Good Energy is collaborating with award-winning environmental photographer Toby Smith to produce a series of photo-essays visualising climate change in the UK. In this three-part special, Toby focuses on how climate change is causing coastal erosion in the South of England. 

Frequent reports by academics and institutions like the National Trust and English Heritage confirm that erosion and flooding caused by climate change are actively destroying many of our much-loved landmarks and natural history, threatening the livelihoods of coastal areas. 

Aerial view of the Birling Gap, East Sussex, showing the National Trust visitor centre, access stairs, wave cut platform, chalk cliffs and Belle Tout lighthouse in the distance.

 Here are three iconic landmarks of the South Coast where communities need to endure, innovate and invest to be resilient in a changing climate. 

Seven Sisters Cliffs 

The Seven Sisters are dramatic chalk cliffs found in the South Downs National Park in East Sussex. In 2014, they experienced the equivalent of seven years’ worth of coastal erosion in just two months due to a combination of more frequent storms, increased rainfall and higher sea levels. 

Cross section of the white chalk cliffs of Birling Gap, East Sussex, photographed at low-tide from the sea cut platform.

At 162 metres high, the cliffs are some of the tallest in Britain. Vertical layers of shells and billions of microscopic planktonic algae have all hardened into dazzling white chalk. Over millions of years the rock shelf has been uplifted by continental movement before undergoing constant river and coastal erosion. The cliffs are important geological and conservation areas for nesting birds and rare plant life, so the area is unsuitable for protection by hard engineering, despite the recent accelerated erosion.  

View from the stony beach at Birling Gap showing the four remaining Coastguard cottages. Only 3 remain standing, with four having succumbed to the advancing cliff edge.

The Birling Gap 

The elevated and more accessible dips between the seven cliffs are known as swales; remnants of ancient river valleys through the chalk downs. One of the most popular and accessible sites is the Birling Gap, a National Trust site of critical importance. The Birling Gap is popular with visitors who appreciate the incredible geology in cross-section from the stony beach below. Safe access from the land requires several stories of steel stairs, that are periodically maintained and moved inland to remain connected to the receding cliff.  

Photo of the Birling Gap taken in the 1920s, showing the full row of cottages.
The Birling Gap 100 years later, showing the receding cliffs and the three remaining cottages.

Birling Gap once hosted a full terrace of seven brick cottages, built in the 1800s for coastguards keeping watch over the English Channel. Only three cottages remain standing, with four having succumbed to the advancing cliff-edge. The first in the terrace, known as the pilot’s house, was demolished in 1994 and the second in 2002, despite a local petition of over 60,000 signatories calling for coastal protection. The third cottage was demolished in 2014 after a cliff-fall left the boundary wall just six inches from the cliff edge, in danger of pulling down the remaining houses. A neighbouring lighthouse called Belle-Tout, was famously moved inland by 17 metres in 1999 before being restored and renovated into a Bed and Breakfast.  

St Michael’s Mount 

Telephoto image of St Michael’s Mount, photographed from Penzance Harbour.

St Michael’s Mount in Cornwall, connected at low tide by a shallow stone causeway, is one of hundreds of critically important cultural and historical sites that engineering cannot fully preserve. Hard coastal engineering is increasingly being viewed as an inappropriate, temporary and costly solution which drains financial resources and occasionally causes accelerated erosion in adjacent areas. For this reason, both the Environment Agency and National Trust are exploring how selectively abandoning defences whilst encouraging natural measures such as salt marshes may offer a truly sustainable solution.  

Jubilee Pool 

Aerial view of Penzance town and harbour at sunrise with the Jubilee Geothermal Pool in the foreground.

Three miles further west, perched on a stony outcrop at the mouth of Penzance harbour, is the Jubilee Pool. This is the largest and most celebrated sea water pool in the UK that uniquely features a geothermically heated area. The pool operates at 30-35°C using heat extracted from a 410-metre deep well combined with heat exchangers and heat pumps. The temperature of the pool can be sustained year-round with a very low carbon footprint. 

The original, historic, grade 2 listed site was damaged in the storms of 2014 that also caused the severe erosion of the Seven Sisters Cliffs. It was saved by an innovative community response where local residents, business and authorities all rallied around the unique idea of geothermal heating that was first proposed over a pint of ale in the local Yacht Inn. 

Aerial view of the Jubilee Geothermal Pool.

Over half a million pounds of the funding for the renovation and renewable energy project came from a public share offer. Therefore, Jubilee Pool is now a community owned organisation with 970 of the 1400 shareholders coming from the immediate area. The remainder of the funding for the investment came through a mix of loans and grants from organisations such as Power to Change, the Architectural Heritage Fund, Cooperative Community Investment Fund and a European fund contributing to the drilling itself. 

The pool is now open year-round, improving local trade and providing consistent, annual employment and welfare benefits with discounts for Cornish residents.  The benefits of green tourism, tangible community and welfare benefits are serving as a major positive case study that support local decision making and investment models in new sustainable business.  

Read some of Toby’s other photo essays.