The paper describes the establishment of the British Geological Survey (BGS)’s field-based ‘Coastal Landslide Observatory’, designed for the study of coastal ‘soft cliff’ recession on the east coast of England at Aldbrough, East Riding of Yorkshire. The cliffed site is part of the 50 km long Holderness coast which is one of the most rapidly eroding coastlines in Europe. The site features a 16–17 m high sea-cliff formed by Late Devensian (18–13 ka) glacial deposits dominated by tills. The aim of the research is to investigate the role of landslides and their pre-conditioning factors, including geology, geotechnics and topography, in cliff recession with a view to developing coastal landslide forecasting capability. Two research approaches are encompassed in the observatory: firstly, terrestrial LiDAR surveying, from 2001 to present, to create digital elevation models of the cliff and, secondly, installation of instrumented boreholes from 2012. The design, methods, conceptual ground model, implementation of the observatory and geotechnical laboratory test results are described in this article. The interpretation of results and the final ground model are presented in a related article in this volume.