Moving day

Moving a 19th Century lighthouse, South Downs, England

The first Belle Tout lighthouse was a temporary wooden structure that started service on 1 October 1828. The construction of the permanent lighthouse, made form Aberdeen granite and sited some 34m from the edge of the 285’ chalk cliff, began in 1829 and was operational from October 1834 to October 1902, when its job was taken over by its much more effective replacement, the Beachy Head Lighthouse, built at the base of the cliff. It eventually became a cliff top home but was abandoned during World War 11 and effectively used for anti-aircraft practice by the Canadian Air Force. By 1943, daylight could be seen through the shattered 6-foot-thick walls.

As a valued historical building, Belle Tout was eventually taken over by the Council and in 1956, it was leased out to Edward and Joy Cullinan, who embarked on a rebuilding programme to the domestic part, adding a septic tank, mains electricity and water with the young Edward Cullinan as Architect and builder, fresh form a cycling trip to Le Corbusier’s masterpiece chapel in Eastern France, Ranchamp. Joy lived there for twenty-five years hosting idyllic weekends and holidays for her many grandchildren.

By 1997 the erosion of the cliffs was threatening the foundations of the building and drastic steps had to be taken by its then owners to stop it from falling into the sea.

On March 17th 1999, after a year of careful planning and SCABAL having sought and secured planning and Listed Building consents on behalf of the current owners, Mark and Louise Roberts, everything appeared ready for Belle Tout’s monumental move. In bright sunshine hundreds of media from all around the world watched as 93 year old Joy Cullinan, switched on the hydraulic pump at 9.25 am and the whole operation began.

On 17 March 1999 in a remarkable feat of engineering work the 850-ton Belle Tout lighthouse was moved 17 metres (56 ft) away from the cliff face using a pioneering system of hydraulic jacks which pushed the building along four steel-topped concrete beams that were constantly lubricated with grease, by the engineering firm Abbey Pinford.

At a painstakingly slow pace, just two feet in the first three hours the lighthouse was moved 28 feet in the first day, every millimetre controlled by computer. So procedures would not be hampered by further cliff falls, no heavy digging machinery was used on the site and all the chalk from the foundations was taken out on wheelbarrows. By the evening of Thursday, March 18th, Belle Tout reached its final position.

A level slide on steeply sloping terrain allowed for extra rooms to be built beneath the eventual resting place of the lighthouse. A rare opportunity to extend an historic building downwards. The site has been designed to enable further moves as and when they are required. More floors to follow?

Service: Architects

Location: nr Birling Gap, South Downs, East Sussex

Client: Louise and Mark Roberts

Cost: Undisclosed

Areas: XXm2

Dates: 1997-1999

Contract: Undisclosed


Tomorrow’s World BBC1,

New Civil Engineer / Belle Tout lighthouse: Back from the brink / 1999,

NEWS, Friday, March 19, 1999. Page 11,

The Independent, Monday 15 December, 1997. No 3,482, page 20,

The Express, Thursday, March 18, 1999, page 25,


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