LOOKING BACK: Digging up our coastal past

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A fantastic nine day archaeological investigation recently came to a close on the cliff edge at Crowlink, formerly known as Gap Bottom or Smugglers Bottom, where a small team from the Eastbourne Borough Council’s Heritage Service and a wonderful group of volunteers had been excavating the remains of the former Coastguard Cottages that stood there for more than 100 years.

The excavation was part of the National Trust’s Seven Sisters Archaeology Project (SSAP) that is looking at a number of important sites along this beautiful yet rapidly changing piece of coastline.

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The cliffs and Downs here hold their secrets, from Neolithic settlements more than 5,000 years old to an entire World War II airfield now all but a memory, but what they have in common is their imminent danger from coastal erosion.

So with backing from the Trust’s own Operation Neptune Fund, the SSAP was set up to record these sites and try to understand how life on this part of the coast has changed over the years.

As befits the ethos of the National Trust, much of the project involves the participation of local volunteers in a variety of different roles.

The beach at Crowlink was once accessible from a natural gap cleft in the chalk cliff above and make easier to climb by steps and then laterally a rope. This is the lowest part of the Seven Sisters and was thus, in the 18th and 19th centuries a popular dropping off point for goods smuggled illegally from the continent and it is for this reason that a block or guardhouse with cannon was built here by 1747. The much more substantial buildings that we were asked to ‘re-discover’ replaced this small structure when the Coastguard leased the site in 1832.

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At this time a house facing the cliff-edge was built as a look out and as accommodation for the Chief Boatman-in-Charge and one other man and a little further inland on the western side a block of three double cottages was constructed for the rest of the coastguard and their families.

By 1912 the Chief Boatman’s house was teetering dangerously on the cliff edge as there had been rapid erosion so the cottage block was converted to accommodate his position with two others occupied by the coastguard.

Over the next 100 years or so the coastguard stood watch here but according to the records, there were few major incidents. The two most notable ones being the wrecks of the Coonatto in 1876 and the Fairfax in 1881, the crews of which were both rescued and briefly accommodated at the station. In fact the fractured ribs of the Coonatto can still be seen at low tide jutting out of the sand as a timely reminder to the hidden dangers of this part of the coast.

The station itself was decommissioned in 1921 but continued to be let out to families until the outbreak of war with Germany in 1939 when this whole stretch of coast was declared off limits to the public. During the next few years the cottages were used for training by British and Canadian troops and it has always been said that an artillery unit from the latter finally blew the house up by 1944.

Over the last 70 or so years the remains have been reclaimed by the Downland grass so that by the time the investigation started, the only clues to the buildings existence were to be found in the form of bricks or broken tile sticking out of the irregular humps and bumps around the site.

Excavating on such an important site (a Site of Special Scientific Interest – SSSI) and in such an iconic part of the coast was always a huge privilege but also would not be without its challenges. All the turf removed had to be carefully put to one side and kept damp in order to do as little damage as possible to any flora lying dormant within the soil. We also had to keep an eye out for adders, which may have been sheltering within the rabbit holes that cover the area, but thankfully did not have to move any.

See next week’s Looking Back for the findings of the excavation and more photos.

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