Managed retreat at Birling Gap

Perched on the cliff above the beach at Birling Gap, the all-in-one National Trust café, shop and information point welcomes an estimated 350,000 visitors a year. Whatever the weather, you can recline in the sun lounge, enjoying views towards Beachy Head in the east and the iconic Seven Sisters in the west.

Seven Sisters and Birling Gap © Howard Bristol

Seven Sisters and Birling Gap
© Howard Bristol

But the cliffs hide a worrying truth; they are eroding by on average 0.7m per year, giving the sun lounge itself an estimated life span of 12 years.

As the National Trust is keen to work with (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 beach café and shop. Renovated with a long-term vision in mind, the café will have a life span of around 25 years, and the shop and proposed visitor centre over 30.

The Visitor Centre at Birling Gap © Howard Bristol

The Visitor Centre at Birling Gap © Howard Bristol

Zara Luxford, Property Operations Manager 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.

Sustainable Stairs at Birling Gap  © Howard Bristol

Sustainable Stairs at Birling Gap
© Howard Bristol

“The steps have been designed specifically with coastal erosion in mind.  They were recently moved back by Wealden District Council in time for the May bank holiday, which has given them an additional 6-8 years. 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,” Zara explains.

The newly renovated café and shop welcomed visitors for the first time this July, and the visitor centre renovation is due to be completed early next year.

  • To find out more about our policy on coastal adaptation, see Shifting Shores.
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