It is the snug, cocooning homestead that, after much turmoil, promises to envelop you in safety: no wonder it was here that Celia and Robbie settled in the closing scene of Atonement, that extraordinary wartime film of redemption starring Keira Knightley and James McAvoy. Everyone who visits somehow wants to run away from real life and live here.
But it is no longer looking so safe. Thanks to coastal erosion, this heavenly haven which could have been created for a postcard or a film, is in as much danger as when German planes were still shooting up the beach.
It sits at the mouth of the River Cuckmere between Eastbourne and Seaford, but now spends its days fearing it is going to drown. As a backdrop, it has the Seven Sisters, that amazing stretch of jagged, jutting white limestone cliff, which as campaigners say is as a symbol of Britain, “more Dover than Dover”.
Twice daily those angry, cobalt blue Channel waves pound the concrete sea wall and the long-defeated wooden groyne – all that protect the pretty row of four 200-year-old former coastguard cottages above.
It is clear from fading photographs that a century ago the cottages were tucked a complacent 30 metres back from the sea; now they peer over the edge like anxious mourners facing into a freshly dug grave.
Controversially, the cottages enjoy no official protection, even though the cliffs and estuary have just about the highest protection possible as crown jewels of the South Downs National Park.
Government policy is now one of coastal retreat, which bulldog locals say is hardly the spirit which defeated Hitler. Nevertheless, our coastline has huge numbers of endangered houses and even villages – and although few if any can be as beautiful as this, the massive expense of holding back an inevitable tide is hard to justify in an age of austerity. The Environment Agency announced in the language of one who has no time for poetry or beauty: “Notice of Withdrawal of Maintenance has already been served. Whilst this is a change of policy it is more a bringing forward of policy.”
Hence the need for private action. So the Environment Agency allows local people to do the work, provided they have permission of South Downs National park and Natural England – which they do.
This work has become more urgent. The weather has ravaged defences in recent years. Lucy Mutter lost 60 foot of garden two years ago in a storm and says it was like watching sand being sucked form an hour glass.
Residents and well-wishers put huge effort into gathering materials to bolster sea defences. But the sea, ever the angry monster, tossed these aside with a contemptuous roar the next time it came charging up the shore.
Having raided their savings, local families have established a £200,000 crowd-funding scheme to pay for sturdier defences which might protect their homes, and a very special view for the nation.
Charles Anson, chairman of the campaign to save it, is the Queen’s former press secretary and resident of nearby Alfriston. “The requirement is to strengthen the sea defences,” he says. “The urgent job is to protect the sheet fences, taking the sea round rather than battering the cliff face.”
“Not long ago the official opinion was that the sooner the cottages fell into the sea the better,” says Carolyn McCourt, an art restorer who has lived in a cottage here for three decades. “Fortunately that’s now changed and they are recognised as being part of the scene which attracts all those visitors to the area.”
It is a stunning spot down a quiet track which you can’t quite believe still exists in the busy South East. Scenic though this is, it takes a sturdy, self-sufficient kind of person to live here: mains electricity has never reached this remote enclave.
The cottages stand, in our drunken age of boozy brawling in high streets of a Friday night, as proud monuments to sobriety.
They were built in the 1820s, shortly after the Napoleonic Wars, as coastguard cottages to stop smugglers sneaking much-prized French brandy up the river to avoid paying excise.
It is an area as rich in history – and the recreation of history – as it is in natural majesty. As the campaign group determined to defend it has pointed out: “Guy Fawkes landed here, so did Robin Hood. Dickens lived here and Queen Victoria walked the beach. Cheryl Cole sang here and Harry Potter, Foyle’s War, Green Wing, Luther and Atonement were all filmed at Cuckmere Haven.”
Film director Paul Bryer says: “I have filmed Dickens, Queen Victoria and Guy Fawkes at Cuckmere Haven and the cottages. The cottages were here 200 years ago and are here today, but will they be there tomorrow?”
Long before location scouts in the movie business flocked here, artists such as Eric Ravilious painted the landscape. Modern artists such as Tom Benjamin and Kelly Hall still draw inspiration from the view, and it is a favourite place for art classes.
In the war this was identified as a vulnerable point, for whilst not even the most determined Nazi could scale the cliffs, here was a low-lying spot with a river.
The Luftwaffe looked out for the river on their merry way to bomb London. The surrounding area became marked by savage barbed wire, pillboxes and so-called “dragon’s teeth” tank traps.
We can catch a melancholy echo of those terrifying days in a brass plaque paying tribute to Canadian soldiers protecting Cuckmere Haven who died here in 1940, strafed by a Messerschmitt.
The army requisitioned the cottages and – as was often the way – they were left in sorry repair. As compensation, the sea wall was built in 1947.
In a further sign of just how cut off this hamlet is from outside life, two of the cottages are still owned by descendants of a Mr Ayers, the last coastguard who bought them in 1929.
Similarly, the Smelt family, of Surbiton in Surrey, would holiday here every summer. They would clop down the lane in a horse-drawn cart and erect a voluminous green tent on the beach. Cosily, and as was the way in those days, their daughter married the son of Mr Ayers. Remarkably, their daughter Betty and her husband Donald have lived here since peace was declared in 1945. They are now in their 80s.
At the kitchen table in front of their Aga pumping out much-needed heat, even in summer as a keen wind blows in from France, Donald says: “If you are awake and hear something wrong you have to get out of bed and fix it.” Betty, immaculately turned out in smart knitwear, chips in: “That’s right. You have to make sure the chimney is still on top of the roof.”
McCourt, our friendly art restorer, snapped up her cottage in 1989 for what now seems like a modest £130,000 – for what price that panorama? It had, in yet another detail so resonant of a life no longer lived, been sub-divided by two warring sisters – neither talking to the other, but neither prepared to move. McCourt was told by a mortgage company that the cottage was only worth £40,000, perhaps reflecting its uncertain future. But not to be put off – as we’ve seen, you need to be made of tough materials to live here – she raised the money and has lived here ever since, raising her adoptive daughter Li Chen in her adorable coastal home.
Of the recent influx of volunteers helping to mend the foot of the sea wall, McCourt looks out across her decking at the breakers and says: “There was a woman from Lewes in her 60s who was a calligrapher operating a cement mixer. They realise that if we don’t do something now this magical coastline will be lost. It is a very special place which evokes a past era, which is why so many people love it.”
Michael Ann owns the brick shed where the cross-Channel telegraph reached shore. The cables laid in 1900 from the Cuckmere cable hut to France were all that held the footpath to the beach in place as the eddies carved out a cave three metres in depth underneath.
He says that the small number of residents of the hamlet cannot afford to pay for the sea defences alone: “We are all part of this little community and we all agree this place is very special and needs to be saved. We are hoping the many visitors who come here will agree.
“If we are unable to maintain the sea wall, the most iconic sea view in Europe will be lost.”
But we shall leave the last words to McCourt: “These cottages seem to capture peoples’ imagination. It’s romantic, it’s a spiritual experience, it’s quite extraordinary.”
If you would like to join the Sussex Style campaign to save Cuckmere Haven, and want to help or donate, please visit cuckmerehavensos.org – lots of volunteers have mucked in and have added 50 sacks of cement to the base of the sea wall where holes were undermining the structure.
Cuckmere Haven attracts 350,000 visitors a year but the cliff on which it perilously perches is collapsing. Can it be rescued from the jaws of the sea?