Birds and Warbirds

If the Southern English coast from Swanage to Weymouth and beyond is advertised as the Jurassic Coast, then the chalk cliffs from Brighton to Eastbourne, together with the white cliffs from Folkestone to Dover, ought to be known as the Cretaceous Coast. The chalk – the remains of quintillions of planktonic algae known as coccolithophores – was laid down at the bottom of a deep sea in late Cretaceous times, around 80 million years ago.

The cliffs are a symbol of island Britain and its impregnability.

The cliffs are constantly crumbling into the sea.

Chalk is soft, and vulnerable to the pounding of the waves that roll up the English Channel, especially with winter storms.

In fact England retreats up to a third of a metre a year as a result of this unwarranted attack.

Of course the last time England was properly invaded – in 1066 – the invaders sensibly avoided the chalk cliffs and landed at Hastings, between Eastbourne and Folkestone, where there are smooth and inviting beaches on which to comfortably disembark your army.

Meanwhile between Seaford and Eastbourne there are the notable chalk cliffs of Seaford Head, the Seven Sisters, and, most prominent of all, Beachy Head – so high, so sheer, that it is one of the country’s most popular suicide spots . . .

On the other hand it is also an exhilarating, and often breezy, place to walk, with views far out to sea on one side and to Sussex fields, farms and woods inland on the other. I walked these cliffs one August – the height of the British summer. It alternately rained and shone.

I began my walk at Seaford, a minor seaside town now, though once a significant South Coast port, until its harbour silted up and French pirates kept burning the place down. I walked up from the promenade to Seaford Head. At first it is mostly a golf course, but at the highest point there are the remains of an iron age hill fort, a half circle of embankment – the other half having been lost with the erosion of the cliff. Then it becomes a Nature Reserve as it slopes down to Cuckmere Haven. There were wheatears in numbers along this stretch, and a stonechat so dark that I puzzled at first as to what it might be. It was probably just a trick of the light, which in relation to the identification of birds is often rather tricky. Or perhaps the other way round. Feathers have a way of reflecting, refracting and otherwise mucking about with light that can cause them to alter in both colour and contrast according to the angle of observation. I observed for a while. It was a stonechat.

The name is a result of where you often find them – on stony ground – and the noise they make – a harsh chatter. Except that this was originally a name for the wheatear. But then they too like to perch on and flit from stone to stone, although, in my experience, they tend rather to keep quiet than chatter.

Cuckmere Haven is a break in the chalk cliffs where the river Cuckmere spills into the sea. There is no crossing point at the coast so I followed the path inland for a mile or so to where the coast road crosses by way of a narrow bridge. There is a cafe at the road. I stopped for a coffee.

I sat looking down the Cuckmere towards the sea. Two Lancaster bombers flew across the Haven. They appeared from behind one headland and then disappeared behind the other.

Warbirds.

Seventy year-old warbirds.

Still flying.

One of them from the Royal Air Force’s Battle of Britain Memorial Flight, the other – the only other Lancaster still air-worthy – recently flown over from Canada.

I was expecting them.

These were the days of the annual, free, Eastbourne Air Show – which was why I was there. Birds and warbirds. Two birds with one walk, so to speak.

And the landscape of course. I took the hill path back down the other side of the valley from where I could see the long, meandering loops of the Cuckmere River – and the straight cut channel from the road bridge to the sea. The cut was constructed in the 1840s, largely to prevent flooding. It involved embankments, and the consequent drying out of former reed beds and wetlands – the mere. Fortunately there are now plans afoot, or possibly afloat, to let the river flow through its old meanders once more and so restore the wetlands to their former ecological glory.

At which point a Douglas C-47 ‘Dakota’ in D-day stripes – black and white bands across the wings and around the rear fuselage – turned in from the coast and headed up the valley on broad but tapering, almost pointed, wings.

The bands were applied for D-day to avoid any confusion as to whose side you were on.

The Dakota (known in the US as the ‘Skytrain’ – and they should know, they invented it) was designed as a transport plane, not a weapon, but it certainly counts as a warbird. It played a major role in transporting military equipment, supplies and men from early in the Second World War, including acting as a glider tug during the D-day invasion, delivering hundreds of men into the battle for France. It continued to be used after the War in the Korean and Vietnam wars and before these, famously, in the Berlin Airlift of 1948/9.

This particular aeroplane belonged to the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight.

A Spitfire went by at some point too.

From Cuckmere Haven the coast path – in fact the South Downs Way – climbs and descends seven times as it traverses the undulating cliffs of the Seven Sisters. I traversed them all, each bottom and brow – Rough Brow and Rough Bottom, Flagstaff Brow and Flagstaff Bottom, and so on . . .

At last I came to Birling Gap.

Seaford Head, Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters from Birling Gap
Seaford Head, Cuckmere Valley and the Seven Sisters from Birling Gap

Birling Gap is a particularly low ‘bottom’ situated just before the great rise of Beachy Head. An iron stairway allows access to the pebble beach below. A terrace row of houses, originally built for the coastguard, stand perpendicular to the cliffs. A National Trust shop and cafe sit opposite across the car park.

For now.

Here, as all along these chalk cliffs, the sea erodes and the cliffs fall constantly. Number 2 Crangon Cottages was demolished in 2002. Number 1 was lost in 1972. The cliffs at Birling Gap retreat by about three feet each year. The cafe and shop are expected to go in about forty year’s time.

I last went to Birling Gap about forty years ago. I was eighteen years old and I had just left school. I was working in Eastbourne as a Porter at All Saints Hospital – a magnificent, Victorian geriatric hospital. I moved patients about in wheelchairs from wards to occupational therapy and back. I delivered the meal trolleys from the kitchen to the wards. I wheeled the dead to the morgue and made them presentable for their relatives.

I loved it.

I loved helping and chatting with the old people. Bringing them bottles of stout to keep their iron levels up; wheeling them around the corridors at top speed while they begged for me to slow down.

Most of all I enjoyed the fact that every ward was dripping with attractive, female, mostly Scandinavian, nurses.

Well, I was eighteen – and so were most of them, or thereabouts.

The deal was that they came to improve their English for six months while pretending to be nurses. They were provided with accommodation and a modest salary. As far as I could make out, it seemed to be a satisfactory deal. The young women improved their English and the old folks got looked after. The National Health Service would collapse without  foreign labour, even now.

On our days off we would walk up over Beachy Head to Birling Gap and have a coffee in the cafe before walking back again.

Now, I had coffee and a bacon butty for breakfast from the cafe, having kipped down overnight in the lea of some wind-beaten pines and wild shrubbery above the Gap. As I sat by the edge of the cliff a fulmar drifted by. They are curious birds – in both senses. On the one hand they do like to come and have a look at you. They float on straight and outstretched wings along the cliff edge, and then come close in towards you – investigatorily. On the other hand, although they look superficially like sea gulls, they are in fact tube-noses and somewhat related to albatrosses. They have the albatross’s friendly eye – not the sharp eye of a herring gull, for example, which is clearly the eye of a rogue. Their’s is the eye of an innocent, amiable soul, which would probably be happy to make friends with you if only you would launch out from the cliff edge and join him – or her – on the updraught.

Or possibly not.

In fact: what anthropomorphic nonsense. Especially if you were to try and join them on their nest ledge. They would then spit a foul-smelling stomach oil at you which would clog your plumage and quite possibly cause you to plummet seaward to be broken on the rocks below. They were once famous for this foul-smelling sputum. Indeed their name derives from Old Norse fúll meaning foul, and már meaning gull.

Nonetheless, their curiosity is a delight, as is their effortless grace as they ride the air beside the cliffs or glide low over the sea.

*
After breakfast I walked up the grassy slope towards the Belle Tout lighthouse in a cloud of sand martins and young swallows. They were all about me, above and beside, as they slipped through the air on flickering wings and tight turns and instant dips and climbs. No man-made flying machine ever came close to their ineffable, inherent oneness with the air.

Well, apart from the fact that I’ve never seen a swallow loop the loop.

Or hang vertically for just a moment and then turn and fall and recover and roar upwards again.

But probably these things should not be compared. They belong to different realms of delight.

*

I set off from Birling Gap shortly after a young woman with a knapsack. We each walked at our own pace and after a while I passed her. However, when I then paused to rest and to enjoy the scenery, she kept going, steadily. I passed her again, and rested again. She kept going. The tortoise and the hare. I slowly watched her draw away ahead until I lost her in the distance and among the crowds on the slopes of Beachy Head.

But before I got there, I came to the long de-commissioned Belle Tout lighthouse on the next headland. Belle Tout would appear to be French for ‘Everything beautiful‘. However, it may be that it came from the Anglo-saxon ‘Bel’ or ‘Bael’ – the name of a pagan god – and ‘toot’ meaning lookout. There are the remains of an extensive iron age or even earlier hill fort nearby, and in any case, everywhere has to have a name, both bottoms and brows, whether you build a lighthouse on it or not.

In 1999 the lighthouse was moved from its original position, by then within three meters of the cliff edge, to a new position further inland. And yet it is still not so far from the edge.

The problem is that the cliff keeps chasing it.

It has been calculated, however, that at present rates of erosion the lighthouse will remain safe for another twenty-five years or so – and then it can be moved again.

The lighthouse now provides unusual Bed and Breakfast accommodation with very good views.

*

Beachy Head was already well covered with spectators for the yet to commence Air Show. I moved through the crowds until I discerned the ideal spot to sit – a brief level area on the slope which then fell away steeply so that one’s view could not be blocked by inconsiderate others arriving later. It was just big enough for a couple of people to sit. It was already half occupied – by a man in a floppy bush hat and a greasy windcheater, with note book and camera to hand. I engaged him in conversation and soon obtained permission to sit down beside him.

This turned out to be a good move. Not only was he there to watch the aeroplanes, he was also a keen birdwatcher and, especially, an observer of butterflies. His notebook was full of the butterflies he’d seen and where he’d seen them – written in an indecipherable shorthand. I was appropriately impressed.

There were butterflies fluttering by right in front of us where the chalk grassland turf was un- trampled and a foot or two high – grasses and herbs, some in flower, others over and dry. Whites, red admirals and blues. He had just seen a Brown Argus – which is a blue, but brown – with orange spots and silver-white edges to the wings. This is on the upperside. Beneath they are much like other blues, silvery-white with black and orange spots. I had never knowingly seen a Brown Argus – until one conveniently alighted not three feet away and showed off both its underside and its upperside for our convenience. It was duly recorded in the notebook.

It was noticeable that as the afternoon moved on the breeze became stronger and the butterflies disappeared. However, when a person or two walked through the long grass they appeared again, briefly. Clearly they were taking shelter from the wind. Very sensible. I put my windcheater on. Fortunately it was not so windy that the aeroplanes we’d come to see could not fly.

What we had come to see above all was the two Lancasters – together. Winston Churchill described the Lancaster as having “the face of a locust and the belly of a Zambezi crocodile.” This was no doubt apt for the times. Wry humour to stiffen the public morale. Now, however, we have the luxury of admiring its curious aesthetics.

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It is probably fair to say that although the Lancaster has its charms, it is not immediately the most beautiful of aircraft. It is not even obviously aerodynamic, with its glass-house cockpit, its spikey collection of gun turrets, and the bomb-aimer’s observation bubble like a prognathous chin leading the way below the nose. But those are precisely its charms – gnome-like, carbuncled, and its four engines like great muscles in the outstretched wings. The total effect is that of a dragonfly as much as a locust, a predator as well as a pestilence, but also a thing of peculiar beauty.

Furthermore it was able to carry a great weight of bombs and proved far more capable than anything that had gone before. Unfortunately it was not invincible. Precisely 7,337 Lancasters were built between 1941 and early 1946. Some 3,500 of them were lost on operations. Nearly half. I cannot find figures for Lancaster crew losses, but for RAF Bomber Command as a whole, of 125,000 aircrew, 55,573 were killed. A little under half. The average age of aircrews was twenty-two. Most Lancaster raids were made at night, weather permitting. The crews would therefore be ‘at home’ by day, perhaps attending an evening dance or in the pub when operations were off, but otherwise having to fly come dusk into the dark and likely death. The odds of surviving a 30 day tour of operations were not good. By 1943 only one in six expected to get through their first tour. Then there was another tour to follow . . .

What would I prefer? Stuck in the trenches of the Great War day after day, or coming home every day to relax and then having to go ‘over the top’ again each night?

The crews were all volunteers.

We had not only come to see the Lancasters, we had also come to hear them. Eight Rolls-Royce Merlin engines thundering through the sky. Like Thor himself. Like an avalanche. In fact, like eight very powerful, unsilenced, internal combustion, vintage, aero-engines. I had previously heard six such engines together, when the Battle of Britain Memorial Flight – a Lancaster, a Spitfire and a Hurricane – took me by surprise and passed low over my house. Come to think of it, I have in fact heard twenty such engines together, when more or less every Spitfire available was assembled at Duxford, the Imperial War Museum’s airfield near Cambridge, for the 60th anniversary of The Battle of Britain, in 2000. They passed over us in close formation, like a skein of wild geese – but more disciplined.

[ Yes, I know, some of the Spits will have had Griffon engines, but there are limits to the nerdish details one can go into and still keep the general reader with you. And in any case, a Griffon is just a bigger, louder Merlin.]

Back at Beachy Head we watched as a variety of aeroplanes displayed along the promenade, and having finished their display, flew low along the cliff edge and then disappeared behind the highest point of the Head to our right, as if they must inevitably crash into the cliff below.

None did.

*

Beachy Head, by the way, does not mean what it says. There is no beach. At the foot of the cliff there is a narrow strip of flint pebbles and fallen chalk at low tide. The waves wash up to the cliff itself when the tide is high. The name seems to be a corruption of an earlier French name beau chef, meaning beautiful head(land) .

*

I walked down from Beachy Head after the air show was over and reached the end of the path – the end of the South Downs Way – where it meets the road at the edge of the town, at about six thirty in the evening. A wooden sign post declares that you have reached Eastbourne and points back up the path indicating that Winchester lies one hundred miles to the west. A young man on a mountain bike arrived at more or less the same time. He had set off from Winchester that morning at 6.00am, averaging just over eight miles an hour along the ups and downs of the Way. Presumably he had not stopped to take in the views. I took a photo for him, standing beside the sign post, as proof of his achievement. He was now off to catch the train back to Winchester.

I found a pub for refreshment and a meal, then walked back up the path a short way and found myself a sheltered spot to sleep.