We were warned it would get windy as we got closer to the cliff and as we walked away from the last telephone booth and the pub by its side, and the forlorn cars parked along the footpath with one car prominently displaying a sign saying it belonged to the local Samaritans, it became clear just how strong the wind could be. It was difficult to walk into the wind and, after a few minutes in the open field, I felt as if I had lost my ears.
We walked towards the edge. There were signs warning us not only of the sheer depth —535ft—of the cliff at Beachy Head, but also a sobering note, that the wind could sweep people away if they were not careful and walked too close to the edge.
Tall tale:Beachy Head is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain.
The Samaritans were there for a reason: Over the years, this breathtaking spot has also become Britain’s favourite suicide spot, if such spots can be called favourite. Some 20 people on an average, take their lives here annually though, in recent years, the numbers have fallen, thanks to alert bartenders at the pub who are trained to look out for those losing hope; that telephone booth, where messages of hope are written, and numbers of helplines posted prominently; and the samaritans’ patrol.
The view from Beachy Head is, in fact, ennobling. The waves upon waves of undulating cliffs, looking identical, receding gently—called Seven Sisters— look symmetrical and, when sunlight falls on them at an angle, they gleam, acquiring a painterly quality that is best captured in watercolours. The sisters are at the point where the rolling land of South Downs meets the unruly sea, creating an elemental feeling. The peaks were created when old rivers sliced through valleys into the chalk. The highest, called Haven Brow, is puny by Himalayan standards, at 253ft. The others are called Short Brow, Rough Brow, Brass Point, Flagstaff Point, Baily’s Brow and Went Hill Brow. But they form a spectacular image.
Like everything close to the English Channel, Beachy Head has a connection with World War II. During that time, the Royal Air Force had a forward relay station here to improve radio communications with aircraft. In 1942, the station picked up signals from television transmissions from the Eiffel Tower, from which the Germans used to telecast programmes for the local German elite. But like many places that are footnotes in history, nothing of tremendous significance was gathered from those intercepts.
The war was far from our minds and yet we did what some soldiers in wars do; we surrendered, although to the breeze. We turned left, enchanted by the mist which made the town of Eastbourne, below to our left, look like a pointillist canvas. Famous for its tennis tournament for women in the weeks before Wimbledon, Eastbourne has the look and feel of British seaside resorts with something to hide. Donald McGill, buried here, was famous for drawing saucy postcards that were routinely banned from seaside resorts, presumably for corrupting public morals. George Orwell, who went to school at St Crispian’s below Beachy Head, defended his humour vigorously, but he was not around in the 1950s to defend McGill when he was tried for spreading obscenity. In 2001, however, Eastbourne had grown up and held an exhibition of some of McGill’s work.
The school where Orwell went is below Beachy Head and a plaque commemorates the site of St Crispian’s. But while his name appears—along with Cecil Beaton’s and Cyril Connolly’s—as among the school’s famous pupils, Orwell himself had an unhappy time at the school. Class played its role: Orwell was from a poor background and the school had aristocrats and the wealthy. The headmaster and his wife make an appearance, not entirely flattering, in The Road to Wigan Pier, and he also wrote a chilling essay, called Such, Such Were the Joys, which painted such a dismal picture of the school years that it was only published after the death of the headmaster’s wife, to avoid a lawsuit, even though Orwell himself had been dead for some time. When some readers complained that his description of torture in the novel Nineteen Eighty-Four was too similar to public school bullying, he replied: “The only English parallel for the nightmare of totalitarianism was the experience of the misfit boy in an English boarding school.”
But other writers who lived in this area had a happier time. Charles Hodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, spent the last 20 summers of his life here, visiting from Oxford, writing about Euclid, and the novel, Sylvie and Bruno. Virginia Woolf made a home in these parts, and Charles Dickens too came to Eastbourne. And yet another famous resident was Count László de Almásy, who formed the inspiration for Michael Ondaatje’s protagonist in the novel, The English Patient. The count studied here too, became a member of the Eastbourne Flying Club, getting his pilot’s licence.
The charms of a walk through the English countryside: a pretty landscape, a heart-stopping cliff, the sound of the waves, and rolling downs. But the wet air carries with it a peculiar freshness, which honed the lives of so many inspired lives. Not all experiences are happy, as indeed in life; but they shape us. Like waves, they lash at us; like the cliff, we stand stubborn, taking blows.
And then, on a hot summer afternoon on a Sunday, after a walk through the picturesque emerald carpet of the Downs, you reach a restaurant at a place such as Birling Gap, with its enclosed pebble beach. You sit out, under a parasol, a long lunch in the company of friends, with bottles of wine getting emptied, and the sun, it seems, will never set.
Salil Tripathi is a London-based writer and a columnist for Lounge.
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