Watchtower Blogs

Food, Glorious Food (and Drink!)

Lost Cargoes of the Beachy Head Wrecks

Guest Blogger: Paul Howard, 24th June 2024

Wine Galore

Of the fifty or so wrecks studied in this phase of the project, at least seven were laden with wine. This reflects the huge expansion of wine exports from Spain and, especially, France during the eighteenth century, most of it bound for Baltic ports and the Netherlands. We have a sense of the scale of this trade from the Soundtoll Registers, the record of taxes levied by the Danish crown on all cargoes passing through the Denmark Sound between 1497 and 1857. 

In 1726, when the unidentified ship, thought to be the Anne-Marie, carrying wine and other commodities, foundered near Birling Gap, annual French wine exports to the Baltic stood at about 2,000 tonnes. When the Anna Amelia ran aground at the same location seventy years later, the trade was 10,000 tonnes per annum and this was well down on a peak of  over 25,000 tonnes in the mid-1780s. From these data, we can see the negative impact on commerce of the French Revolution and the resulting war between Britain and France. As over 90% of the wine trade was out of Bordeaux, it is not surprising that this was the port of departure of several of our wrecks, including Anna Amelia, Seven Brothers (1735) and an as yet unidentified ship in 1742.

While the history of Eastbourne’s shipwrecks contains many accounts of the bravery and compassion of local people as they sought to assist stranded mariners, it is also rich in examples of  Schadenfreude. Locals often took advantage of shipwrecks to engage in a little personal salvaging and wine was a particularly attractive form of booty. When, in May 1796, the stranded Anna Amelia was visited by looters, the captain and crew were unable to defend their cargo and the local militia was summoned. Being mere mortals, the soldiers were also tempted and helped themselves, before being marched back to barracks to face disciplinary action.

Despite the generally wanton behaviour of the looters, reports occasionally contained a note of discernment over the alcoholic bounty delivered by the sea. In December 1742, an as yet unidentified ship carrying 600 hogsheads of wine from Bordeaux to Amsterdam ran aground near Beachy Head. A contemporary account noted that ‘the wine was red and white but very new and foul’.

Oranges & Lemons

Besides wine, citrus fruits feature prominently among the lost cargoes of vessels sailing from Spain to Britian and Northern Europe. In 1754 the Bland  from Seville to London came to grief off Beachy Head with the loss of her entire crew and only nine crates of citrus fruit, three small barrels of brandy and three casks of olives were washed ashore and recovered. A similar fate befell the cargo of the Two Brothers (1790); when she was driven ashore only eight of 600 crates of oranges and lemons were salvaged intact. Fruit washed up on Eastbourne beach fetched two shillings per 100. 


To modern eyes, the appearance of rhubarb among the items being transported by the ‘Nuestra Senora de la Guardia’ (1758) seems strange, but in the mid-eighteenth century, the the plant, although familiar in terms of consumption, was not yet grown in North Western Europe and Britain. Rhubarb was thought to have been introduced to England in the first quarter of the seventeenth century, but it was fully two hundred years before it was cultivated here. It is possible that the NS de la Guardia’s cargo of rhubarb was for medicinal purposes, as these predated its use as a foodstuff, which itself owes much to the rise of the sugar trade. At least one other commodity in this cargo was medicinal.

Something Fishy

When, in 1754, she was driven ashore near Beachy Head and completely lost, the 200-ton Diligence was nearing the end of a voyage from Newfoundland to London carrying 220 hogsheads of fish oil, 3300 feet of timber and between three and four tons of cod. The master, John Clapp and all but one of the crew survived the disaster.

The Newfoundland fisheries opened up and developed from the early eighteenth century, becoming a magnet for merchants, many of whom became shipping and trading magnates. Lloyd’s List records that, under Clapp’s captaincy, the Diligence voyaged from Newfoundland to Spain and England in late 1752 and completed the round trip again during 1753. The Dorset port of Poole became a major hub for the transatlantic trade in fish and was a regular stopping point for Diligence.

Sugar and Spice

The concurrent loss of the Hamilton and the Hunter in a violent storm in September 1811 provide a window onto the commercial ties between Britain and her Caribbean colonies. At the time of their demise both were carrying sugar, coffee and cotton with Hamilton additionally transporting rum and cocoa. For all the sweetness of the cargoes on their final voyage and the innocence of the trade goods they took west from Britain, the ships were implicated in the slave trade.

Home-grown Produce

Notwithstanding the global nature of Britain’s merchant marine, much of the sea traffic off Eastbourne involved coastal vessels trading between British ports, including those in Ireland. In common with other ‘cheese ships’, the Dove, run aground near Beachy Head en route from Dublin to London in 1780, carried a variety of wares as owners sought to optimize profits by selling space on board. Two of the vessels driven ashore by a French privateer in 1810, the Graces and the Draper were both bound for London from Belfast with mixed cargoes of bacon, linen and assorted provisions.

Next: Continuing the theme of lost cargoes, the next blog ‘Lost Cargoes of the Beachy Head Wrecks – Mined all Mined’ will concentrate on mineral wealth.


Photo Credit: Rhubarb at a market in  Genoa

Shipwrecks on the Sunshine Coast

Guest Blogger Paul Howard of the Shipwreck Crew explores some of the stories emerging from the project.

24th June 2024

On the edges of Eastbourne, visitors to the town by road are greeted with signs welcoming them to the ‘Sunshine Coast’, a title linked to the fact that this part of the country has more sunshine than anywhere else. Never mind that my Australian friends dismiss our sun as ‘that pale, watery thing’, by English standards, at least, Eastbourne sits on top of the pile.

Besides its hours of warm light, the town is renowned for many things, not least its rich history, born out by comedian Mark Steel’s observation that there is a huge museum in the area … Eastbourne itself! While many aspects of Eastbourne’s past are highly visible, the impressive seafront hotels, the Redoubt fortress, the bandstand and the pier to name but a few, one important chapter, or, more accurately, history book, is out of sight. Since the Middle Ages the stretch of coastline between Pevensey and Birling Gap has been a graveyard for shipping. In this respect, Eastbourne is no different from myriad other places around Britain’s coast and may not hold top spot in the league table of shipwrecks. Which is just as well, for signs on the town’s outskirts proclaiming the ‘Shipwreck Coast’, or, worse still, the ‘Death and Destruction Coast’ might do untold damage to the tourist industry. Nonetheless, even if it is not the subject of public announcement, the amount of shipping lost along or off the local shoreline is impressive. 

Although most of Eastbourne’s maritime disasters have been well known for many decades, Jo and Annalie Seaman of the Wildwood Heritage consultancy were keen to delve deeper and produce a fuller picture of the ships and the people, places and cargoes associated with them and in June 2023, recruited a group of volunteers to undertake research into local wrecks. The Eastbourne Shipwreck Project was born. 

This blog  draws together the findings from the initial phase of the group’s labours, covering wrecks from 1725-1842, starting with the cargoes lost and salvaged along Eastbourne’s Sunshine Coast. As the title suggests, the first blog in this series, ‘Lost Cargoes of the Beachy Head Wrecks – Food, Glorious Food (and Drink!)’ will focus on the victuals on board the lost ships.


Photo Credit: Lee Roberts

The wartime fox and a case of cunning

Photo credit: Neil Macintosh, 2011. Wikimedia Commons.

The Warren Hill Dewpond today 

Photo Credit: 

Annalie Seaman 2024


The Fox and the Watcher

A Tale of Idle Curiosity

12th June 2024


The year is 1941 and war keeps visiting Eastbourne.

Beachy Head is a mass of revolving aerials and concrete buildings, barbed wire and barricades. The RAF, Navy and Army all have radar bases there, at the highest point on the south coast. 

The RAF’s best radar can reach 100 miles, which gives them access to messages from France, a good 70 miles south of the chalky headland. They can broadcast almost instantly to Biggin Hill and Tangmere to rouse the pilots for flight.

James Donne sits in an immobilised radio van on the top of Warren Hill, near the concreted dew pond. It’s late in the evening, but summertime, so there’s plenty of daylight left to see by.

From Warren Hill, you can see the sea in Eastbourne Bay and the sea beyond the headland at Beachy Head. The views are long and fairly breathtaking but after hours of sitting, his gaze lowers to the grass.

He’s wearing headphones and listening out for an overdue aircraft. The length of the wait and the constant anticipation stops him from concentrating on reading or writing, he’s alert, fully attuned to the skies, but a little bored.

He finds himself looking out of a restricted view through the window just as a large fox leaves the bushes and crosses over to the dew pond.

He’s curious, and in need of entertainment, so he watches. He can see that the fox is carrying something in its mouth but the small view and the slight distance make it difficult to pick out what it is. After checking for danger, the fox seems satisfied and begins to wade slowly into the pool.

James watches as the fox gets so far into the water that just its head and a little of its back is visible. Then the overdue aircraft makes a distress call and all his attention is focused on the call and the log-book.

When he is able to look again, the fox is standing by the side of the dew pond, shaking himself dry. There is nothing in its mouth. It looks around, sniffs the air, and pads back into the bushes.

James calls this incident a mystery and gets back to work, watching the skies, listening for calls.


Six years later, James reads the story of ‘how the fox gets rid of its fleas’. Which is a story of cunning and acute intellect. He’s impressed. 

When a fox is badly troubled by fleas, it gathers something from the landscape, a piece of sheep’s wool from a fence, a ball of moss from the ground, even a stick, and enters a pond or stream. As the fox gets deeper under the water, the fleas climb higher, until they have to leap from the fox’s muzzle to stay dry. The fleas find themselves adrift on a floating raft as the fox dunks underwater then swims back to shore. 


Up on Warren Hill today, the view is much the same as James saw it, and the wildlife are just as clever as they’ve always been.

The Radar Station at Beachy Head, dismantled after the war, is faintly visible in lines and bumps under the grass. The burnt remains of some of those ugly old buildings still sit on the headland as so much dynamite-blasted debris - the pieces are small, the signs slight, but James’ war is still evident.

Reference: Sussex County Magazine, Vol. 21, 1947. Courtesy of Ted Hide.


Beachy Head Geophysics

4th January 2024

We've just completed two more resistivity grid surveys up on the headland.  That's eight 20x20m grids we've done now, along the seaward side of the Beachy Head Road, looking for hidden structures underground with electrical resistance measurements.

With help from Gary Webster and his team of volunteers, we're well on the way to mapping the underground archaeology of the area.  

We'll be back out again on Monday 8th January to continue our survey towards the trig point opposite The Beachy Head Story.

If you're in the area and want to know more, come and find us!


Detail from the 15/11/2023 Survey 

White lines show strong electrical resistance - in this case solid foundations below the ground.  could the circular feature be an RAF gun emplacement?

Autumn Almanac #2
26th September 2023

Our second autumn migration walk wasn't full of rare birds blown in on the recent westerly winds, but was absolutely ablaze with colour!

May-tree, White-may, Whitethorn, Thorn-bush, Quick-thorn, Awes, Asogs, Azzies, Aglets, Agags, Agars, Arzy-garzies, Boojuns, Hoppety-haws or just Hawthorn, whatever you call it, the Downs are ablaze with a wildfire of red berries at the moment.  If you are a fan of weather-lore  you might take that as a sign of a harsh winter to come, but in reality it is the result of the year that has been so far.  A hot early summer followed by a cool, damp middle and a very sunny September has helped to create a bumper harvest of wild fruits this year and it makes a stunning display on the Downland.  These berries will be a welcome food source for a whole range of birds, both resident and migrants coming south this autumn.  At the moment there is no sign of the latter as the cold weather has yet to take a grip of Northern Europe but the bushes and trees are full of our summer visitors, hundreds of warblers and Meadow Pipits, readying themselves for their southern journey.  Flying overhead yesterday were literally thousands of Swallows and Martins making a spectacular display for our group.  If you are up there over the next week or so, this max-exodus should continue and is certainly worth experiencing.  Just sit back, look up and let your eyes adjust to the light, then the depth of these huge flocks will really emerge

Our walk yesterday was full of birds, but a limited number of species with a flock of siskin being a highlight.  Perhaps though, it was one of our local birds who provided most excitement, as the male Peregrine Falcon sat on a chalk pinnacle, sunning himself in the unseasonal warmth and keeping a hungry eye on a flock of passing racing pigeons, seemingly oblivious to our binoculared presence.


Autumn Almanac #1
12th September 2023

In some ways, the weather for our first ever autumn migration walk at Beachy Head was fairly typical for this time of year, with a brisk westerly breeze, low cloud, broken sunshine but with high humidity and unseasonal heat.  Not the best conditions for migrating birds but pleasant enough for us. 

We started these walks as a way to engage with people who, like us, want to experience Beachy Head on a deeper level, as a place where the rhythms of the year are felt pulsing through nature.  The changing of the seasons, particularly when we approach the darker months, can be a tricky time for some people but we want to share the absolute wonder and beauty that it brings.  In all honesty I can say that autumn is my favourite time to be out in nature (alongside spring, summer and winter obviously), it is a time when we can marvel at the annual migration of birds and insects (yes some of them migrate too!) to and from our chalky cliffs.  We started our walk today by talking about this, no scientific lectures, just absolute admiration for the almost magical ability for this immense feat of aerobatic stamina and navigation. Our conversation ranged far and wide, taking in badger latrines, archaeology and soil movement, in fact our chat went a lot further than we did, having walked only 500m or so in the first 45 minutes!  But that is what these walks are all about, slowing down, sharing stories and enjoying whatever nature provides us with.

Although we weren’t inundated with sightings, we were gifted some beautiful ornithological moments, including seeing at least two Wheatear, for me a bird that typifies the early autumn (and spring) on the Downs and once hunted almost to extinction in this area for their juicy flesh, so enjoyed by the richer elements of Eastbourne Society, at least until they came to their senses in the C20th.

We were also gifted with some stunning views of a young buzzard, soaring directly above us, a fabulously agile female kestrel and we were accompanied by the guttural croaks of Ravens, another bird extinct in Sussex by the 1890’s and now breeding on the cliffs.  As we walked back along the coastal path, with the low cloud closing in a male Peregrine Falcon provided us with some jaw-dropping acrobatics, before dive bombing a Herring Gull and bombing off along the coast.  Just as we were finishing our stroll a flock of House Martins appeared, chirping like a bunch of excited kids, sharing stories of summer holidays on the first day back to school. We watched them rise up through the sea fret, sweeping in and then out again and vanishing into the grey.  Perhaps today was the day that some internal signal told them that it was time to leave their summer holiday behind  and return  to their African winter home thousands of miles to the south.

This was the perfect start to our autumn ambles and I think we all left feeling alive, vital and a little bit more in love with The Head than we were an hour or so earlier.

We will be organising more migration walks this autumn but they will be weather dependant so please keep an eye on our social media posts for details.


Harbour Seals at Beachy Head
9th September 2023

Beneath Bomber Command Memorial, on the shores of Beachy Head, a colony of harbour seals have made their summer home. You can spot them just before high tide swimming away from the beach or westwards towards the lighthouse.  They’re often seen swimming in pairs or trios, or singly, floating on their backs, diving or bottling (bobbing upright like bottles with only their heads above water).  This season, the most seals spotted at one time was 32, by Glenn, one of the Beachy Head Chaplains.  A couple of months ago ‘Beachy Head Birder’ photographed 31 seals hauled up on the rocks (count the red dots!).

The most we’ve spotted from land during landwatch surveys has been 10, which is still a thrilling sight to see from the headland!

The landwatch surveys are part of an initiative by The Sussex Dolphin project to monitor cetacean and marine mammal activity along the coast.  We’re on the lookout for bottlenose dolphins and harbour porpoises as well as keeping an eye on the harbour seals

So far, these eyes haven’t seen our coastal cetaceans, but we’ve had reports of a bottlenose dolphin sighting off Beachy Head two weeks ago, and sightings of harbour porpoises at Sovereign Harbour and the mouth of the Cuckmere.  Independent seal sightings have been noted at Sovereign Harbour, Holywell, Birling Gap and Hope Gap, Seaford.  These are brilliantly busy waters off the coast of Beachy Head!

If you’d like to join us for a Marine Landwatch Survey, keep an eye out for Facebook posts by Wildwood Heritage and The Beachy Head Story, or pop into the Beachy Head Story to see the next walk listed on our ‘Nature Notes’ board in the lobby.




31 Harbour Seals snapped by Beachy Head Birder!

'Tracing the Lost Voices of Beachy Head ' project is awarded £5000 funding by Changing Chalk!
16th August 2023

This project will celebrate Beachy Head’s heritage as an international communications hub by surveying, recording and mapping the archaeology and history of the area to explore and share how these communications over the ages impacted the communities who lived on the Downs. The Changing Chalk Community Grants Scheme have been given the green light to deliver projects which will support the people and places in their local areas. Thanks to The National Lottery Heritage Fund and the National Trust, grants totalling £21,828 have been awarded to six successful groups in the first round of applications, with awards varying from £1,000 to £5,000.

Changing Chalk is a multi-million-pound partnership project led by the National Trust, which connects nature, people and heritage in eastern Sussex. It aims to restore and protect the internationally-rare chalk grassland on the eastern South Downs, bring histories to life, and provide new experiences in the outdoors to those who need it most. The four-year project is supported by a £2.23m Heritage Fund grant made possible thanks to National Lottery players; by players of People's Postcode Lottery; and The Linbury Trust. 


Beachy Head Landscapes and Legends - Crowdfunder raises £6,755!

2nd August 2023

Thanks to the generosity of many pledgers, to the Chalk Hill Trust and East Sussex County Council's Communtiy Wellbeing Fund, we have managed to raise £6,755 for our work on Beachy Head.  

The work is just beginning and we are thrilled to see what we can achieve in this landscape.  Our Dolphin Landwatch Surveys are temporarily becoming Harbour Seal Landwatch Surveys as we regularly spot these beautiful creatures from our viewpoint at Bomber Command Memorial.  We are aiming to charter a boat to search for the dolphins and porpoises out at sea, which will give us a better chance of interpreting their behaviour and hopefully spotting them from land.

We are planning to start our Communications from the Headland Project in September, when we will start charting the visible archaeology on the headland through physical mapping and geophysical survey.  We're looking for volunteer researchers to help us gather information about the buildings that have stood here since the outbreak of the French Revolution, so if that sounds like something you'd like to get involved with, drop us a line on the 'Contact Us' page.

As part of our Shipwreck Research Project, the shipwrecks of Beachy Head are being explored by an awesome team of volunteers. (The Shipwreck Crew)  We are offering free talks and training sessions on some of the Beachy head shipwrecks, and a session on how to use Lloyd's Register of Shipping, to our volunteers as part of the crowdfunding initiative.


Seaford Head Seals
31st May 2023

At low tide the beach at Hope Gap reveals the scoop of a small, rocky bay, the remnants of old cliffs now lost to the tide.  Sit here long enough, feeling lucky enough, and the bay holds a little surprise, or in this case three surprises.

What at first looks like a bold swimmer braving the rocks and currents, on second glance appears too bald and shiny to be human.  The head is streamlined and grey-black, human head sized maybe but definitely non-human.  We’re watching a seal surface and disappear, though we need binoculars to be sure.  The selkie stories come to mind, of seals hiding their seal skins to live as humans for a while and walk on land. 

These seals are not discarding their skins today, they’re revelling in them.  It looks like a mated pair floating on their backs, rolling through the waves, now and then surfacing for a gasp of air, the occasional bark, before slinking back into the sea.  Later, another seal joins them.

They’re framed against the backdrop of the Seven Sisters and the proud, white curve of Belle Tout.  Their endearing faces peer round-eyed at us from a safe distance.

They are not an uncommon sight here, children glance over and remark, matter of fact, oh the seals are here again.  We have strayed into seal-habitat.

We gaze and gaze through binoculars at the seals’ charming faces and speckled bellies, astounded that our local waters suddenly seem so exotic.  Skylarks serenade us as we stare, enchanted.  We sit here long enough and a new sensation is revealed.  We have accepted the seal’s presence, as they have accepted ours.   Naturalisation is not difficult nor astounding, it is awareness and observance. Acknowledgment. Now we are no longer surprised to share the beach with sea mammals, it feels normal.

We’re a fifteen-minute drive and a half hour walk from home and it feels like we’ve entered another realm, one where seals watch children play in rock pools and shape sandcastles from sediments.

A lone sailing boat drifts past the shore, the tide prepares to turn.  Just another day on the wild coast, an extraordinary day for us.

What a way to kick off the Beachy Head Story Dolphin Landwatch season.  Find out how you can get involved.


Harbour Seals!

Dolphin Watch Training with The Sussex Dolphin Project 
Sunday 30th April 2023

Well, we’ve had our first attempt at dolphin/porpoise watching up at the Head.  A group of us enjoyed a brief talk by members of the Sussex Dolphin Project, though most of us might have failed the ‘can you tell what cetacean you’re looking at in this video?’ test!  This was followed by a walk over to the Bomber Command Memorial to station ourselves there for an hour and monitor the ocean. 

This is much more charming than it sounds.  We were recording the visibility levels and ocean swell, the number of boats in the area, the wind direction and strength – all the variables that affected our ability to monitor cetaceans.  We were also staring really hard at an expanse of the English Channel, from Eastbourne Pier to Lighthouse Point, scanning with the naked eye and binoculars to home in on areas of wave disruption.

I stared at a dark, round head-ish shape in the water for quite a while before concluding I was staring at a buoy. 

The learning curve for this monitoring project is going to be steep.  We’re keeping an eye out for harbour porpoise, bottlenose- and common dolphins, and also for harbour- and common seals.  Along the way, we’ll be learning patience and stillness, attitudes much needed in the pace of a working week.  The enforced rest should do us all good, as we contemplate the ocean mammals of Eastbourne and wait for their appearance.

It could be that we have a pair of harbour porpoises living off the coast here already, the trick I hope, is to turn up often enough to spot them, and to learn enough about them to gauge their behaviours.  Though this is a daunting task – gazing at the ocean alert enough to notice any rapid flicks of head and fin and tail – and trying to identify what we see, as well as describe the behaviour of the animals we’re noticing, this is the challenge we’ve set ourselves for the next few months.

From May to October 2023, we will be leading cetacean walks from The Beachy Head Story (on the Beachy Head Road, next to the Beachy Head pub) out into the landscape to officially monitor the ocean for cetacean activity.  Walks will vary from half hour monitoring standstills to two-hour walk-and-standstill monitoring.  We will be combing the shore for anything there is to see and sending feedback to The Sussex Dolphin Project.

This is citizen science in action.  We’ll be heading out weekly, choosing our timings based on tide times and weather conditions, and you are invited to join us if you are in the area and have the time spare to gaze at the ocean. 

We’ll be updating walk times via Wildwood Heritage and Heritage Eastbourne socials and also on info boards at the Beachy Head Story.

Who knows, perhaps next time we head out, we’ll be able to report back on some sightings!



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