Veteran Birling Gap coastguards retire after decades of service

Alan Godwin, Brian Sykes, and Pete Still have retired after a collective almost 70 years of service to HM Coastguard
Alan Godwin, Brian Sykes, and Pete Still have retired after a collective almost 70 years of service to HM Coastguard

Three Birling Gap coastguards who have racked up almost 70 years of service between them have retired.

Brian Sykes, Pete Still, and Alan Godwin left the service this year and spoke to the Herald about their experiences.

Bonnie was rescued after falling down Beachy Head by coastguards  (Photo by Jon Rigby)

Bonnie was rescued after falling down Beachy Head by coastguards (Photo by Jon Rigby)

Now 70, Brian joined HM Coastguard on his 50th birthday. He said, “It’s been an interesting 20 odd years. It’s rewarding.

“I don’t know if the public realises that what they see on the front line is all volunteers.”

When asked about his favourite memory, he said, “I can always remember a very distressed woman, her four-year-old boy was missing at the gap. We found him about two miles down the coast, he’d just got lost.

“It was seeing her face, it’s worth all the other tragedies. That one really stuck in my mind. Most of our jobs don’t have happy endings up there.”

But he said, “I love Birling Gap, it’s got a magic to it. It’s a totally awe-inspiring place. But with it comes all these silly people that like to stand on the edge for a picture.”

As an army officer Brian served at the Aberfan disaster in 1966 where 116 children and 28 adults were killed.

He said the tragedy served as a turning point in his life, “I thought, I have got to try and help people. That’s what I’m trying to do, save people, not in a heroic way. I thought ‘I’ve got to do it’.”

While one of Pete’s Still’s best memories was rescuing Bonnie the dog, who had fallen 25ft down a crevasse at Beachy Head and was missing for two days back in 2016.

His colleague Alan Godwin – who joins him in retiring, having served 26 years – went down on a rope and scooped the spaniel up, returning her to her delighted owners.

Read about Bonnie’s adventure here

Another good job was reuniting a lost child with his parents. Pete said, “It was lovely to see their faces. To me that’s what it’s all about.”

The 69-year-old started volunteering aged 48. He said, “I never regret any of it, even getting up in the middle of the night.

“It’s a brilliant thing to be in, especially when it’s people you’ve known all these years. It’s probably one of the best things I have done.

“I have got a lot of good memories, especially working with the lads. When we were together it just worked.”

He explained what made him stay for two decades, “To actually save someone’s life, you get great satisfaction out of it. And with lost people, when you get them back it’s fantastic, it’s an achievement, and it’s a team effort.

“Everyone knows about Beachy Head, you can’t talk about all those things but it’s working together to get them back to the families so they can bury them.”

He said, “Twenty years has gone quick. I’m proud of what we have all done over the years.”

• If you see someone in trouble at the coast, call 999 and ask for the Coastguard.

Read more:

What it’s like to be part of Birling Gap Coastguard

Miracle escape for dog trapped in Beachy Head crevasse