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THE MACABRE BEAUTY OF BEACHY HEAD

Posted on: August 15, 2014

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Beachy Head, on the south coast of England, is in an area of outstanding natural beauty, but it also has a long and macabre history as a suicide hotspot. When you drive up through the area on a beautiful sunny day, it is hard to imagine anyone contemplating death here, and yet Beachy’s reputation as such has entered common folklore, and a local chaplaincy is usually to be found parked nearby to offer a counselling service. The public phone box on the main road has the number of the Samaritans prominently place, and taxi-drivers and the staff at the Beachy Head public house are asked to be on the alert for anyone whom they think may be contemplating ending it all. According to Wikipedia, Beachy’s unenviable reputation is only surpassed by San Francisco’s Golden Gate Bridge, and the eerie Aokigahara Forest in Japan.

The name Beachy Head is a corruption of the French ‘beau chef’ meaning Beautiful Headland, and certainly the scenery here is absolutely stunning. When I arrived at the Beachy Head inn in August 2014, I was stunned by the view across the rolling downs, with the quirky Belle Tout lighthouse in the distance (which will be familiar to some from the TV series ‘The Life And Loves Of A She-Devil’, where Patricia Hodge played a romantic novelist who made her home there). Even on a warm summer’s day though, the wind up here can be decidedly bracing!

Beachy’s notorious history goes back a long way. The first suicides were recorded here over a thousand years ago. St Wilfred recorded it as such way back in the 7th century. Over the years numerous ghostly legends have sprung up over the area. Most disquieting is the legend of a ghostly black monk, who is said to stand at the bottom of the cliff beckoning people over it. He has occasionally been blamed for the high number of suicides here. A phantom Grey Lady is also said to haunt the cliff path, and has been seen stepping over the edge.

In 1952 a mass exorcism was carried out on the headland. Over 100 people, carrying large wooden crosses, arrived on site to try and cleanse the area of its unwanted aura. In Medieval times witches congregated here to try and repel French invaders, and during World War 2 self-proclaimed Great Beast Aleister Crowley was said to have held demonic rituals at a place called Devil’s Chimney, to repel a Nazi invasion. One website darkly alludes to ritual human sacrifice.

In his autobiography, ‘The Confessions of Aleister Crowley’, Mr C writes “my grand passion was Beachy Head”, although this was to do entirely with his love of rock-climbing. He also writes about a strange experience he had there as a young man, when he was out indulging his hobby. He said he had left his mother at a spot nearby, so that she could do some water-colour painting. He was out of sight when he heard her call out. He said he knew at the time that he was too far away to have possibly heard her, but, sensing danger, he had scrambled back. He found she had wandered from her spot, and was in imminent peril of slipping over the edge. Crowley got back just in time to save her. He described this in a very Crowley-ish way (God forbid he should be accused of doing something kind and noble!) as a “regrettable incident of impulsive humanitarianism”.

Beachy has been quite a source of inspiration for film-makers. It crops up in a couple of episodes of the cult 1960s TV series, ‘The Prisoner’, including my favourite episode, ‘The Girl Who Was Death’, where the lighthouse at the bottom was used as the lair of a Napoleon fanatic. Probably most famously, it was used at the end of ‘Quadrophenia’, when Phil Daniels dramatically rides his scooter over the cliff-edge. In the autumn of 2013 a TV drama about Lord Lucan was filmed at Beachy, who famously abandoned his car nearby and was never seen again.

In spite of, or perhaps because of, it’s long and dark history, Beachy is a strangely pleasant place to visit. Perhaps it is the sense of compassion shown by the people who work there. People are inclined to look out for one another. We were just finishing a very nice lunch at the pub when I overheard a man nearby, who was settling his bill. “Are you OK?” the young waiter asked him. “Yeah I’m fine”, the man replied, somewhat lugubriously “It’s the rest of the world that isn’t!”

Don’t let the buggers grind you down.

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