Belle Tout Lighthouse

Belle Tout Lighthouse

Belle Tout Lighthouse is located on the clifftop at Beachy Head, and was moved back from the cliff edge in 1999.

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Petitions for a lighthouse on the summit of Beachy Head were first submitted to Trinity House as far back as 1691 but were repeatedly rejected. In the 1700s, Parson Darby of East Dean became concerned about the casualties occurring along this stretch of coastline. He decided to take action and dug out a cave below Belle Tout Hill. The Parson hung out a lantern to warn mariners of the impending dangers. After he died, Parson Darby’s Cave reverted to smuggling operations.

Old postcard of Belle Tout
An old postcard, showing the lighting apparatus

By the early 1800s, a local MP, John Fuller, persuaded Trinity House to erect a wooden lighthouse on the top of the cliff. Lighting trials were carried out here. Eventually, Trinity House agreed to construct a permanent lighthouse, and on 11th October 1834, Belle Tout was lit for the first time. The lighthouse stood 100 feet from the edge of the cliff, and the light became obscured should vessels sail too close. Oil lamps with parabolic reflectors shone from the small tower at an elevation of 285 feet above sea level. The light was visible for 20 miles, but it was also frequently obscured by fog.

In addition to fog, the light was also in danger from cliff erosion. By 1896 the lighthouse was standing 30 feet closer to the edge than when it was built. Trinity House decided that the light was no longer effective, as the beam of light was no longer obscured if vessels came too close. As a result, a new tower was built at the base of the cliff in 1900. Belle Tout was finally decommissioned in 1902 when the new Beachy Head Lighthouse shone for the first time on 27th September.

Beachy Head Cliffs

Belle Tout had a number of owners after its decommissioning. Initially, it was sold to Mr Davies-Gilbert, who ran it as a teahouse. In 1923, Mr James Purves-Stewart purchased it, a neurologist, who constructed a new road and later added an additional storey to the main house. However, he became increasingly concerned as the cliff was still slowly eroding.

During the Second World War, the lighthouse was used by the military authorities. Canadian troops stationed on the downs used the building for target practice. Purves-Stewart was horrified by the damage caused to his home. In 1950 the building became listed. It lay derelict for some time until 1955, when Dr Edward Revill Cullinan and his wife Joy bought a 90-year lease on the site.

Tower minus lantern
Belle Tout Lighthouse circa 1953
John Frost Collection

They demolished the upper storeys of the house and dismantled the lantern. The ground floor and tower were restored with a new first-floor living area. The lighthouse was sold again in 1980 to author Noel Davidson who lived there for six years.

In 1986 Belle Tout Lighthouse was purchased by the BBC.  It was used as the primary setting for an adaptation of Fay Weldon’s novel The Life and Loves of a She Devil. The lighthouse building was converted into a larger timber structure. Its lantern was reinstated, and a swimming pool was added to the garden. The building was then sold on to Paul and Jane Foulkes, who reinstalled the lantern after it was removed by the BBC.

Lighthouse on hill

In 1996 Mark and Louise Roberts bought the lighthouse after it had remained empty for two years, but by the end of 1998, the Roberts family had to move out. The lighthouse was moved back from the edge by 56 feet in 1999 by engineers Abbey Pynford of Watford.

The lighthouse was put up for sale again in 2007, with the Belle Tout Lighthouse Preservation Trust being set up to campaign for public access. It was purchased in 2008 by the current owners and restored to its former glory. In March 2010, the lighthouse was opened to guests once more as an exclusive bed and breakfast property.

Established: 1834
Discontinued: 1902
Engineer: William Hallett and James Walker
Tower Height: 14 metres