Beachy Head

Walking to Beachy HeadIt was so windy on the south coast this Saturday, I thought I might get blown off the narrow pathway along which I was walking – and into the sea far below!  Thankfully, as this post demonstrates, I didn’t. Instead I enjoyed the thrilling challenge of being buffeted by the strong winds and breathing in the fresh sea air. My husband followed behind gamely, because walking in the elements isn’t his idea of a fun Saturday afternoon.

Beachy Head and the hills of the South Downs, near Eastbourne in East Sussex, were close to where we were staying at the weekend.  It is possible to walk (or run or cycle) for mile after undisturbed mile, and there is a welcoming pub on the journey. We passed lone walkers, small groups and families with young children, all out walking the chalk hills.

Other groups of volunteer walkers tread the same pathways, but for different reasons. They are watching for people who contemplate suicide. Beachy Head may be beautiful, but it also has a reputation as one of the saddest places on Earth, a place where people go to jump and end it all.

Suicidal thoughts are not the same as suicidal acts. In my work, I often encounter people who tell me that a partner has threatened to commit suicide. In life, I have found that the people who do commit suicide are – thankfully – rare. In my experience these cases have often been unexpected, and have been people who were never judged to be at risk.  I have wanted to understand why but the answers, when there are answers, are often wanting in themselves.

By a horrible coincidence, news broke the next day about the tragic death of the Wales football manager Gary Speed, aged just 42. Why he chose to do what he did is currently unknown, but the reasons will come out in due course. In the meantime the news has been met with shock and sympathy from sport fans and non-sport fans alike, and tributes have been pouring in.

I walked to Beachy Head twice at the weekend. Both times it was interesting to note how the light was different, depending on the direction in which you were facing. Heading east, towards Beachy Head, the light faded. Both times, when I turned on my heel to head back towards Eastbourne, I noticed how much lighter and sunnier it was heading west. I took two photos:

Beachy Head

Heading east: Beachy Head.

Beachy Head west

Heading west again, 15 minutes later.

Local people in Eastbourne have told me that Beachy Head’s reputation has “cast a shadow” over their seaside town. I think they are right – perhaps in more ways than one.

Up on that cliff path, with the sea swirling below, I certainly had an impression of great sadness. However it wasn’t a bleak place to be. If anything it felt very peaceful up there.  But I didn’t find an answer to the question of why Beachy Head draws the desperate and the defeated to its edge. To me it was a very beautiful and exhilarating walk, albeit one with a sad and unpleasant history. Perhaps that very same beauty is where the answer lies.

Back in Eastbourne, we walked along the promenade and finally headed back to our hotel. It was the same hotel where, more than 100 years ago, Debussy completed his great work La Mer. Musicians have described it as a “miracle of natural reproduction” and “the most beautiful [recording] in the whole history of the gramophone”. Debussy’s view from his suite, of the very same sea that swirls below Beachy Head, inspired him to create great music rather than to dark thoughts of hopelessness and death.

When there are no clear answers, it is difficult to help. But to my mind, this also means that we cannot and should not judge. You turn one way or another, towards the dark or towards the light – and that also goes for those who are left behind. Let us hope that those driven to take their lives, wherever and however they have chosen to do so, find rest; and that those who are left behind find peace.

If you need to speak to someone:

Samaritans provides confidential emotional support 24/7 to those experiencing despair, distress or suicidal feelings.

The wonderful charity MIND also provides a confidential advice and support service.


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