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Beachy Head is a bit of quintessential England–a seaside promontory where green pastures roll to the edge of chalk cliffs, a place of sheep and wind and ineffable beauty. But it is also a major landmark on the map of self-inflicted death. Since 1965, some five hundred people have ended their lives by jumping or driving or simply walking off the 535-foot cliffs, making Beachy Head one of the most popular suicide spots in the world. And still they come, every week another one or two–the young and the old, the terminally ill and the vigorously healthy, the bereft, the insane, the despairing. Why here? Why so many? One chilly English spring, American writer and teacher Tom Hunt left his home and family and journeyed to this bucolic landscape to find out. In a narrative that seamlessly weaves together personal memoir, history, travelogue, and investigative journalism, Hunt recounts a season of disturbing revelations (including that Princess Diana allegedly came here intending to jump). Still reeling from a suicide in his own family, Hunt arrives in England obsessed with Beachy Head’s grisly mystique, yet utterly unsure of what he would discover. Gradually, with typical English reserve, the people who haunt this extraordinary place release their secrets. Servers in the local tavern–known among residents as the Last Stop Pub–whisper about their encounters with hollow-eyed men and women in their final hours. The celebrated local witch asserts his belief that the place was once used for human sacrifice. The kindly coroner provides access to suicide notes, photographs, and the Sudden Death file. “It’s a very cold solution,” confides a wheelchair-bound ex-hippie who miraculously survived his own jump. In the course of wrenching interviews with bereft family members, watchful taxi drivers, and brave rescue workers, it dawns on Hunt that in each of us is a will to die every bit as tenacious and unyielding as the desire to live–and that Beachy Head stiffens and heightens this death wish. It’s a stage that all but begs to be leapt from. A work of terrible sadness and harrowing revelations, Cliffs of Despair is the account of an unforgettable journey to a place where beauty and death collide.
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The Last Stop Pub
A bearded man with black-rimmed glasses sits on the edge of a towering cliff, staring vacantly at a sea glimmering with the last remains of sunlight. Clouds drift above his head like barroom smoke. The stiff Channel wind ripples his lightweight jacket and shivers his scruffy hair. He presses his hands against the spongy turf, leans forward, and studies the rocks below. The foam-marbled sea has receded, leaving pools of water around the chalk rubble scattered across the beach.
Thirty feet behind the man, a woman in a bulky sweater gazes inland, a male companion by her side. Sheep and cows graze on hills dotted with yellow cowslips. Crows speckle red slate farmhouse roofs and strips of freshly plowed earth. A rabbit emerges from a nearby gorse patch and scampers across the cliff top. The woman’s eyes follow it to the man, whose hands now grip the cliff edge. His back is framed by a pewter sea. He raises his head, turns, and flashes her a heart-stopping smile.
He turns back to the sea. The woman taps her partner’s shoulder. They whisper and watch. Abruptly, the man stands and takes a large step away from the edge, as if suddenly repulsed by it. He glances at the woman. This time he isn’t smiling. She averts her gaze and affects a casual stroll. When she glances over her shoulder, the man is back at the edge, peering over. She and her companion confer. They watch the man take a step backward. He begins to pace along the cliff top like a mad professor contemplating a problem. Then he stops, strides to the edge, and stands perfectly still. The woman and her partner turn to each other and make a decision. When they turn back to the cliff edge, the man is gone.
I round the corner of Eastbourne’s town hall, on the fringe of the city’s business district. My shadow stretches El Greco–like across the last bit of flatland for sixty miles, toward a smartly dressed woman closing her shop across the street. Hunched by a backpack stuffed with microwaveable Indian dinners, bananas, bread, and beer, I turn and begin the steep two-mile ascent to Beachy Head, a borough of Eastbourne known for its majestic chalk cliffs and for the number of people who jump off them.
The hill is the first in a chain that ripples across most of the length of the south coast county of Sussex, and it is interminable. One besotted English scribe compared the South Downs to the soft, gentle breasts of a sleeping girl; fully freighted, jet-lagged, and hungry, I feel like an ant lugging an oversize crumb up the backside of a Rubenesque nude. I trudge past charming homes tucked behind flint walls, and cross traffic intersections as confusing as exchange rates. What do the passing motorists think when they see a flagging, disheveled man with a backpack walking toward a famous suicide spot? It’s my fifth day in England, and already I’m beginning to wonder if the fifteen hundred dollars I withdrew from my retirement fund to finance this trip was a good idea. I’ll think differently, I hope, after a hearty dinner in my cozy bungalow at the farm on top of the hill.
I hear a siren. Seconds later, a police car careens around the corner, and I think, “Beachy Head.” I pick up the pace. The grade steepens as Meads Road becomes Beachy Head Road, barren woods replace houses, and the sidewalk turns to a dirt path dotted with chalk. Minutes later, the top of the hill comes into view. I lean in to the steepening grade as though gravity were a headwind. Soon, crossing onto the coast road, my body straightens, and I’m blasted by gale-force winds. The hill protects Eastbourne from the foul weather blowing east, and now I’m at the top of it, exposed.
I pass a sign for Beachy Head and stop at a smaller sign announcing the entrance to Black Robin Farm. I gaze down the dirt drive and imagine taking off my sneakers, cracking open a beer, and watching television in my brick cocoon. I turn and look down the lonely coast road. I tell myself I have only a mile to go, if, in fact, there is anything to go to. I keep walking.
The coast road inclines gently and, running as it does along a ridge, offers a unique view of two different worlds: to the east below, the shimmering orange lights of a Victorian seaside resort; to the west, undulating hills and dusky farmhouses. The road humps, blocking the southern view ahead, but soon enough I see the Beachy Head Pub and flashing police lights.
I run. Past a farm, past stunted sycamores, past a couple in a parked car. Approaching the driveway to the Beachy Head Pub, I slow to a stroll so as not to look like the ambulance chaser I am. A roadside phone booth installed by a local suicide-prevention group casts a faint glow on the sign planted next to it: the samaritans—always there day and night—phone 735555 or 0345 90 90 90. At the driveway entrance, another sign, this one sprouting from a pole, announces brewers fayre at beachy head. A floodlight illuminates the pub’s entrance, and the lights of Black Robin Farm glimmer in the distance beyond. I cross the road and pass a woman in a baggy sweater who leans like a felled tree into the tangle of her partner’s arms.
I step onto the windswept Downs and plod toward the cliff edge, toward the din of helicopter rotors and two bystanders silhouetted against the sky. A police radio crackles across the cliff top. Some hundred feet away, a constable, backlit by strobes of red and blue, paces in front of a patrol car.
I join the two men. We watch the chopper hover over the Channel. I step up to the cliff edge and look down. The chalk boulders scattered along the shore look phosphorescent in the spray of searchlight. Despite the long drop, my legs remain steady; darkness fills the space with substance.
I step back and ask what happened. The larger of the two men turns to me. His nose is as ruggedly askew as his wool beret. He tells me, “Someone jumped about forty-five minutes ago. The police’ve been searching for, oh, I’d say twenty minutes now.” He says his name is Shane; his friend is Simon.
I glance at the sea. The helicopter looks like a confused dragonfly, making several passes over the beach, banking back to the ocean between each pass, and hovering there before try- ing again. Simon watches, mesmerized, his leather flight jacket drooping over narrow shoulders.
“On holiday?” Shane asks.
“Yes.” The truth is too complicated. I shift my gaze inland, but there isn’t much to see at dusk. “It’s beautiful here—a lot more open than I expected.”
“It’s like the stereotypical English flowing countryside. You know, makes you want to have a cup of tea, stiff upper lip, and let’s go beat the Germans again.”
I nod in agreement, though actually the land only makes me want to look.
The chopper continues to jab and feint above the Channel.
“Loud, isn’t it?” I say.
“It’s as much a part of Beachy Head as the wind and orchids.” Shane turns to me and smiles. “It’s a crowded sky here at Beachy Head: jackdaws, gulls, wheatears—and the police helicopter.”
“I think they found it.” Simon points below. The chopper lowers onto the beach. Two figures emerge from the hulk in a concentrated beam of white light. They clamber across floodlit shingle, stopping at a huddle of boulders, and there the light lingers. One of the figures spreads out an orange bag; the other reaches behind a boulder and tugs on a dark clothed body, flopping it onto the bag. They pack it, drag it, and shove it into the helicopter. When they’re aboard as well, the chopper lifts and turns, rippling the sea with its wash.
I say goodbye to Shane and Simon and head across the cliff top, galvanized by this anonymous death. I negotiate clusters of gorse and stop at the top of the coast road embankment. Across the street, two police constables examine a car in the pub’s parking lot. One appears to be taking down the license plate number; the other peers through the windshield on the driver’s side. Then they head toward the pub, and I follow.
Brewers Fayre at Beachy Head, also known as the Beachy Head Pub, is a sprawl of contiguous ranch-style buildings a hundred yards from the sea. It was called the Queen’s when it opened as a restaurant in 1880 and the Beachy Head Hotel when eight bedrooms were added in the 1890s. After World War II, it was a jumble of shacks where the fare was, according to one local, “an unending supply of mince followed by bread-and-butter pudding, with no choice, of course.” It burned to the ground in the fall of 1966, the result of a kitchen fire fanned by gale-force winds, and again in 1994, nine months after being purchased by Whitbread, one of England’s largest breweries.
Undaunted, Whitbread built an enlarged restaurant and pub on the charred site, as well as a quaint museum showcasing the area’s natural wonders. In summer, camera-toting tourists pack the pub’s picnic benches, and children invade its candy-colored playground as an ice-cream truck idles in the parking lot.
But the pub has a darker side. In some circles, it’s known as the Last Stop Pub, a place where “suspicious ones” go for a little Dutch courage before heading to the cliffs. The pub’s employ- ees are instructed to keep their eyes open for solemn, solitary drinkers, and to suss out their intentions. Sometimes they call the police; other times they follow them out the building and, if necessary, physically restrain them.
I’m about to witness one of the pub’s post-suicide rituals. The constables remove their hats in the entryway. They pass a pinball machine, then veer toward the bar, radios crackling. Two men turn on their stools. The bartender looks up as he draws a pint of ale. He doesn’t wait for the officers to ask the usual question: the manager, he offers quietly, is working the till.