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walking, painting, blogging - 'taking part in the existence of things'

Cliffs and Cottages at Cuckmere Haven

Updated: Mar 6, 2020

Ignore my inescapable bias for a moment, but Sussex is a wonderful county - perhaps the best. The rich variety of subjects is a painters dream, from countryside views to villages and coastal panoramas. I would be very surprised if this scene doesn't help to persuade you. If I need to burnish the county's credentials further then I will; not surprisingly it is where you will find Sussex County Cricket Club, and where Harveys and Arundel breweries reside - both purveyors of delicious ales. Home to Rudyard Kipling, and the birth place of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. I could go on......

In this corner of the South East, where England expires, you will find a spectacular array of towering chalk cliff faces along the Sussex coastline. Not to be confused with the White Cliffs of Dover in Kent (and it's staggering how often this mistake is made in under-researched TV documentaries) from this view point above the old coastguard cottages between Hope Gap and Cuckmere Haven you will meet the Seven Sisters. These are not seven elderly spinsters that have lived in one of the cottages for decades, but the seven peaks on the coastline between Cuckmere and Eastbourne where the cliffs rise and fall like the gentle breathing of a sleeping child.

This painting was made a short while ago but it came to mind as I thought about the subject of coastal erosion, a matter very much reported on recently, and something I touched on briefly in my post 'Winter Pines at South Beach, Studland.' Sadly the proliferation of recent storms has created problems up and down our coastline, as unstable cliffs and exposed shorelines have been battered by wind, waves and rain. The coastguard cottages - especially those in the left of the painting, are facing a precipitous predicament, at high risk of being lost to the the elements in the coming years. As central characters in this iconic landscape, the eventual loss of the cottages will change this landscape dramatically. Of course, the impact will be greatest on those that own these cliff top dwellings, but it is difficult not to feel a hint of sadness too that this famous aesthetic - beloved by film-makers, walkers and artists - will become dramatically different. These potential changes pose some challenging questions: should we adjust to and embrace the inevitability of changes to our familiar landscapes; are such changes the result of anthropogenic climate-change; is our need to preserve our landscapes unrealistic?

The blog will attempt to explore the answers to these questions over time, and getting into the long grass on these will be no easy task. A quick observation at this point is enough for now, but it places a signpost for future discussion and expansion, and relates to the recent storms and reports of coastal erosion in the 'grown up' media. The issue of climate change is, and has always been a matter of great importance, and ensuring that the natural balance of climate and weather are not unduly influenced by human activity is vital. Sadly the debate around this subject has been hijacked by climate alarmists at one extreme, and climate change deniers at the other (if we have to label both as such.) The correct debate, informed by a reasoned and scientific approach with an absence of sensationalism, vitriol and political chicanery, falls somewhere between these two ends of the spectrum. The subject of coastal erosion is a good example. We have been told by non-experts in the mainstream media that recent dramatic changes to the coastline in places are the result of anthropogenic climate change. No evidence exists to consolidate this position. Of course, there will always be the odd exception, but we do know that such events are the result of tidal movements that have been in existence for as long as this planet has. These have also been exacerbated by high rainfall in places, and the movement of water and soil across the landscape, but let's tug at that particular thread some other time. Even the most casual students of geography and geology will know that our coastlines have changed continuously over time, without human influence. Our desire for this to stop may be understandable, but it is ultimately unrealistic. Laying the blame for coastal erosion at the door of humanity's interference with the climate is unhelpful and will not help to shape appropriate solutions. At Cuckmere, the most important discussions should relate to relocation or retreat (concepts that have helped define our landscapes since the beginning of civilisation) and renovation of degraded coastal defence structures, or indeed the introduction of new ones. In a careful consideration of the subject of coastal erosion, vehement calls to reassess our use of energy resources represents muddled thinking, and leads to unhelpful media coverage. When the talking goes wrong, the policies also go wrong.

The landscape is constantly changing - it needs to, and we contribute to that. Several hundred years ago, this landscape, in its current form, didn't exist. There were no charming, iconic cottages, sitting so beautifully in front of the rugged chalk backdrop of the cliffs. One hundred years from now, the landscape will have changed again. Nature's forces are not easily harnessed, and the relentless tide will not be stopped from having its say. Sad though the changes may be, we will never fully appreciate and understand the landscape if we attempt to freeze it at a moment in time - that's what a painting is for!

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