Four hundred feet below the lighthouse, there used to be a hole dug into the chalk. More like a cave, with a carpet, table, chair and lamp. A man sat in it night after night, either saving sailors from the rocks or guiding smugglers safely home. Or both.
Parson Jonathan Darby is on record as the first person to try to stop ships being wrecked on the razor-sharp chalk beds along the coast, not to mention the rocks and the cliffs that must have come looming out of the fog like gargantuan icebergs.
There were some people who did not want the wrecks to stop. They were the ones who lived on the land along the coast and were happy to accept the gifts of food, drink, clothing and other supplies that the sea brought them in sealed boxes whenever a ship went aground and its hull was torn open.
They even helped that to happen, by tying a lantern to a donkey and letting it graze along the top of the cliff. From a distance, in the murky night, it might be taken as the lantern of a ship. A skipper might assume that it was sailing safe waters and go in close to follow. Then the crew of his own vessel would hear the roar of the hull scraping the chalk and feel the sickening lurch that meant their voyage was over.
The Rector of Wilmington and Parson of Friston and East Dean in the very late 1600s was called upon to bury the often bloated, battered and unrecognisable bodies of men, women and children washed up on the shore.
The parson chose to act. He dug out the natural caverns in the chalk face under Belle Tout and made several rooms, in which he could set up lights. The ships at sea would realise these were fixed and take them as a warning of land. He spent many nights in those dank caves, reading by the flickering light or looking out across the roaring waves.
Some said he was a hero. Some said he was a smuggler, who wanted to show his colleagues the way to bring their contraband tea, silk and tobacco into the beach at night, without alerting the customs men that were sometimes on patrol.
Some said he spent so long in the caves because of crippling grief at the loss of two of his children, who died as infants. Some said he did it to escape the acid tongue of his wife, although he wrote that he was heart broken when she died in 1723.
Three years later he also passed away. Parson Darby was buried in East Dean, where his grave stone calls him “The sailor’s friend.” When he had gone, the caves were used by smugglers. They were a good place to store the loot.
His name lived on in a beer produced by the Beachy Head Brewery, which used to be run from sheds at the back of the Sheep Centre a short walk from his grave. And of course he gets a mention in The Light Keeper …
There’s much more on this in an episode of Edge of England, the podcast I do with Emily Jeffery, which you can find at www.edgeofengland.com.