Cuckmere Haven Case Study

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Case study: coastal management in Holderness

The Holderness coast is in the north east of England. This is one of the most vulnerable coastlines in the world and it retreats at a rate of one to two metres every year.

The problem is caused by:

  • Strong prevailing winds creating longshore drift that moves material south along the coastline.
  • The cliffs are made of a soft boulder clay. It will therefore erode quickly, especially when saturated.

The village of Mappleton, perched on a cliff top on the Holderness coast, has approximately 50 properties. Due to the erosion of the cliffs, the village is under threat.

In 1991, the decision was taken to protect Mappleton. A coastal management scheme costing £2 million was introduced involving two types of hard engineering - placing rock armour along the base of the cliff and building two rock groynes.

  • Mappleton and the cliffs are no longer at great risk from erosion.
  • The rock groynes have stopped beach material being moved south from Mappleton along the coast. However, this has increased erosion south of Mappleton. Benefits in one area might have a negative effect on another.

The increased threat of sea level rise due to climate change, means that other places will need to consider the sustainability of coastal defence strategies for the future.


A farm being lost to the sea due to erosion on the Holderness coastline.


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Cuckmere Haven (also known as the Cuckmere Estuary) is an area of flood plains in Sussex, England where the river Cuckmere meets the English Channel between Eastbourne and Seaford. The river is an example of a meandering river, and contains several oxbow lakes. It is a popular tourist destination with an estimated 350,000 visitors per year, where they can engage in long walks, or water activities on the river. The beach at Cuckmere Haven is next to the famous chalk cliffs, the Seven Sisters.

At low tide, one can spot ironwork in the sea close to the river mouth. This is the wreck of the Polynesia, a German sailing ship that ran aground in April 1890 west of Beachy Head; it was laden with a cargo of sodium nitrate.


The beach was commonly used by smugglers in the 16th, 17th, and 18th centuries. For example, in 1783 two gangs of smugglers (each numbering 200 or 300) overcame officers of the law by weight of numbers and carried away a large quantity of goods.[1]

In the Second World War, the site was studied by the Luftwaffe as they flew missions to identify potential landing sites for the invasion of the UK mainland. As a result, the British constructed a series of counter-landing defences, of which numerous pillboxes, anti-tank obstacles, ditches and tank traps survive.Admiralty scaffolding blocked the inlet, but is now gone. Cuckmere Haven featured heavily in the war effort: at night lights were placed to confuse bombers into thinking they were above Newhaven and an airfield was set up further inland.[3] In addition to the permanent land-based constructions, the river was heavily mined.

The East Sussex Transport and Trading Company extracted gravel from the beach at Cuckmere Haven. They transported the material to the road at Exceat on a 2-foot (610 mm) gauge tramway a mile (1.6 km) long, established in the early 1930s and closed in 1964. The tramway began in what is now the car park on the southern side of the main road. The footpath to Cuckmere Haven (east of the river) follows the line of the tramway.[4]

In popular culture[edit]

  • The beach at Cuckmere Haven was used for the opening scene in Kevin Costner's Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves.
  • The Seven Sisters cliff face was briefly featured in the Harry Potter film Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.
  • The beach was featured in the film Atonement (2007): a postcard of the coastguard cottage overlooking the beach was a central element of the plot, with Robbie Turner focusing on it as the idyll where he and Cecilia Tallis would retire after World War II.
  • The cliffhanger of the TV sitcom Green Wing Series 1 was filmed at Cuckmere Haven.
  • The beach and house were the location of Cheryl Cole's video for The Flood.
  • The beach was used in an episode of Foyle's War.
  • Most of the film Mr. Holmes is set just west of and inland from the Seven Sisters.
  • The location was used in the fourth season of the show Luther.

Settlements within the park[edit]

Two hamlets, Exceat and Foxhole, are in the park, along with a small group of cottages on the cliff edge (known as the Coastguard cottages) – these are mostly kept as holiday homes.[citation needed] Next to the Friston Forest car park, Exceat is a group of farm buildings with facilities and a café. There is also a tiny old shepherd's caravan. The name "Exceat" derives from the old English word for "exit"; the hamlet was an exit for people sailing out to the Channel. Foxhole is made up of another group of agricultural buildings, with a large pond at the centre. The two houses are home to the Seven Sisters Country Parkrangers, and one barn has been converted to a camping barn, with an adjacent field for camping. This is known as Foxhole Campsite, and is useful for South Downs Way walkers. It would appear Foxhole Campsite is no longer open for public use.[5] has been updated to this effect, although the advice mentioned herein previously is still on the site.

Coastguard Cottages[edit]

The Coastguard Cottages at Cuckmere Haven were built shortly after the National Coastguard Service was founded in 1822. Prior to this Cuckmere Haven was an important place for smuggling.[6] The cliff face in front of the Cottages has since retreated by more than 30 metres due to Coastal erosion. This combined with the loss of shingle from the beach below the cottages due to wave action in storms has put the Cottages in danger. A fundraising campaign has been created to protect these iconic buildings.[7]

Wildlife and ecosystem[edit]

Cuckmere Haven is home to a large variety of wildlife, and has a rich ecosystem. Sheep and cattle graze, keeping the fields at a constant vegetation level. Woodpigeons and rooks pick at the stubble, and aquatic birds such as oystercatchers forage in the water meadows. The result is a fertile area of land providing varied habitats. The beaches are made up of shingle and, right by the sea, rock pools. Chalk is eroded from the cliffs, but not much ends up on the beach. Driftwood and rubbish end up on the beach but do not seem to pollute the environment[clarification needed] and do not spoil the view of the beach.



  • Badger
  • Rabbits live in the sandy banks by the main path
  • Red fox
  • Domestic cattle (largely young bullocks) and sheep, mainly owned by Foxhole Farm, graze all round the park. Visitors are requested to keep dogs under close control at all times. [1]




General references[edit]

  • Foot, William (2006). Beaches, fields, streets, and hills ... the anti-invasion landscapes of England, 1940. Council for British Archaeology. ISBN 1-902771-53-2. 

External links[edit]

Coordinates: 50°45′50″N0°08′49″E / 50.764°N 0.147°E / 50.764; 0.147

Looking West over Cuckmere Haven
The Seven Sisters cliffs and the coastguard cottages, from Seaford Head showing Cuckmere Haven (looking East).
BBC Interview with a Cuckmere Haven SOS representative in February 2016
  1. ^Parry, John Docwra, An Historical and Descriptive Account of the Coast of Sussex: Brighton, Eastbourn, Hastings, St. Leonards, Rye, &c. &c. &c. Worthing, Arundel, Goodwood, Chichester, &c. &c. &c. Battle, Hurstmonceaux, Lewes & Tonbridge Wells. Forming also a Guide to All the Watering Places, "Extract of a letter from a gentleman, at Stafford, Sussex, Sept. 18.", Wright & son, 1833, p. 191f
  2. ^Richard Moss, WWII Coastal Defences at Cuckmere Haven, Culture24, 5 June 2005, accessed 28 February 2018
  3. ^Mitchell and Smith (2001). Sussex Narrow Gauge. Middleton Press. 
  4. ^"Camping". 
  5. ^"Smuggling". 
  6. ^"Cuckmere Haven SOS". 


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