Sussex: The Birling Gap

Perhaps the most widely recognised feature of the the south-eastern coast of England is that geological feature popularly known as the White Cliffs of Dover. These white cliffs; actually the calcified remains of countless, prehistoric sea-creatures, stretch from Dover in Kent all the way along the coast to Newhaven in East Sussex – a distance of some fifty miles. The subject of this article, is that stretch of coastline that runs from the Beachy Head Lighthouse to Cuckmere Cove, 9km further to the west. The cliffs here are known as the Seven Sisters and the point at which the shoreline is accessible is known as the Birling Gap.

The Birling Gap itself consists of a car park and some buildings; one of which is a basic restaurant with bathroom facilities. The main feature of the site, is the metal stairway which is attached to the cliff face where the height of the cliff is at its lowest (hence the name ‘gap’). This allows visitors to make their way down onto the rocky beach below, and rocky it is – there is no sand here at all. Along with the smooth shingle rock, the beach is strewn with lumps of chalk that have fallen from the cliff face. There are frequent collapses of the cliff face and it pays to be vigilant, even if you are not very close to the chalky cliffs.

The white cliffs of the Seven Sisters at the Birling Gap, Sussex, England
The white cliffs of the Seven Sisters at the Birling Gap
Canon EOS 1Ds. Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-S. 1/13th sec at f/11. ISO 100

For landscape photography, this location has many attractive features:

  • Location – just a couple of hours drive from London
  • Accessibility – the beach is just a stone’s throw from the car park
  • Variety – there are dark boulders, white chalk bricks, seaweed and the cliffs of course
  • Flexible – attractive all year round but late autumn is probably best

The best time to visit and to take advantage of all of the possible elements is anytime from early November to late December. From the end of October, the sun sets in a due-south position and can throw some nice light onto the water and cliffs as it makes its decent. As the weeks go by, that position shifts further to the west until by mid-winter, the sun is setting behind the distant cliffs to the south-west.

Something that must be avoided, is arriving here at high-tide when the sea totally consumes the beach. You will then have a three hour wait before you can climb down the steps to get to it. So timing is very important. Aim to be there when sunset coincides with low tide. Arrive two hours before that time and you get to follow the tide out as the sun is descending through the sky. Make sure to hang around for at least thirty minutes after the sun had disappeared, if you have the right cloud formations, you can capture some spectacular dusk effects.

Both of the following images were captured on the last day of October, when then sun sets in a due-south position
The sun goes down on the south coast at the Birling Gap
The sun goes down on the south coast at the Birling Gap
Nikon D800. Nikon AF-S 20mm f/1.8. 1/10th sec at f/8. ISO 100
Low tide on the south coast at the Birling Gap
Low tide on the south coast at the Birling Gap
Nikon D800. Nikon AF-S 20mm f/1.8. 1/2 sec at f/11. ISO 100

The period immediately after the sun has set also offers some great opportunities, especially when you get people standing admiring the light show. In these three examples; image capture time is between 16:18 and 16:34 on 25th November. Sunset occurred at 16:01 and dusk at 16:38. So it pays to stay around for anything up to one hour after sunset – on this occasion, nightfall would have occurred at 17:19 – then it is time leave.

Three people watch the sun set during low tide at the Birling Gap, Sussex
Three people watch the sun set during low tide at the Birling Gap
Canon EOS 1Ds. Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-S. 1 sec at f/11. ISO 100
Man and woman watch the sun set during low tide at the Birling Gap, Sussex
Man and woman watch the sun set during low tide at the Birling Gap
Canon EOS 1Ds. Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-S. 2.5 secs at f/11. ISO 100
A solitary figure standing at the edge of low-tide watching the winter sunset
A solitary figure standing at the edge of low-tide watching the winter sunset
Canon EOS 1Ds. Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-S. 6 secs at f/11. ISO 100

Although winter sunset appears to offer the best potential, sunrise can also be rewarding. This picture was taken during sunrise at Cuckmere Cove, 4km further west along the coast and the point at which the Seven Sisters end. To get to Cuckmere from Birling Gap, it is best to go by road as the route along the foreshore is very dangerous and often impassible – even at low tide.

Golden sunlight falls on the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters at Cuckmere Cove
Golden sunlight falls on the white cliffs of the Seven Sisters at Cuckmere Cove
Canon EOS 1Ds. Nikon 20mm f/2.8 AI-S. 1/10th sec at f/11. ISO 100

You may well have noticed that all of these images were taken using 20mm prime lenses – both Nikons. An old manual-focus AI-S on the Canon 1Ds in 2007 and the new 20mm f/1.8 on the D800 in 2015. This is entirely coincidental, I didn’t choose these lenses because I was working this location or photographing this type of subject. In both cases, I was just trying out new or alternative kit in the field. In fact after using these lenses on these occasions, I never used either of them again. Why? Well both Nikkors; although super-sharp, suffered from excessive barrel distortion. So much so, that  applying even extreme corrections in Lightroom failed to eliminate the problem.

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