Abstract Sea cliff retreat is often linked to large waves, heavy precipitation and seismic events, but the specific operative mechanics have not been well constrained. In particular, what is the role of mechanical abrasion by beach sediments in cliff/platform evolution and how does it relate to the episodic nature of cliff retreat observed at certain locations? Here we present a simple, numerical model of sea cliff retreat that incorporates mechanical abrasion of a basal notch, threshold-controlled failure of the cantilevered block, and a feedback mechanism wherein retreat is dependent on the rate of sediment comminution within the surf zone. Using shore platform and cliff characteristics found in two coastal settings (the central California coast and the English North Sea coast), the model produces retreat rates comparable to those observed via field measurements. The highest retreat rates coincide with the steepest shore platforms and increasing wave height. Steeper platforms promote wave access to the cliff toe and, correspondingly, the receding cliff face produces additional accommodation space for the platform beach, preserving the erosive efficacy of the beach sediments. When exposed to energetic wave forcing, the slope of the inner platform segment controls retreat rates for concave platforms, whereas the slope of the outer platform segment exerts greater control for convex platforms. Platform beaches approached a long-term dynamic equilibrium on the concave profiles, leading to more consistent and steady retreat. Platform beaches were ephemeral on convex profiles, mirroring observed sand wave (Ord) migration on the Holderness coast, UK. These findings agree with previous field observations and support mechanical abrasion as a viable cause of temporal heterogeneity in cliff retreat rate for both coastlines.