Cold, wet winter blamed for cliff collapse at Beachy Head

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The Independent Online

A coastal landmark has disappeared in a spectacular rock fall, dramatically shrinking southern England's most famous cliffs for the second time in just over two years.

A coastal landmark has disappeared in a spectacular rock fall, dramatically shrinking southern England's most famous cliffs for the second time in just over two years.

A famous outcrop of the cliffs at Beachy Head, near Eastbourne in Sussex, fell into the sea on Tuesday. The 200ft high chalk tower, known locally as the Devil's Chimney, sent thousands of tons of rubble crashing on to the rocks below when it suddenly disintegrated. No-one was hurt in the fall.

An even larger section of the cliffs nearby, 200 yards long, crashed down the full 500ft to the sea without warning in January 1999, in an incident that was blamed on global warming by the Environment Agency ­ an increase in stormy weather caused by climate change was the probable cause, the agency said. That was probably the largest cliff fall in Britain for many years.

This week's collapse is being blamed more directly on the winter's unprecedented rain, which has seeped into cracks in the chalk and then frozen in cold weather, causing it to crack.

It is one of a series, and appears to be remarkably similar to the collapse in January this year of a 100,000ton chalk section of the White Cliffs of Dover, as a big as a football pitch, which fell 300 feet to the sea at a point between Dover and St Margaret's Bay.

Beachy Head, west of Eastbourne, where the South Downs come down to the sea, is a popular beauty spot normally visited by more than a million people a year ­ and also frequently used for suicides. There has not been a severe erosion problem with the cliffs until recent years.

Eastbourne Council urged people to stay away from them yesterday because of the foot-and-mouth disease outbreak. The South Downs are closed to the public as a precaution against the disease spreading to the area's wildlife.

Walkers were also advised not to try to get into the area along the beach, an arduous three-hour hike from Eastbourne across large rocks.

"Natural phenomena like this do fall down over time due to weathering and erosion," said Graham Marsden, the leader of Eastbourne Council. "But it is a sad day when nature claims back part of a beauty spot. This is a reminder of the natural instability of cliffs and the importance of staying away from directly beneath the cliff edge."

The Devil's Chimney stood 30ft from the cliff edge. Members of the public had reported seeing large cracks appear, in recent days.

The collapse brought out some unconventional responses. A local "white witch" planned a "cleansing ceremony" near the cliffs yesterday after it emerged that the late occultist Alistair Crowley, famed for practising black magic in the Twenties, had climbed the chalk tower in 1894.

It is claimed he predicted an evil spell would fall on the people of Eastbourne if the tower ever collapsed. Now, Kevin Carlyon, who says he is a High Priest in the Coven of White Witches, is to conduct a ceremony to "dispel any evil".

"It seems Beachy Head has not had much luck over the centuries." he said. "It is written that a monk was thrown from the top in 520AD and, of course, many people commit suicide there each year.

"It also has this association with Alistair Crowley so I shall carry out a cleansing ceremony just in case."

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