Gently does it: 850-tonne lighthouse is rescued

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The Independent Online
MOVING HOME for Mark and Louise Roberts was a major engineering operation. It took two-and-a-half-years of planning and cost pounds 250,000. And all for 55 feet. They did not have much choice: their home is Belle Tout Lighthouse, at Beachy Head, East Sussex, and is perched near the cliff edge. A big landslide in November left them living 16 feet from the vertical drop.

Yesterday they stood, apparently unfazed, watching the 850-tonne converted lighthouse being moved slowly inland.

"In some ways we never really thought this day would happen," said Mrs Roberts, who has a six-week-old baby and a 13-month-old daughter.

"Once all the people go and we drive up the driveway and the house is on the right, not the left, then we'll think `yes, we did it. It's moved'."

The Robertses hired Abbey Pynford, the firm which relocated the Great Ormond Street Chapel intact.

At midday yesterday Paul Kiss, managing director of the company, whose motto is "Miracles take a little longer", explained why the lighthouse had only moved two feet during the morning.

"We are a bit concerned about the possibility of cliff failure," he said. "All we have to do is rupture some of the underlying strata and that would be the end of the job." The tourists and locals who had turned up to witness the move were not going to complain.

Joy Cullinan, 93, who lived in Belle Tout from 1955 to 1980, pulled the lever to start the jacks at 9.30am.

Her granddaughter, Joanna Owen, remembered an alarming moment when she visited her grandmother in her childhood. "We came up to see her in 1975 and couldn't find her anywhere.

"We wondered where she had gone. Then we found her, just over the edge of the cliff, plugging rabbit holes with cement. She was worried that their burrowing would weaken the cliff."

Belle Tout was built in 1834 to alert mariners to the dangers of the rocky outcrops around Beachy Head.

The 55-foot stone tower was originally located exactly 100ft from the edge of the cliff, a distance carefully calculated so that sailors knew that if they lost sight of the light they were hitting the danger zone. The chalk cliffs of East Sussex have always been susceptible to erosion, suffering two big rockfalls in the 1890s which left Belle Tout 70 feet from the edge. The last light shone from Belle Tout in 1902 and in 1923 it became a private residence. King George V and Queen Mary were entertained there in 1935 and Canadian troops requisitioned it for target practice during the last war.

The derelict shell was rescued from demolition when it was listed in 1950. Eastbourne Council owns the freehold but the lease was bought by a succession of owners, including the BBC, which used the lighthouse for its dramatisation of Fay Weldon's Life and Loves of a She-Devil.

Plans for yesterday's rescue mission began in 1996, but the excavation work was accelerated after November's landslide. The lighthouse and the adjoining building were under-pinned with jacks to allow a number of reinforced concrete beams to be placed under the load-bearing walls. Twenty "grease- skate" units were installed, ready for yesterday, when four jacks provided the force to slide the building along the track.

If cliff erosion continues at the present rate, Belle Tout should be safe for another 50 years. Mrs Roberts hopes her home will see her out, but the underpinnings have been left in place just in case they have to move again.