Managing change at Birling Gap

A view from above the beach at Birling Gap, East Sussex
Coastguard cottages at Birling Gap, Seven Sisters, East Sussex National Trust Images / John Miller

Perched on the cliff above the beach at Birling Gap, our all-in-one café, shop and visitor centre welcome an estimated 350,000 visitors a year.

Whatever the weather, you can relax in our brand new café and enjoy views over the sea and the iconic Seven Sisters.

But the cliffs hide a worrying truth, they are eroding by on average 0.7m per year, giving some parts of the café an estimated life span of only 7 years. And, as we saw in 2013, these erosion rates do not always tell the whole story. There were no significant cliff falls here for many years and then a 3m deep section was lost overnight in January of 2014.

As we are keen to work with, and not against, natural processes wherever possible, the property team at Birling Gap are following a policy of managed realignment, and have come up with some creative ways to adapt to coastal change.

Firstly, they have been busy converting the building’s unused rooms, which are furthest away from the shore, into a comfortable café and shop. Renovated with a long-term vision in mind, the café has a proposed life span of around 15 years in total, where sections can be closed and moved to adapt to the ongoing changes, and the shop and visitor centre over 30 years.

Adrian Harrison, Head Ranger at Birling Gap, says: 'We needed to make sure that any work we did would take into account the transient nature of the building, given the rate of erosion. This informed all the decisions we made regarding the building works. We’re very pleased with the end result and confident that we have achieved the best solution, balancing the needs of the visitors and the constraints we had to take into account.'

The team has also installed a number of other measures to prepare Birling Gap for future erosion, including fences with ‘elephant feet,’ which can be moved backwards as the coast erodes, so that the danger of falling fences is not added to that of crumbling cliffs.

The stairs down to the beach are another ingenious feature to that enables Birling Gap to adapt to coastal change. The horizontal gangway to the stairwell can be extended to match coastal erosion, and the stairwell can also be removed and repositioned higher up the beach, when the time comes. The stairs were last moved at Easter 2013 when a new land bridge was also put in place to extend the lifespan of the structure.

Adrian explains: 'The steps have been designed specifically with coastal erosion in mind, and they were recently moved back by Wealden District Council. This process can be repeated as and when necessary, as access to the beach is a much valued resource for all our residents and visitors alike, and Birling Gap is one of only three places where the beach can be accessed between Eastbourne and Seaford.'

The newly renovated café and shop welcomed visitors for the first time in July 2013, and the visitor centre was opened in spring 2014. Here, visitors can discover more about the fascinating people and stories that have shaped this incredible coastal site.

Find out more about our policy on coastal adaptation by clicking on the link below.