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From the Lighthouse

“The Belle Tout Lighthouse tells us of its many lives and dreams as it contemplates its last days on land.”
The Belle Tout Lighthouse tells us of its many lives and dreams as it contemplates its last days on land.

I was flesh once. I was blood, bone and sweat. I was a tiny spark of an idea, fired in the mind of a man, Parson Jonathan Darby, in the early 1700s. Skin ripped, hull and limbs broken on razor sharp fins of chalk reef, as bodies continually washed ashore from ships run aground on the magnetic offshore drift, through the dense, heaving waters of the Mariner’s Graveyard, along the Seven Sisters, towards Beachy Head. As sailors’ corpses filled his East Dean churchyard cemetery uphill and burial space grew parchment-thin, Darby took his despair to God.

Glancing up from his prayers one freezing night, he saw his wife, Anne, her lantern lit face at their bedroom window: a miniature moonscape of anxious concern, love and welcome. With a cluster of lamps in a leather bag, a bible in his pocket and his beaver skin hat set firm against the wind under a full moon, he came – within an hour – to the fog wrapped headland of Beltout. At this high point, where the shadows of gods from many eras and traditions congregate: Neolithic, Celtic, Saxon, Semitic, Babylonian, you will find Bel, Belenos, Beli Mawr, The Bright One, Baal, Bael, Lord, Master, Demon, Cloud Riders, God of Thunderstorms, God of War, standing astride this Tout, this Lookout, this peak.

Parson Darby peeled back the land’s skin here, unfurled time, glimpsed Earthwork and Iron Age hill fort and, there, found an ancient, deep, circular shaft between cliff and shore. He recalled stories on his arrival, of this as a site of ritual sacrifice from land to sea, or as an inland well and, latterly, as a smuggler’s cave with a full store of picks, ropes, pulleys and boxes.

At the scowling edge of thunderstorm, this underbelly of cliff became the womb of his rescue mission and the foundation of my future life; Darby lit lamps, spread carpets, and then sat, prayed and waited. Hanging one lantern over a carved, chalk balcony above the highest tidemark and cradling his own lamp – and faith – within the cavern below, he created a beach-level lighthouse in all but name. The blend of human, flame and chalk became a warning from this man of God for ships to steer clear of The Devil’s Headland.

The parson’s project grew, as caverns were enlarged into hall, bedchamber and dining room – a chimney built, a staircase strengthened. For those seamen who still met with jaws of shore and rock through high, tempestuous tides, and the shudder of hull hitting shoreline, the heated shouts of men in fear and exhaustion turned to relief as they saw the open, warmly lit refuge of Darby’s Hole; he was ready, guiding them up inside to steady grassland above.

Even while impoverished men, women and children stripped wrecks around him, and smuggling gangs grumbled at his efforts, he remained focused on salvaging the most precious cargo, human life. In his sermons, he preached that saving endangered lives at sea was a sacred duty.

Yet, with his eyes constantly on the shoreline, did Darby’s fierce purpose of warning and rescue begin to shake loose the bonds to his young, inland family? Perhaps rescuing strangers was less complex than the heartbreak of losing two children within months of each other, one a new-born. Loss upon loss, wave upon darkened wave. Within the relative peace of his hollowed, chalk cave, did he also lose close connection with Anne, his anchor, his first and last love who, often alone in a cold rectory with children living and dead, watched her husband’s attention turned seaward, as she slid into the waters of irretrievable bad health? A freezing ache sank her into early death, and the smudge of his tears, still visible now in the ink of her name on the church register, marked a second season of grief and pain. Candle light blackened the walls of Darby’s makeshift lighthouse, and he inhaled the damp far too many times, his lungs eventually weakening, fever rising to a death pitch, until his own life force and fading body melted into the charcoal of midnight chalk.

At East Dean, prayers were offered for this Sailor’s Friend, without whom came almost a century of shipwrecked souls: beached and bloodied spectacles of broken, colonial vessels on Eastbourne shingle through the early 1800s. Spills of silk, tea, limes, tobacco, bricks, coal and iron. After secondary plunder and violence on the English shoreline, growing calls across the community reached Parliament for a first Eastbourne lifeboat and lighthouse here. And that is how I first came to Belle Tout. I imagined the parson’s spirit rising in jubilation and relief to see me being placed on the highest peak above Darby’s Hole. And his bemusement, perhaps, at a very different kind of man now offering the gold to fund me.

Sussex folk spoke of a generous, if often drunk, ‘outlandish’ man called Mad Jack. John Fuller, Esquire. In 1828, he nodded at plans for a prototype lighthouse, a wooden structure which became my bones, my DNA. Glass, oil and wick illuminated flames from Argand lamps, pulsing my lifeblood into beams circling 22 miles out to sea. I was declared a beacon of hope, a miracle of technology.

Yet, twinned at birth, I came into being through the flow of blood and gold from another island, 4000 miles from this one. As a plantation owner in Jamaica and Barbados, my benefactor Fuller had inherited sugar, mules, cattle, copper, millhouses and Spanish-era buildings. The 131 names of men, women and children were not even top of the register of Fuller’s new ‘property’; humans bought and sold and uprooted from five separate African shores, many sent to Knollis Plantation in St Thomas in the Vale, where their labour bought this Sussex MP gun foundries, land, power and status. The brutality of overseers on his estates was in sharp contrast to Fuller’s wild and welcome philanthropy in the local Sussex community. Saving lives here, on the back of broken lives there: lives out of sight and conscience.

Fuller, and this green island he remained on as absentee owner, was far from the heat, storms, hurricanes and earthquakes. Far from malaria, yellow fever and discomfort. Far from uprisings and revolutionary wars inspired by Tacky or the Maroons, pioneers of freedom in Jamaica. Fuller set himself well apart also from the tides of Quaker compassion and clear, widening demands for Abolition; he raged against it in Parliament, lobbied until his own end, through the West India Interest. Roared for profits over freedoms.

Once Fuller was a ghost, but not Fallen, I was rebuilt in the solid limestone and granite of a permanent Belle Tout in 1834. In this Third Life, my blinking lamps and polished lenses opened onto waves and birdsong across limitless aqua, with a clear and strong purpose now. As they fitted my last window, I heard a father tell his child out there in the spring sunlight, ‘If the eye of the lighthouse stays open, bad things are less likely to happen, you know!’

But as winter came, those who built me had not counted on the strength of wind and thickness of sea mist; gusts blew earth back into my lenses and I lost my gift of panoptic visibility. Within only thirty years, my once proud light beams became an ineffective smudge, no longer a Sailor’s Friend.

A deja-vu of resurgent shipwrecks, broken bodies, floating cargo – of the William, Rubens and Coonatto – cracked open my grieving, limestone heart. I became one more of the many follies in Fuller’s back-catalogue – Mausoleum, Temple, Observatory, Hermit’s Tower, Caribbean-inspired Sugar Loaf, Brightling Needle – relics of his own grandiosity, drunken dare or whim of stylish fancy. I had seen myself as different, called for by the community to prevent suffering. Yet now, decommissioned, no longer sensing the Lighthouse Keeper busying himself with the constant flash and thrill of heat and luminosity within me, or the play and laughter of a family who came to live and love me there, I grew weak, defeated.

Eventually, as technology to build on the seabed became a reality, I watched with quiet envy my Beachy Head cousin, that red and white striped, jazz note of a lighthouse, arise from the waters, and fire up to replace me. Not even scope for a morse code dialogue between us, I had gone stone cold inside.

Through World Wars and evacuation of coastline, I became a standing target for Canadian troops stationed on this quivering edge of England; bullet holes punctured my walls, my windows were smashed in. And War God Bael, on his Lookout, in full, bragging flow, towered above me. His sweating fringe flicking away the highest clouds, he grinned down at me, casting charcoal shadows over my battered limestone, conducting bombs and blowing fire across the European mainland. The mists around me, of my own mourning, thickened, as corpses returned to this shoreline once more. And then, one autumn day, the war suddenly stopped. People returned to this coast for pleasure and peace, my scars and puncture wounds were patched and healed. I became private home and host to keen strangers loving and admiring me. I was now Belle Tout, with a French lilt, of stylish décor, perfumed pillows and full breakfasts. Ah, the warmth of humans inside me; lovers embracing and tourists gazing upwards in awe; all this was a welcome distraction from my nevertheless, persistent melancholy.

Chalk continued to crumble from intensity of heat and cold, reshaping the encroaching cliffline, threatening my solid ground, and as they moved me inland to keep the sea from taking me, hoisting me onto rollers with such care, I felt an uneasy uprooting, became restless and confused. Over the last few years, as I open wide my window lids where once I sent out my beams, amid the joy and rest of this coastline, with its pleasure boats and cultural pilgrims from across the globe, I still keep a lookout for the precarious ones. The broken-hearted meandering through thyme and hawthorn, sitting solitary on benches, those displaced through loss of land and home, seeking refuge. I watch in recognition and anxiety as the edge of air and land grows closer to my roots.

I have always known my days were numbered.

The Sleeping Giant’s morning breath from Beachy Head buffets my curved brick walls, its rush and sharp whistle shocking me into the present. And the present is all I have to keep watch over now, since my future is uncertain. Beyond the black, painted gate and flint walls below, I watch humans in white shirts and glamorous dresses, slowed by the constant throb of wind, screeching with laughter. They stand and gaze up at me, vibrant silhouettes against the sun, then follow the coastal path down towards Birling Gap, and onto Cuckmere and Seaford. I watch them with envy; what would it be like to move like that, light-footed, unburdened, ready for adventure elsewhere?

What will happen when the elements come to claim me? Will I prostrate myself before the sea and disappear, giving thanks for my many lives? Or maybe become a floating vessel, singing drunken sea shanties, headed towards other shores? I could visit the free descendants of revolutionary Jamaican Maroons in Cockpit Country, fighting now against the destruction and poisoning of their lands through bauxite mining; metals over humans, profit over freedom, echoing earlier centuries on which my own foundations rest.

Or, perhaps humans will take me apart and I will be ground down into the base of an inland building – a private house, hospital or restaurant – and finally meet those tall trees, elders like me, who I have only seen in the distance but longed to know. Wherever I go, I dream to be free to return to my original purpose. If the hem of the seabed rises and creates ripples that could unearth and push this island’s fringes further into the waters, I intend to become a twisting pillar of luminescence, emanating from the chalk through the darkest of nights, seen from the farthest distance.

I long to remain … in light.

Alinah Azadeh

Alinah Azadeh is a writer, artist, performer and cultural activist of British Iranian heritage. She uses text, audio, and live practices to create poetic narratives that activate spaces, amplifying untold or overlooked stories. As well as commissions for major museums and galleries over the last 30 years, Azadeh has had stories, poetry and articles published, most recently in Glimpse, the first anthology of speculative fiction by Black British writers, published by Peepal Tree Press, edited by Leone Ross. She is inaugural writer-in-residence at Seven Sisters Country Park / Sussex Heritage Coast, commissioned by the South Downs National Park Authority, and led the We See You Now (2019–22), a decolonial landscape and literature programme which has produced We Hear You Now, a new body of work for audio tour across the landscape from June 2023–2028. Both are funded by Arts Council England. Alinah also presents for broadcast, and has a podcast The Colour of Chalk. She is writing her artist memoir, which was longlisted for the SI Leeds Literary Prize 2020.
,br> © Alinah Azadeh