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26 Mar 2019

At Structural Engineers Reports we often talk about movement in buildings –unexpected and sometimes alarming movement that needs thorough investigation to find the cause and a way of stopping it! But what if a building actually needs to be moved? This isn’t a common occurrence, but happened in 199when the Belle Tout lighthouse in Sussex was in danger of falling into the sea. 

Belle Tout was built in 1831 on the cliff top east of Birling Gap. The idea was that if ships passing could see its light they would know that they were at a safe distance from the dangerous cliffs below - once the light disappeared they knew they were straying too close. This is when the first problems of cliff erosion became apparent because as the cliff receded there was a widening of the angle from which the light could be seen and passing shipping could still see its light when dangerously close to the hazardous rocks below. This, and the common coastal mists that enveloped the area, meant that a more effective solution was needed so in 1902 a second lighthouse was built below Beachy Head and Belle Tout became a private house. 

Fast forward 96 years and a rock fall left the lighthouse just 4 metres from the edge of the cliff. The only way the Grade II listed building could be saved was to move it inland – a huge engineering challenge. At a cost of £250,000 the project was paid for by the South Downs Lighthouse Trust and this month sees the 20th anniversary of the move. Firstly, archaeologists excavated around the lighthouse and then engineers used 22 hydraulic jacks to move the 850 ton granite structure onto 4 steel topped concrete beams. Grease was used to reduce friction and keep the lighthouse moving away from its precarious position on the edge of the cliff. The pace was painstakingly slow – just 28 feet on the first day with every millimetre controlled by computer. By the end of the second day the lighthouse was at its final resting place, 16 metres further back from the cliff edge. Thanks to the skill and ingenuity of the engineers, the lighthouse is very much still intact and is now a luxury B&B with breath taking panoramic views of the surrounding countryside and coastline.