Belle Tout at sunset. A must to view, fantastic sight.

BY Elizabeth Wright

This part of the South Downs, in East Sussex is a paradise for both dogs and their owners. The attractions are obvious – the stark beauty of the chalk white Seven Sisters cliffs rising up 535 feet from the restless sea to merge with “The blunt, bow-headed,

whale backed downs,” on whose rolling slopes “grow the close-bit thyme that smells like dawn in Paradise,” is perfectly described in those immortal lines by Rudyard Kipling. The downland is smothered in springy green turf where dogs can chase balls, rabbits, gulls and pigeons, dig holes in the chalky ground and follow Nature’s tantalising smells. Their owners can keep fit by walking for miles along the South Downs Way, which passes through such glorious landscape.

Sign at cliff edge

But this beauty spot has a dark side. The cliff edge is only yards away from the paths and road, and over the last 600 years this area has gained a notorious reputation as a suicide spot, with some 12-18 deaths a year.

Not only have precious human lives been lost, dogs and other animals have also plunged over the edge of this unfenced headland. Surprisingly, a number of family pets have survived, and much of the credit for this must go to the Coastguard cliff rescue teams. Originally the local police were responsible for attending to anyone or anything that went over the edge. In 1969 the Fire Brigade (now Sussex Fire and Rescue) took over, but stepped down in 1973. After discussions, the Coastguards were willing to take over rescue and recovery, overseen by the then Station-Officer-in Charge, Gary Russell. BEM. Twelve volunteers went through intensive training using a dustbin full of water as a practise weight; sixteen weeks of trials followed, getting them all used to the height and lifting gear.

dog walkers on the South Downs

Animal rescues were given the same priority as human rescues and, in addition to their standard casualty equipment, they had a special net with draw-strings. Often the conditions the rescue teams faced in retrieving scared and injured creatures were life threatening. Initially, between them and a stomach-churning drop, there were just two strong ropes, two four foot metal stakes, a portable petrol driven winch and a sturdy Land-rover.

Beachy Head

Between October 1973 and October 1993 fourteen dogs were saved by Gary Russell and his team. Now retired, with quiet modesty he dismisses the obvious hazards of this work, which often involved coping with dangerous crumbling cliffs and appalling weather conditions. “It was just a job, somebody had to do it. I took it in my stride.”

However, his rescue skills were truly challenged when Simon, a large and surly Dobermann, fell over the cliff edge and landed on a ledge 80 feet down. He angrily resisted all the efforts to pull him up. Their special net came into its own as Gary Russell climbed down and managed to entrap him. But Simon was still in angry mode, and as they were being hauled up together, Gary said, “I could feel his hot breath on my neck.

Simon was angrily chewing his way through the net and appeared to be fast heading for my throat.”

Beachy Head

Penny, a much loved family greyhound, came face to face with Beachy Head cliffs the reverse way. She livened up her walk along the under cliffs by trying to scrabble up the chalk face, taking her way out of her owner’s reach. Gary was lowered down, but Penny, still nervously climbing upwards, refused to stop for a stranger, and eventually her owner had to be winched down, and between them, the two men managed to catch her with the aid of the big pet net.

Belle Tout Lighthouse

Perhaps one of the luckiest dogs to survive a fall over Beachy Head was eleven- month -old ‘Sheba’, a Springer Spaniel.

In March 1999, her owners, Tim and Tasmin Castle and their two sons, Ben, 8 and Alex, 5, travelled from their home in Eastbourne to watch the much heralded move of Belle

Tout lighthouse. As they opened their car door, Sheba jumped out, and they could only watch in frozen horror as she chased a seagull……….and disappeared over the cliff edge.

Mr. Castle is quoted as saying, “I was sure she wouldn’t have survived. My heart lurched when I saw her go over.” They called the local police, who alerted the Coastguards. Their

inshore lifeboat was on exercise in the area and the crew could not believe their eyes when they saw Sheba running up and down the beach, barking. After tumbling down 300 feet she had, incredibly, sustained nothing more than a bruised eye.

A dog with more lives than the average cat was 7 year old Jack Russell terrier, TK. Having previously been kicked by a horse, gashed on a barbed wire fence and survived eating

poisoned fox bait, he attempted to top all this by trying to fly off the top of Beachy Head.

Belle Tout Lighthouse

His owners, Ian Brett and partner Pauline Allen, from Hackney, north-east London, had driven to the coast to give Ian’s 30 racing pigeons a training flight. But, as the pigeons flew out to sea, TK gave an excited yelp and tried to follow them.

A distraught phone call to the Coastguards about the incident, brought Duty Man Roy Hopgood and Auxiliary Ben Calloway, to the scene. From the cliff top they could see no sign of the little dog. The Eastbourne lifeboat was then called out to search along the shoreline. To the amazement of the crew, one very wet, but uninjured, Jack Russell was seen sitting on the beach.

Ben Calloway said, “TK is very lucky to be alive. He didn’t appear to have a scratch on him after falling 300 feet. We do advise everyone to keep their dogs on leads when exercising them in this area. Their pet may not be as fortunate as TK.”

In January 1989, a two year old black spaniel, Khara, tumbled down to the beach from an area known as Whitbread Hollow. She survived with only a few bruises, and set a kind of a record by being the first pet to be rescued from the seashore by helicopter. A police spokesman said, “People often hail down police cars, but this is the first time anyone has flagged down our new police helicopter for an emergency when it was out on a routine exercise.”

There have been some lighter moments; one of the downland sheep took a fancy to a juicy clump of grass ten feet down and then became stranded on a ledge. Only in Britain

would a team of Coastguards, three farmers and several members of the public turn out to try and rescue it.

Coastguard Gary Russell said, “This daft animal was balanced on a tiny bit of rock and shaking like a leaf. One wrong move and it would have become a roast dinner. We gently lowered a lasso, gave the animal’s backside a whack with a long shepherd’s crook, it jumped in the noose and we quickly pulled it up.”

Numerous items have been tossed over these cliffs, old fridges and freezers, bags of rubbish, the odd model aeroplane, damaged hang gliders and a number of abandoned cars.

On the 17th May, 1960, a Volkswagen car was driven over in a suicide attempt by its owner and it ended up at the foot of the cliffs. In his book, ‘Beachy Head,’ Coroner Dr. John Surtees wrote, ‘The car was upright and sufficiently undamaged to be stripped of its wheels, battery and other useful spare parts during the following few days. Some time later the Company was running a nationwide publicity campaign using the slogan,


but in view of the remarkably slight damage the car had sustained, it was suggested that the slogan should be changed to



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