Wright

How do you save an 850 tonne cliff top lighthouse from falling into the sea? In 1999, world wide fame came to Belle Tout, a de-commissioned lighthouse situated on the spectacular headland of Beachy Head, East Sussex, England, when, in a precise feat of engineering, the whole building was lifted up, put on runners and slid back 17 metres from the crumbling cliff edge. Having survived abandonment, being shot at and shattered in World War 2, reduced to a ruinous condition deemed only fit for demolition, and then threatened with a watery grave, it is amazing that this unique building is still standing, 189 years after it first became operational.

The seas off Beachy Head are treacherous, so many sailing ships foundered on the hidden reefs running out from the cliffs that this area became known as the ‘Mariners’ Graveyard.’ The Elder Brethren of Trinity House, responsible for warning lights around Britain’s coasts, were eventually persuaded that the cliff top of Beachy Head was the ideal location to erect a lighthouse. Consultant engineers James Walker and John Burgess were instructed to prepare the necessary documents of design, specification and estimates. The building, it was stated, ‘was to be constructed from Scottish granite, with the keeper’s small, single storey cottage built from locally quarried limestone masonry.’

Building started in 1829 using the dressed (pre-cut) Aberdeen granite blocks which had been shipped from Scotland as ballast in barges, offloaded at the port of Maidstone, and then hauled some 60 miles by ox carts along rough tracks, up over the downland to this isolated location. When finished, the lighthouse was 47 feet high and some 20 feet in diameter. A squat circular structure, with the keeper’s quarters at the rear. The conical roof of the tower was formed from cast iron rafters covered with sheets of copper, topped by a tall copper chimney, along with a wind vane and a lightening conductor spike.

Belle Tout’s warning light first became operational on the 11th October 1834, throwing out a light of 22,000 candle power that could be seen 23 miles out to sea. The ‘Illustrated London News’ of 5th January 1884 carried an article…..’The apparatus here employed is that of the ‘catoptrics’ system, in which a revolving frame has a number of large concave reflectors, with an Argand fountain lamp in each, fitted to each side of the frame. The shape and position of the reflectors are precisely calculated, to throw the rays of light, in a combined flood of light, upon certain parts of the surface of the sea, and to prevent their being wasted in the sky. The reflectors are formed with a parabolic curve, internally, and are constructed of sheet copper, with plating of silver on the inner side, which is kept bright and clean by the use of polishing powder and by frequent rubbing with a piece of chamois leather. …The Argand lamps have cotton circular wicks of an inch diameter, or sometimes double circular concentric wicks; and are fed with Colza (rape seed oil) from a metal canister behind each reflector…..”

The revolving pedestal rotated by means of a clockwork mechanism powered by a hanging heavy weight, which required re-winding to the top of the tower every two hours. This was a back-breaking feat for the keepers, who also had to trim wicks, replenish fuel, clean the lenses and perform other maintenance tasks.

One of the lighthouse keepers, Chessman Barnby, was in residence at Belle Tout around 1874, along with his wife and 10 children.They kept chickens and a pig, grew their own vegetables. One of Chessman’s daughters, Emily Barnby kept a diary and mentioned that, ‘the pig was killed in the garden and hung up in the shed before being treated…a nasty, smelly business.’

It soon became obvious that Belle Tout had been defectively sited; the many sea mists swirling around the cliff tops compromised the light, so it was proving to be of only limited help to shipping, Trinity House decided, after numerous complaints, to abandon this lighthouse, and began building a new one in a more favourable location at the foot of the cliffs. On Thursday, 2 October 1902, Belle Tout was formally decommissioned, and put up for sale as, ‘as a small, substantial 3-storey building.’

Eight months later it was purchased for £200 by local landowner Carew Davies Gilbert, who, rumour has it, opened the lighthouse up as a tea rooms. On his death in 1913, his married daughter, Patricia Davies Harding, inherited Belle Tout, but sold it on to Sir Howard George Frank, of Hanover Square, London for £430. There appears to be no record of his time spent there, and ten years later Dame Elizabeth Phipps Purves-Stewart, became the new owner, having paid £1,500 for ‘Freehold Land at Belle Tout, Birling Gap, Eastdean, Sussex, with the building formerly used as a lighthouse.’

Lady Purves-Stewart and her husband, Sir James, used Belle Tout as a weekend retreat. Having had a survey done before purchasing this lighthouse, they were alarmed to find that ‘soon after taking possession we read a warning article in the local press stating that, owing to coastal erosion, grave fears were entertained for the safety of the lighthouse. We decided to secure expert advice. A professor of geology came down from London and, after examining the position, informed us that coastal erosion was undoubtedly going on at a steady rate, and that at the end of six hundred years our tower would find itself at the very edge of the cliff.’

In March 1935, King George V and Queen Mary visited the lighthouse whilst the King, who was plagued by illness, was convalescing in Eastbourne. Sir James recounts that ‘The royals were delightful visitors and easy to entertain. My wife conducted Queen Mary all over our home, displaying our modest family treasurers. Meanwhile, King George entrusted himself to me as a separate guide and took a keen sailor’s interest in the various gadgets that had been fitted up. When we came to the foot of the narrow, spiral staircase leading to the lantern room, Queen Mary, already aloft, enjoying the stunning views, called down to him, ‘George, don’t come up here, it is far too steep for you.’ To which His Majesty replied, ‘Dammit, I’m coming.’

At the start of the Second World War, in 1939, Belle Tout was left empty, the Purves-Stewarts having been evacuated from this vulnerable part of the English coast. Much of the nearby downland was requisitioned by the War Department as a military training ground. Canadian troops of the Westminster Regiment were billeted nearby, and in firing practice were blasting away, with everything from light howitzers to cannons, at a moving target of a life sized silhouette of a tank. In theory, Belle Tout should have been untouched, being out of the field of fire, the shells that missed their target should have gone over the cliff edge, but the lighthouse was hit many times and virtually reduced to a shell.

After the war, having received £5,000 war compensation, Sir James offered the building to ‘The Mayor, Aldermen and Burgesses of the County Borough of Eastbourne.’ The building was so badly damaged it was suggested that it would be more cost effective to knock the lighthouse down and sell off the granite blocks. But Belle Tout was recognised as being a ‘building of special architectural and historic interest, requiring the need for special protection’ and was placed in a Grade II listed category.

In spite of this, Belle Tout remained in a ruinous condition until Dr. Edward Revill Cullinan and his wife, Joy, bought a 90 year lease on the building in 1956, and set about restoring it to its original Georgian proportions with a state-of-the-art design. They used Belle Tout as a weekend retreat for the family until 1980, when they sold the lease of the building on to award winning thriller writer, Lionel Davidson, who thought that living at Belle Tout would cure him of attacks of ‘Writer’s Block. But he appears never to have moved in, and in 1986 the BBC purchased the building to use as a backdrop for the filming of the Bafta Award winning drama series, “The Life and Loves of a She Devil.” The surrounding external appearance of Belle Tout was cosmetically altered, and a fake lantern was placed on top of the tower. Some 70 staff and stars were involved in filming a story of revenge by a woman on her unfaithful husband and classy lover who lived in a lighthouse.

After 4 months the filming was finished and the little lighthouse was restored back to its original appearance and all that was left behind were a set of attractive ornamental gates and the skeleton of the fake lantern.

Businessman Paul Foulkes then bought Belle Tout as a weekend family retreat. In the family’s 8 years of residence they carried on with the restoration, and replaced the 17ft diameter lantern room that the BBC had passed onto them.