One of Britain’s iconic views saved: Plan to build sea wall to defend Sussex cliffs with picturesque Napoleonic-era coastguard cottages is approved
- Coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, were built 200 years ago
- But for decades they have been under threat from rising coastal erosion
- Now South Downs National Park Authority approved plans for a new sea wall
An iconic view of a beauty spot described by Dame Judy Dench as ‘the essence of our country’ has been saved.
For more than 200 years the coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, have perched on a clifftop overlooking the English Channel.
Built during the Napoleonic era the cottages attract millions of visitors each year and are known the world over after featuring in countless feature films, pop videos and TV programmes.
But for decades they have been under threat from rising coastal erosion and, despite the construction of a sea wall 80 years ago, the buildings are slowly being undermined by the sea.
Now planners have thrown the historic cottages a lifeline after passing ambitious plans to build new sea defences.
South Downs National Park Authority approved plans for a new wall which will surround the cliff face below the cottages and aims to provide protection for at least 85 years.
For more than 200 years the coastguard cottages at Cuckmere Haven, East Sussex, have perched on a clifftop overlooking the English Channel
Built during the Napoleonic era the cottages attract millions of visitors each year and are known the world over after featuring in countless feature films, pop videos and TV programmes
The old sea wall was built by Canadian soldiers in 1947 after the cottages had been used to billet troops. It has now largely collapsed due to erosion by the sea and storm damage.
The decision sparked joy among campaigners, who include Dame Judi Dench and film director Jessica Swale, who launched a charity, Cuckmere Haven SOS, to help fund the plans.
The scheme had been under threat after a series of objections from environmentalists, including Natural England and Friends of the Earth, who claimed a new sea wall would increase erosion further along the coast.
But now the tiny hamlet, that featured in dozens of films and TV shows including Blithe Spirit, Atonement, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire and Summerland, is set to be saved.
Dame Judi, who filmed Blithe Spirit at Cuckmere Haven last year (2020), said: ‘It is the one place I know that if you were to sum up the essence of our country I would have no doubt in recommending it to other people. At all costs it must be preserved.’
The old sea wall was built by Canadian soldiers in 1947 after the cottages had been used to billet troops. It has now largely collapsed due to erosion by the sea and storm damage
A spokesman for Cuckmere Haven SOS said they were ‘very pleased’ with the decision.
He said: ‘We look forward to working with the South Downs National Park and others on safeguarding this iconic landscape for the future.’
The view, which currently features on a Royal Mail 1st class stamp, has featured in dozens of movies including the recent Summerland starring Gemma Arterton.
Jessica Swale, director of Summerland, said ‘On behalf of the British creative Industry, film makers and artists on location, I would like to impress upon you the significance and benefit of preserving this site as a place of artistic importance too.
‘A landscape now beloved by film fans. A landscape which has already captured the imagination of thousands of viewers and tempted many to make the pilgrimage to this beautiful place to see it for themselves. We would all be devastated if it couldn’t be maintained.’
The five cottages – now converted into three homes – were built in around 1820 for coastguards employed in the battle against smugglers who thrived along the coast after the Napoleonic wars.
They were recommissioned as homes in 1929 though they were used to billet soldiers during the Second World War before the descendants of the coastguards moved back in.
Carolyn McCourt, 59, an artist and picture restorer, who has lived in one of the cottages for 30 years, said the cottages and the view were part of our ‘national heritage’ and should be saved for the country
For decades the descendants of the original coastguards have worked tirelessly with various agencies to maintain the sea defences and keep the cottages from being swept away.
But in 2011 a new policy of managed coastal retreat was introduced by the Government which meant the Environment Agency no longer had responsibility for shoring up sea defences on Britain’s coastline.
The residents were left to try and save their cottages by themselves and launched the charity.
Natural England, Friends of the Earth and the South Downs Society argued the wall would only be a temporary fix and the cottages should be allowed to fall into the sea.
They claimed improving the sea defences could lead to erosion elsewhere and may damage the natural chalk seabed.
But Carolyn McCourt, 59, an artist and picture restorer, who has lived in one of the cottages for 30 years, said the cottages and the view were part of our ‘national heritage’ and should be saved for the country.
‘I am only a custodian of this cottage and I want the properties to be here long into the future. To lose this view would be a crime.’
In 2015 Sir Ian McKellen filmed scenes for his 2015 movie Mr Holmes at the spot and singer Cheryl Cole filmed on the beach and cottages for her video for her single ‘The Flood.’
The beach was also used in an episode of Foyle’s War and the cottages were the location was used in the fourth season of the show Luther.
Estimates drawn up by the Environment Agency predict that around £1billion worth of property will be destroyed by coastal erosion over the next 100 years, considerably less than the cost of protecting them.
The estimates predict that if nothing is done to maintain sea defences, the number of homes lost will increase tenfold to 74,000 with no compensation available to householders affected by coastal erosion.
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