Moving the Belle Tout Lighthouse

Year:1999

Duration:2 years

Cost:£250,000

Country: Eastbourne, UK

Move a 165-year-old lighthouse from the edge of a cliff

The Belle Tout Lighthouse is a decommissioned lighthouse at Beachy Head cliffs near Eastbourne in East Sussex. Completed in 1834, the 17m high structure’s been called ‘Britain’s most famous inhabited lighthouse’.

The 850-ton building made national news in 1999 when it was moved 17m back from the edge of the cliff to stop it falling into the sea.

Belle Tout was originally built to protect shipping from the rocks near Beachy Head – the highest chalk cliffs in Britain. Shipwrecks were common on this part of the coast in the 17th and early 18th centuries. The Aberdeen granite lighthouse was constructed between 1829 and 1834.

The building was designed by engineers William Hallett and James Walker. Walker was known for his lighthouses – he built 21 altogether.

Belle Tout was not initially as successful as hoped – its cliff-top location caused problems when sea mists blocked out some of its light. Severe coastal erosion brought the lighthouse closer to the cliff edge over the years, making it more effective.

The structure was replaced by the red and white striped Beachy Head Lighthouse in 1902. The new lighthouse was built at the foot of the cliffs.

Belle Tout has since been used as a private home, a tea shop and a film location. The Grade 2 listed building is now a hotel.

Difference the project has made

While it was used as a lighthouse, Belle Tout protected shipping in the English Channel from being wrecked on the rocks at Beachy Head.

The 1999 move to its current site preserved a historic building for future generations.

How the work was done

Several landfalls in 1998 left Belle Tout lighthouse just 4m from the cliff edge - and a 61m fall to the rocks below.

The only way to save the Grade 2 building from tumbling into the sea was to move it – a major engineering challenge.

The first stage of the project saw archaeologists excavate the area around the lighthouse. The area was a designated ancient monument and possibly the site of a Bronze Age settlement.

Engineers used 22 hydraulic jacks to move the 850-ton structure. The jacks were used to lift the building onto four steel-topped concrete beams.

The project team pumped grease onto the beams to reduce friction and keep the lighthouse moving.

Engineers moved the structure 17m inland to its new location. Some of the operation was shown live on the BBC TV science programme ‘Tomorrow’s World’.

At the current rate of erosion – 60cm a year – the building will need to be shifted again in 25 years. Engineers designed the lighthouse’s current foundations to allow for future moves.

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We sailed by Beachy, by Fairlight and Dover/ And then we bore up for the South Foreland light.

From the English sea shanty ‘Spanish Ladies’

Fascinating facts

Belle Tout lighthouse is now a hotel. Themed rooms include ‘The Captain’s Cabin,’ ‘Keepers’ Loft,’ and ‘Old England.’

The structure was owned by the BBC in the 1980s. Drama producers used it as a key location for an award-winning TV adaptation of Fay Weldon’s novel ‘The Life and Loves of a She-Devil'.

The lighthouse also appears in the 1987 James Bond film ‘The Living Daylights’. Beachy Head doubles for Gibraltar as Bond – played by Timothy Dalton – parachutes out of the back of a Land Rover plunging into the sea.

People who made it happen

  • Lighthouse designers: William Hallett, James Walker (ICE president)
  • Contractors for the 1999 move: Abbey Pynford

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