Development on the downs
The National Trust was set up in 1895 to preserve places of historic interest and natural beauty. The modern history of Birling Gap shows how organisations including the National Trust are so important in protecting the countryside and heritage so beloved by many.
Crowlink's ruined barns
Apart from Crowlink Farm, nowadays the present Crowlink Hamlet, the downs in the area surrounding Birling Gap were mainly farmland. Before the 1900’s a lack of water and distance from rail lines prevented development of the downs around Crowlink and Birling Gap.
There are the remains of two barns at Crowlink; Red Barn and Gallops Barn. These were built by the lady of Birling manor originally as cottages to house farm workers in the 1840’s. The cottages had gardens and water storage reservoirs. Conditions on this exposed down land led to the cottages being described as ruins by 1874.
New sea side town in Sussex
Carew Davies-Gilbert, a local landwoner whose descendants still live in East Dean today, had a dream of a new sea side town centred at Birling Gap. There was going to be a new branch train line from Eastbourne, and there were plans to build gardens and pier. The new town was to be called Southdown Bay but the railway company declined to build the line, which scuppered his plans for the new development.
By the 1920’s the motor car had taken over from the train as the preferred mode of transport. Plans were drawn up to build a housing estate over Crowlink with hotels and a golf course. This horrified those who loved the wild and natural joy of a more undeveloped Birling Gap.
A fund raising campaign was started by the Society of Sussex Downsman and their president Arthur Beckett. The aim was to generate funds to help protect this unspoiled coastal site. It was so successful that enough money was raised to purchase the site outright. It was gifted to the National Trust, thereby saving it from extensive commercial development.
When the Crowlink estate was purchased from a Mr Hayward’s building syndicate in 1927. He retained the buildings of Crowlink Farm but the National Trust still own the farm yard.
The National Trust building at Birling Gap was a hotel, constructed in-between 1878-1909. It was built to refresh and accommodate the numerous day trippers and visitors to the cliffs. The houses on the lane behind Birling Gap where built in the 1920’s but further development was halted by the purchase of Crowlink.
The 21st century sees the challenge of rising sea levels heading our way. Due to the Shifting shores policy the development of the site will have to take erosion in account. It is possible that eventually there will be no buildings at Birling Gap and it will be a wilder place.