Beachy Head is located within the administrative area of Eastbourne Borough Council which owns the land, forming part of the Eastbourne Downland Estate. The cliff is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain, rising to 162 metres (531 ft) above sea level. The peak allows views of the south east coast from Dungeness in the east, to Selsey Bill in the west. Its height has also made it one of the most notorious suicide spots in the world.
The chalk was formed in the Late Cretaceous epoch, between 66 and 100 million years ago, when the area was under the sea. During the Cenozoic Era, the chalk was uplifted (see Cenozoic Era). When the last Ice Age ended, sea levels rose and the English Channel formed, cutting into the chalk to form the dramatic cliffs along the Sussex coast.
Wave action contributes towards the erosion of cliffs around Beachy Head, which experience frequent small rock falls. Since chalk forms in layers separated by contiguous bands of flints, the physical structure affects how the cliffs erode. Wave action undermines the lower cliffs, causing frequent slab failures - slabs from layers of chalk break off, undermining the upper parts of the cliffs, which eventually collapse. In contrast to small rock falls, mass movements are less common. A mass movement happened in 2001 when, after a winter of heavy rain, the water had begun to seep into the cracks which had frozen and caused the cracks to widen. This then made the cliff edge erode and collapse into the sea, destroying a well-known chalk stack called the Devil's Chimney.
The name Beachy Head appears as 'Beauchef' in 1274, and was 'Beaucheif' in 1317, becoming consistently Beachy Head by 1724, and has nothing to do with beach. Instead it is a corruption of the original French words meaning "beautiful headland" (beau chef).
Human remains discovered in the 1950s were later subjected to forensic reconstruction, carbon dating and radio-isotype analysis, and found to be those of a woman of Sub-Saharan African origin who grew up in the Eastbourne area in about 200-250AD. She has become known as Beachy Head Lady.
The headland was a danger to shipping. In 1831, construction began on the Belle Tout lighthouse on the next headland west from Beachy Head. Because mist and low clouds could hide the light of Belle Tout, Beachy Head Lighthouse was built in the sea below Beachy Head.
The third day of fighting in the Battle of Portland in 1653 took place off Beachy Head during the First Anglo-Dutch War. The Battle of Beachy Head in 1690 was a naval engagement during the Nine Years' War. The so-called Second Battle of Beachy Head took place over a week in September 1916 during the First World War. Three German U-Boats sank 30 merchant ships between Beachy Head and the Eddystone. This was despite a major effort involving the Royal Navy and 49 destroyers, 48 torpedo boats, seven 'Q' ships and 468 auxiliaries.
During the Second World War, the Royal Air Force (RAF) established a forward relay station at Beachy Head to improve radio communications with aircraft. In 1942, signals were picked up at Beachy Head which were identified as TV transmissions from the Eiffel Tower. The Germans had reactivated the pre-war TV transmitter and instituted a Franco-German service for military hospitals and VIPs in the Paris region. The RAF monitored these programmes, hoping (in vain), to gather intelligence from newsreels. There was also an important wartime radar station in the area and, during the Cold War, a radar control centre was operational in an underground bunker from 1953 to 1957.
West from Belle Tout, the cliffs drop down to Birling Gap, then ascend through the Seven Sisters to Haven Brow, overlooking the Cuckmere valley. The area is a popular tourist attraction. Birling Gap has a restaurant and, in the summer, multiple ice cream vans serve the area.
There are an estimated 20 deaths by suicide a year at Beachy Head. The Beachy Head Chaplaincy Team conducts regular day and evening patrols of the area in attempts to locate and stop potential jumpers. Workers at the pub and taxi drivers are also on the look-out for people contemplating suicide, and there are posted signs with the telephone number of the Samaritans urging potential jumpers to call them.
Deaths at the site are well-covered by the media, and Ross Hardy, the founder of the chaplaincy team, says that this encourages suicidal people to choose the site. Worldwide, the landmark's suicide rate is surpassed only by the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco and the Aokigahara Woods in Japan, according to Thomas Meaney of The Wall Street Journal (although this claim is challenged by other data on famous suicide spots around the world).
Between 1965, and 1979, there were 124 deaths at the location. Of these, S. J. Surtees wrote that 115 of them were "almost certainly" suicides (although a coroner's verdict of suicide was recorded in only 58 cases), and that 61 percent of the victims were from outside East Sussex. The earliest reports of deaths come from the 7th century. After a steady increase in deaths between 2002 and 2005, there were only seven fatalities in 2006, a marked decrease. The Maritime and Coastguard Agency, whose Coastguard Rescue Teams are responsible for the rescue of injured jumpers and the recovery of the dead, attributed the reduction to the work of the Chaplaincy Team and good coverage of services by the local media. At least 26 people died at the site in 2008.
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