KEVIN GORDON - The shipwrecked sailor’s friend

This Friston grave is a poignant reminder of the perils of the sea.
This Friston grave is a poignant reminder of the perils of the sea.

A few days ago I popped in to the National Trust Visitor Centre at Birling Gap.

It is looking great as is the new cafe. The whole area has been smartened up with new loos too.

Friston Church ' last resting place of Parson Darby.

Friston Church ' last resting place of Parson Darby.

The area has been in the news recently with the cliff edge moving slowly northwards.

Unfortunately the beach is currently inaccessible as the steps have been closed for safety reasons; hopefully they will be open for the summer.

I remember many happy hours rock-pooling at Birling Gap.

My father used to go prawning there and I remember the excitement of waiting for the tide to drop to see what had been caught in his nets.

The coast around here is treacherous at most times but particularly during the high spring tides.

The coast between Eastbourne and Seaford is a graveyard for shipwrecks.

Today there is a Coastguard Station at Birling Gap but this has not always been the case.

In 1828 a wooden lighthouse was built at nearby Belle Tout to warn mariners of the dangerous coast but a century earlier the problem was considered by the local parson, Jonathan Darby.

After his education at Queen’s College, Oxford, he moved down to Sussex.

In 1692, he became the rector of Litlington and six years later the Vicar of Wilmington.

In 1706 he was appointed vicar of East Dean and rector of Friston. Both churches contained the graves of victims of the sea which obviously saddened him.

During his perambulations along the coast he found a cave in the chalk overlooking the sea at one of the most notorious cliffs and decided to make his own lighthouse.

The cave was enlarged and made comfortable.

Access was cut via a sloping tunnel and steps from the beach which was just 20 feet below.

On wild nights the good parson would leave his comfortable home and hold a lonely vigil showing a light seawards to warn passing ships of the treacherous coast.

Thousands of sailors owed their lives to Parson Darby, but when his warnings did not work and ships did flounder under his cave, he was their to help; on one occasion rescuing 23 shipwrecked sailors.

One account I have read suggests that a brig grounded so close to the cliff that the crew of 12 were able to step off the bowsprit of their ship directly into the cave.

I have also read that some said that his regular duties, in what became known as ‘Parson Derby’s Hole’, were to avoid a nagging wife.

Jonathan Darby was married to Anne Segre a native of Durham and it is clear that he loved her dearly.

When she died in 1723, he wrote that his home was desolate without her. He died the following year and was buried at Friston church.

Up until a hundred years ago the remnants of the cave could still be seen.

The Daily Chronicle reported that the cave was still as fresh as when it was first made with the chisel and axe marks still visible and accessible from a ladder set against the chalk cliffs.

Of course the good parson helped all. Some seafarers were engaged in smuggling and it is rumoured that after his death the cave was a popular place for contraband to be landed and stored.

With coastal erosion, Parson Darby’s Hole no longer exists but the good man is still remembered.

His tombstone is marked “He was the sailors friend” He was also remembered in a way those smugglers would appreciate; a few years ago the nearby Beach Head Brewery brewed a stout “Parson Darby’s Hole”. I’ll drink to that!