BEACH, a word of unknown origin; probably an old dialect word meaning shingle, hence, by transference, the place covered by shingle. Beach sometimes denotes the material thrown up by the waves, sometimes the long resulting ridge, but more frequently the area between high and low water, or even the area between land and sea covered with material thrown up by exceptional storms.
The actual character of beach material depends upon the nature and structure of the rocks inshore, the strength and direction of currents, and the force of the waves. The southern shore of the Isle of Wight furnishes a good example. The island ends westward in the well-known “Needles,” consisting of chalk with flints. The disintegration of this rock by wave action separates the finer chalk, which is carried seawards in suspension, from the hard flint, which is piled in rough shingle upon the shore. The currents sweep constantly eastward up channel, and the rough flint shingle is rolled along by wave action toward the Ventnor rampart, and ground finer and finer until it arrives as a very fine flinty gravel at Ventnor pier. The sweep of Sandown Bay follows, where the cliffs are composed for the most part of greensand, and here the beach at low water is sandy and smooth. The eastern end of the island is again composed of chalk with flints, and here the beach material as at the western end consists of very coarse flint shingle. In this, as in similar cases, the material has been dragged seawards from the land by constant action of the undertow that accompanies each retreating tide and each returning wave. The resulting accumulated ridge is battered by every storm, and thrown above ordinary high-water mark in a ridge such as the Chesil Bank or the long grass-grown mound that has blocked the old channel of the Yar and diverted its waters into Yaverland Bay. Sandown furnishes an instructive example of the power of the eastward currents carrying high-storm waves. The groins built to preserve the foreshore are piled to the top with coarse shingle on the western side, while there is a drop of over 8 ft. on to the sands east of the wall, many thousands of tons of shingle having been moved bodily by the waves and deposited against each groin. The force of the waves has been measured on the west coast of Scotland and found to be as much as 3 tons per square foot. Against these forces the preservation of the shore from the advance of the sea becomes an extremely difficult and often a hopeless undertaking, since blocks of rock over 100 tons in weight have been moved by the waves. The beach is therefore unstable in its position. It advances in front of the encroaching sea, burying former beaches under the sand and mud of the now deeper water, or it retreats when the sea is withdrawn from the land or the land rises locally, leaving the old shingle stranded in a “raised beach,” but its formation is in all cases due to the form and structure of the shore, the sapping action of the waves, the backward drag of the undertow plastering the shore with material, which is in turn bombarded by waves and swept by currents that cover the finer débris of the undertow with a layer of coarse fragments that are re-sorted by the daily action of currents and tides.
BEACHY HEAD, a promontory on the coast of Sussex, England, S.W. of Eastbourne, about 3 m. from the centre of the town. It consists of a perpendicular chalk cliff 532 ft. high, and forms the eastern termination of the hill-range known as the South Downs. The old Bell Tout lighthouse, 285 ft. above high-water mark, erected in 1831 on the second cliff to the westward, in 0° 10′ 18″ E., 50° 43′ 30″ N., has been superseded by a new lighthouse built in the sea at the foot of the head itself.
Battle of Beachy Head.—This naval battle, known to the French as Bévisier (a corruption of Pevensey), was fought on the 30th of June 1690. An allied force of 37 British sail of the line, under command of the earl of Torrington (Arthur Herbert), and of 22 Dutch under C. Evertsen, was at anchor under the headland, while a French fleet of over 70 sail, commanded by the comte de Tourville, was anchored some miles off to the south-west. The French fleet had orders to co-operate with an expected Jacobite rising in England. Torrington, to whom the general direction of the allied fleet belonged, was much disturbed by the enemy’s superiority in number, and on the 26th had written to the Council of Regency suggesting that he ought to retire to the Gunfleet at the mouth of the Thames, and observe the enemy from a distance till he could be reinforced. The council, which had the support of Admiral Russell, afterwards earl of Orford, considered that a retreat to the Gunfleet would have fatal consequences, by which they no doubt meant that it would leave the French free to land troops for the support of the Jacobites. They therefore ordered Herbert not to lose sight of the enemy, but rather to fight if he could secure an advantage of position. The admiral, who was on very bad terms with the council, elected to treat this as a peremptory order to fight. At daybreak on the 30th he got under way and bore down on the enemy. The wind was at north-east and gave him the weather-gage. As his fleet was only 57 sail in all he was not able to engage the enemy from end to end, but as the French were arranged in a line from east to west he could have fallen on the end nearest him, and could have guarded himself by telling off a part of his ships to watch the remainder. Torrington preferred to bring his fleet down in such a way that his van, consisting of the Dutch ships, should be opposite the enemy’s van, his centre opposite their centre, and his rear should engage their rear. The inferiority of the allies in numbers made it therefore inevitable that there should be gaps between the different divisions. As the fleets actually did come to action, the Dutch with a few English ships pressed on the French van, their leading ship being abreast of the ninth or tenth Frenchman. Torrington took his station opposite the rear of the French centre, leaving a great gap between himself and the ships in the van. Being apprehensive that the French centre would tack and pass this gap so as to put him between two fires, he kept a long way off so as to be free to manoeuvre against them if they made the attempt. The English rear division, consisting of the English blue squadron under Sir Ralph Delaval, fought a close action with the French opposite to them. In the meantime the French ships, ahead of the leading Dutchman, succeeded in turning to windward and putting part of Evertsen’s squadron between two fires. The Dutch ships suffered heavily, and one of them which was dismasted drifted among the French and was taken. More severe loss would have followed if the better average seamanship of the English and Dutch had not stood them in good stead. The tide turned from flood to ebb during the action, and the surface current which in the Channel sets to the west with the ebb began to carry the fleets with it. The Dutch and English dropped anchor. The French, who were not equally alert, did not and were carried westward. When the tide turned the allies retreated to the Thames, abandoning several of the most damaged ships in Pevensey Bay. The pursuit of the French was ineffective, for Tourville persisted in keeping his ships in line of battle, which forced them to regulate their speed by the slowest among them. Torrington was tried for his conduct but acquitted.
A full account of the battle of Beachy Head, written with ample quotation of documents, and for the purpose of vindicating Herbert, will be found in Admiral Colomb’s Naval Warfare (London, 1899). (D. H.)
BEACON (from the O. Eng. béacn, a sign, cf. “beckon,” another form of the same word), a signal, especially a fire lit on a high hill, structure or building for the purpose of sending a message of alarm or of important news over long distances. Such was the courier-fire (ἄγγαρος πῦρ) that brought the news of the fall of Troy to Argos (Aeschylus, Agamemnon), or the chain of signals that told of the approach of the Spanish Armada, or which circled the British Isles in the jubilee years of 1887 and 1897. The word occurs in many names for lofty and conspicuous hills, such as Dunkery Beacon in Somerset, the highest point on Exmoor. On many such hills the remains of old beacon towers and cressets are still found. The word is used generally of a lighthouse, but technically it means either a small unattended light, a superstructure on a floating buoy, such as a staff and cage, or staff and globe, or an unlighted structure, forming a conspicuous object at sea, used in each case to guide or warn sailors. (See Lighthouse and Buoy.)