We first moved to Sussex 15 years ago, and getting out and exploring from our base in Brighton was one of the first things we set out to achieve. We timed it well with summer coming and I can recall being mostly fascinated by the scenery surrounding Beachy Head and the towering white cliffs of the Sussex Downs as they meet the English Channel. It looked so perfect, backed by green fields with coastline views stretching in both directions as far as the eye could see.
Belle Tout Lighthouse is always ingrained in my mind when I think about these scenes; its unmistakable form cuts such an emblematic frame on the landscape. So imagine my delight and anticipation at having the chance to stay inside this iconic building for a night last month, particularly since their usual policy is for minimum 2 nights stays! Here’s my account of the experience, which certainly did not disappoint.
Belle Tout has a rather chequered but interesting past. It was first built in 1832, as a working lighthouse, but its flashing light was often obscured by fog rolling in over the cliffs (hence a second lighthouse sits nearby at sea level at Beachy Head), so it was eventually decommissioned in 1902. Subsequently purchased by a physician and visited by King George V and Queen Mary, it captured the imagination of all who encountered it. Despite war damage, she was saved from demolition in 1950, repositioned due to cliff erosion in 1999 and, most recently, renovated by the current owners, who embarked on an intensive and passionate restoration to transform it into what it is today; a luxurious and homely place to stay, one where you can immerse yourself in the history of a well-known and loved building, and fully absorb the atmosphere and unique setting that it stands for.
Arriving at Belle Tout gives you an almost child-like exuberance. The journey to the lighthouse itself takes in gorgeous scenery and with nothing else around except a few passing walkers it really feels like a destination in itself, so as we pulled up outside the lighthouse, we spent a good few minutes just marvelling at its appearance and surroundings before we even entered through the doors. We were greeted by our Duty Manager Richie, who was the perfect host from start to finish, with the ability to make you feel instantly at home and always available without ever being intrusive. Richie showed us to our room and gave us a full tour of the building, complete with interesting information, stories and anecdotes, and whilst I could list these here, I will spare them, as everyone should come and experience these for themselves as part of the Belle Tout adventure.
Thanks to our early arrival we did get the chance to see a few of the six bedrooms on offer. Perhaps the most quirky of these is ‘The Keeper’s Loft’, and the Team at Belle Tout are always sure to make sure guests know what they are booking, as this extraordinary circular brick bunk room and former lighthouse keeper’s dwelling comes with a mezzanine level accessed via the original ladder, which is most definitely for the more adventurous at heart!
Our room was the ‘Captain’s Cabin’, and it felt so homely, with a brick fireplace, en-suite bathroom, jaw-dropping east-facing views out to Beachy Head and the sea, and various vintage posters decorating the space, including the Cunard Line and maps. Each room at Belle Tout is individually themed and thoughtfully considered, making it popular with repeat guests who can get a different experience and perspective every time, including a seaside-themed ‘Beach Hut’ and ‘New England’, which evokes the style of this American region with traditional colours, as well as glorious wall-to-wall picture windows with South Downs views from your bed.
We loved the fact that you could really inform yourself about the lighthouse during your stay, with a fascinating programme included in the TV library covering the painstaking conversion of the lighthouse into luxury guest accommodation, with many interviews with the current owners and also brochures and books inside the room charting its full history, which really put our stay into context and enhanced the experience.
We were lucky enough to catch an incredible sunset after our arrival, from what is arguably the jewel in the crown of the lighthouse – the stunning Lantern Room. This is a vibrant light-filled space like no other room I have seen during my many years working in travel, with 360 degree panoramic views at every turn, comfortable modern sofas, cushions, a music system to enjoy your favourite sounds whilst taking in the various landscapes and an exterior wrap-around balcony where you can breathe in the fresh air.
Next we moved into the lounge area where most guests had convened for the complimentary manager’s drinks – a sociable hour for people to join in should they wish between 5-6pm, and such a fabulous idea that highlights the extra mile the management go to for their guests. The log fire was lit and we were impressed with how warm and intimate it felt on the comfortable sofas; a really relaxing way to end the day, chatting to our excellent host Richie, learning even more about the background of Belle Tout and answering any questions guests had.
After heading offsite to a local restaurant for dinner, we returned to our room and spent a lot of time stargazing through our window The sky was perfectly clear and pollution-free, so you could spot the winter constellation of Orion easily – so magical.
I had deliberately set my alarm to 6:30am so that I could catch sunrise, and I was glad that I did! As it started to get light I could see a flock of seagulls busily surveying the land bright and early, and gradually the light intensified. A perfectly orange orb appeared on the horizon out to sea with an ethereal glow, just to the right of the infamous lofty cliffs. We could not believe our luck and this clear sky would stay with us until our departure.
Breakfast was a real highlight of our stay, and in addition to cereals, juices, yoghurts and fruits there was the traditional English breakfast and a daily special to choose from, which was mushrooms, bacon, fresh pesto and a poached egg arranged on a toasted muffin – every bit as appetising as it sounds. This set us up perfectly for our post-breakfast venture out towards Birling Gap where we went into a sheer photo frenzy at the breathtaking views of the beach and distant cliffs as they punctuated the coastline towards Seaford.
Leaving Belle Tout was a difficult process, we fell head over heels in love with the place and it completely lived up to 15 years of anticipation and wonder from two local Brightonians. Richie gave us his friendly send off, and we could not help but look back several times as we drove out of the winding driveway, making our way out of our temporary cliff-top bubble and back to reality, and our non-lighthouse reality felt rather dull indeed after our captivating trip to Belle Tout!