The residents battling to save the Cuckmere Haven cottages from tumbling into the sea

Cuckmere, November 13th 2021: The Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages and Seven Sisters cliffs

The iconic Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages - Credit: Andrew Hasson

Residents of the iconic Coastguard Cottages at Cuckmere Haven – Britain's best view - are battling to raise £1million to save them from tumbling into the sea 

Nestled beneath the stunning Seven Sisters, and overlooking the English Channel, a row of cottages precariously perched on the cliff edge near Cuckmere Haven is one of the most instantly-recognisable views of Britain.  

It’s graced postage stamps, been the stunning backdrop to dozens of Hollywood movies and even been named the country’s best vista.  

For the tiny community that lives there, the special quality of this iconic place isn’t lost on them. ‘We feel the weight of responsibility and see ourselves as custodians, rather than owners,’ says Lucy Mutter, who lives in one of the six coastguard cottages now converted into five homes.  

Cuckmere, November 13th 2021: Some of the residents of the Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages - l

Some of the residents of the Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages - l to r, Richard and Hilary Abbott, Lucy Mutter, Kitty and Michael Ann, Clifford Abbott - Credit: Andrew Hasson

Just a ten-minute drive from Seaford town centre, the smattering of former coastguard cottages is one of Sussex’s most isolated communities, without a pub, church or shop.  

And while owning a home in one of the country’s most photographed locations, attracting millions of visitors a year from around the world in pre-pandemic times, living here is the ultimate cliff hanger.  

LIVING ON THE EDGE

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There is no electricity although residents are able to store solar-generated power in batteries to give some light in the evenings. Gas can only be used out of bottles and water is metered from a nearby farm.  

Lucy, 43, a premises officer at the Royal Pavillion, Brighton, and a mother of two young children, only got hot water last year.  

The 200-year-old cottage at Cuckmere Haven has been passed down the generations to present owner Lucy Mutter

The 200-year-old cottage at Cuckmere Haven has been passed down the generations to present owner Lucy Mutter - Credit: Andrew Hasson

Many day-trippers assume they’re holiday cottages, and enquire about renting them. Curious passers-by ask to look inside, while Lucy often finds strangers in her garden who’ve had to climb through it after being cut off by the tide.  

‘The water comes right up to the bottom of the sea wall and there is no beach,’ Lucy explains. ‘There used to be a path up which has collapsed, so if people find themselves trapped, they have to climb up the sea defences - there’s no other way. But sometimes they just wander in, anyway, from the other side, opening the gate and striding up to the door. 

‘A few years ago, two ladies came in, thinking my cottage was a cafe. “Can we have two teas and a can of coke, please?” they asked. They thought it was hilarious when I told them it was my house.’ 

But the residents face a far bigger problem than unwanted visitors or film crews shooting on their doorsteps for movies including Atonement and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.  

A REAL-LIFE CLIFFHANGER 

For those seemingly lucky enough to live in the hamlet constantly being named Britain’s Best View, they are fighting a battle against nature to stop their cottages tumbling into the sea. The land on which their homes stand is slowly vanishing due to coastal erosion.  

Cuckmere Haven, November 13th 2021: The old sea wall sea defences at Cuckmere Haven, in place since

The old sea wall sea defences at Cuckmere Haven, in place since 1947 - Credit: Andrew Hasson

There is no government or public agency funding for small communities like theirs, so they are having to raise the money themselves to repair and improve the sea defences to save this iconic landscape. The Environment Agency has stopped funding for the sea wall after deciding the area should be a tidal floodplain. 

‘Before the war, our gardens were much longer, but by 1947 they had eroded to the point of the current concrete sea wall,’ says Lucy. ‘The Environment Agency owns the steel structures on the beach, but they are allowing them to degrade as part of a shoreline plan, which includes the groynes on the beach, which are also collapsing.  

‘This means the sea now comes behind the steel and if that collapses, the seawall below our houses would be compromised. We are trying to protect and repair this beautiful place, doing the best we can.’  

Cuckmere, November 13th 2021: The Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages and Seven Sisters cliffs

The Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages and Seven Sisters cliffs - Credit: Andrew Hasson

The campaigning group that’s been set up, Cuckmere Haven SOS, to raise the estimated £1million for the defences has 4,000 signatures of support. But while hope was raised when last year the South Downs National Park Authority’s planning committee approved work to start, that has now been retracted following an objection from another organisation.  

Previously, Sussex Wildlife Trust opposed the plan because of the loss of chalk habitat while Natural England said the marine chalk around Sussex was of global significance and a ‘scarce commodity.’  

SHORING UP THE FUTURE 

For the residents and supporters this is a minor set -back. They’re determined to complete the work on the sea defences which will last an estimated 85 years - ensuring the cottages survive for the next generation.  

The cottages were built around 1818 by the navy. At that time several agencies, including the Royal Navy, were responsible for different aspects of coastal security; customs, excise, smuggling and shipwrecks. A government committee decided it made sense for most of the agencies to be consolidated into one entity, so the Coast Guard came into being, on January 15th 1821.  

The cottages were taken over by coastguards and their families for the next hundred years but in 1921, the cottages were decommissioned and eventually auctioned off.  

‘Our great-grandfather Officer John Ayres was the last coastguard here,’ says Richard Abbott, 58, a programme manager for BT. ‘But it was our other great-grandfather, Reginald Smelt, an antiques dealer, who bought the properties. He’d been camping here and fell in love with the place.’  

The top two houses were sold to recoup the costs of buying the others. ‘Our great-grandfather ended up with four cottages. He had four children, to whom he left a cottage each.’ They have stayed in the same family ever since.  

The residents are proud that so many people come to see this view and their homes. ‘Even though I can’t remember myself what it’s like to see this place for the first time, having known it my whole life, I do enjoy other people’s reactions,’ says Lucy. ‘Every time we have builders or contractors here, they are amazed. They always like to take a picture of their van outside the cottages.  

‘It is strange when you go past a shop selling calendars and you see your house in the window,’ she laughs. The view can be seen on social media platforms including Instagram hundreds of times a day at the height of the season. There was a post recently that had been ‘liked’ 15,000 times.  

The location remains popular for film-makers and TV companies worldwide. ‘Visitors have told us the houses feature in the title sequence of a Korean soap opera, which is maybe why we get a lot of visitors from that part of the world,’ Lucy says. ‘I was here when they did a day’s filming for Atonement with Keira Knightley and James McAvoy.  

‘He was very friendly. It was a long, freezing February day but he said: “This is just the most beautiful place”.   

‘Cheryl Cole was lovely when she filmed a music video for her single, The Flood. That was another cold stormy day. Between takes, Cheryl sat with her dogs on the sofa wrapped up in blankets. I had a nice fire going, it was cosy and I made lots of hot chocolate. She was really interested in everything about the place. 

‘Judi Dench was here for Blithe Spirit and Mackenzie Crook filmed the ‘Saucy Nancy’ episode of Worzel Gummidge where they strung up a figurehead on the outside wall. I got them to fix my guttering while they were up there.’ 

Lucy inherited her cottage from her mother in 2003 after it has been passed down the generations on the maternal side. ‘It’s just always been in the family. It’s more than that. It is family. 

‘Of course, we wonder about how long we have, but I’m not sure I have an answer for that,’ she sighs.  

Now the campaigning charity has been formed, Lucy has joined the other residents to defend their cottages.  

‘We’re trying to protect this beautiful part of the coastline against erosion and tidal damage,’ says Richard. ‘As we all get older, the realisation of just how special this place is has hit us. We feel we are more than residents. We are custodians of the properties and want to save this place for the next generation.  

‘People are amazed when they realise that any sea defences that are here, we have built ourselves. They just assume it’s the local councils, or the Environment Agency’s responsibility. But it’s not. It’s just us.’  

The residents are hoping to raise the money to renew and maintain the defences. As well as the Celebrate Cuckmere Haven art exhibition at South Hill Barn at the top of the hill, there’s also the annual Lapwing Music Festival which they’ve been running since 2016. ‘It’s an amazing event,’ Lucy says, ‘with just 60 tickets available for an intimate music recital in a marquee right by the cottages.  

‘I message every single person who posts a picture of Cuckmere on Instagram, thanking them and trying to keep them engaged. We take every opportunity to remind people of our precarious position.’ 

The house below on the beach 

Life is very basic for the residents of The Cable House  

Cuckmere, November 13th 2021: Some of the residents of the Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages - Ki

Some of the residents of the Cuckmere Haven coastguards' cottages - Kitty and Michael Ann at The Cable House - Credit: Andrew Hasson

Right on the beach at the bottom of the hill is the only other building in the community - The Cable House. This unusual little place was built in the early 1900s and is where an underwater cable was laid across the Channel to Le Havre in France, to speed up communications between Britain and the continent.  

It was bought in 1947 by Douglas Ann, who had built the nearby Golden Galleon pub at Exceat, now called The Cuckmere Inn, and The Cable House is still owned by the Ann family. ‘I’ve lost count of the people who’ve suggested we’d make a lot of money of we turned this into a tea-room,’ says current owner Michael Ann, ‘but that’s not the point of this place really, is it? Although we’re always happy to give out water on a hot day, for people or dogs.’  

He says he was once asked by a man if his extended family could use the toilet. But The Cable House has no plumbing. ‘I only have a bucket,’ he told the gentleman and his disappointed entourage.  

His wife Kitty says, ‘All of us here have at some point had to rescue a visitor from some kind of trouble, broken ankles and that kind of thing. It’s not always easy for ambulances to get down here, so we’ve had to shuttle people up the hill. We’ve had kids falling in the water and we’ve helped out with dry clothing for them to get home in.’ 

www.cuckmerehavensos.org