Open main menu

A Book of the West/Volume 1/4



The chalk beds on sand—The subsidence of 1839—The great chasm—Present conditions—The White Cliff—Beer quarries—Jack Rattenbury.

THERE are a good many more curious things to be seen in England than is generally supposed, if we will but go out of the highways to look for them. Certainly one of the most extraordinary and impressive is the great landslip between the mouth of the Axe and Lyme Regis; one which even extended further west beyond the estuary. On this bit of coast, where Devonshire passes into Dorset, the cliff scenery is very fine. The White Cliff is a magnificent headland that possesses the peculiarity of appearing to lean over preparing to slide into the waves, owing to the inclination of the varicoloured strata of which it is composed. To understand the phenomenon which occasioned the subsidence of a whole tract of coast with the alteration of the coastline, something must be said of the cause of the catastrophe. The chalk bed striped with lines of glistening black flints is superposed upon a bed of what is locally termed fox earth, a bed of gravel or sand that intervenes between it and the clay beneath. Now the rain that falls on the chalk downs infiltrates and, reaching the sand and unable to sink through the clay, breaks out in land springs.

But where the chalk cliffs start sheer out of the sea, there the springs ooze into the sea itself, and, dissolving the texture of the sandy bed, resolve it into a quicksand, liable at the time of great floods to be washed out from under the superincumbent chalk. Should this take place, there is no help for it, but down the chalk bed must go. If you were lying on a bed, and the mattress under your feather bed were pulled away, you would descend, sinking to a depth equivalent to the thickness of the subtracted mattress. That is plain enough.

Now all along the coast to the east of Lyme Regis there is an undercliff—evident tokens of a subsidence of this description which has taken place at some time. When this undercliff has been eaten up by the sea, and a fresh face of crag exposed, then again there will occur a displacement, a pulling out of the mattress, and down will go the chalk above with all the houses and fields upon it. But the sea has not as yet done more than nibble at this undercliff.

It was not quite so to the west of Lyme. There sheer cliffs of glistening white rose above the pebbly shore, so abruptly and with such slight undulations, that several miles ensued before it was possible for those on the height to descend to the beach. Naturally, where the rain-water percolated through the chalk it formed no valleys with streams.

Thus the cliffs stood—for no one knows how long—till the end of December, 1839.

Previous symptoms of the approaching convulsion were not altogether wanting. Cracks had been observed for more than a week opening along the brow of the Downs, but they were not sufficiently remarkable to attract much attention, as such fissures are by no means uncommon on this bit of coast. However, about midnight of December 24th, the labourers of Mr. Chappel, the farmer who occupied Dowlands (about a quarter of a mile inland from the brow of the cliff, and over half a mile from the nearest points of the approaching convulsion) were returning from a supper given them by their employer, whereat the ashen faggot had been burnt according to custom, and were making their way to their cottages, situated near the cliff. Then they noticed that a crack which crossed their path, and which they had observed on their way to the Christmas Eve supper, had widened, and that the land beyond had sunk slightly. Nevertheless they did not consider the matter of great importance, and they went to their homes and to bed. About four o'clock in the morning they were roused by their houses reeling, by the concrete floors bursting and gaping, and the walls being rent. They started from their beds in great alarm, and about six o'clock arrived at the farm to rouse their master; they had found their escape nearly cut off, as the crack had widened and the land on the sea side had sunk considerably, so that they had, with their wives and children, to scramble up—and that with difficulty, and, in the darkness, with no little danger.

Happily all escaped in time.

During Christmas Day there was no great change; parties of the coastguard were stationed on the Downs throughout the ensuing night to watch what would happen.

About midnight a great fissure began to form which ran in almost a direct line for three-quarters of a mile. This fissure rapidly widened to 300 feet, descending, as it seemed at first, into the very bowels of the earth, but as the sides fell in it finally was choked at a depth of 150 feet.

One James Robertson and a companion were at that hour crossing the fields which then extended over this tract, and stumbled across a slight ridge of gravel, which at first they thought must have been made by some boys, but one of them stepping on to it, down sank his leg, and his companion had to pull him out of a yawning chasm. Next moment they saw that the whole surface of turf was starred and splitting in all directions, and they fled for their lives. The sound of the rending of the rocks they described as being much like that of the tearing of cloth or flannel. Two other members of the coastguard, who were stationed on the beach, now saw something begin to rise out of the sea like the back of a gigantic whale; at the same time the shore of shingles on which they stood lifted and fell, like the heaving of a breast in sleep. The water was thrown into violent agitation, foaming and. spouting, and great volumes of mud rushed up from below. The great back rose higher and ever higher, and extended further till at last it formed a huge reef at a little distance from the beach. This ridge was composed of the more solid matter, chert and other pebbles, that had been in the sand under the chalk, and which by the sinking of the chalk was squeezed out like so much dough. It remained as a reef for some years, but has now totally disappeared, having been carried away by the waves.

As the great chasm was formed, the masses from the sides falling in were, as it were, mumbled and chewed up in the depths, and to the eyes of the frightened spectators sent forth flashes of light; they also supposed that an intolerable stench was emitted from the abyss. But this was no more than the odours given out by the violent attrition of the cherty sandstone and chalk grinding against each other as they descended.

Throughout the 26th the subsided masses of the great chasm continued sinking, and the elevated reef gradually rising; but by the evening of that day everything had settled very nearly into the position in which it remains at present, although edges have since lost their sharpness and minor rents have been choked.

A writer whose reminiscences have been recently published describes briefly the aspect of the place after the sinkage.

"I rode over to see this huge landslip. The greater part of a farm had subsided a hundred feet or more. Hedges and fields, with their crops of turnips, etc., were undisturbed by the fall, and broken off sharply from the ground a hundred feet above. There was a rather dislocated ridge on the shore, which formed a sort of moraine to the slip. On this part were some cottages twisted about, but still holding together, and having their gardens and even their wells attached; yet the shock of the falling mass had been so great as to cause the upheaval of an island off shore."

The aspect of the landslip on the farms of Bindon, Dowlands, Rousdon, and Pinhay at present is full of interest and of picturesque beauty. Ivy has grown luxuriantly and mantles the crags, elder bushes have found the sunk masses of rock suitable to their requirements, and in early summer the air is strong with the scent of their trusses of flowers, and in autumn the whole subsidence is hung with thousands on ten thousands of shining black clusters of berries. Above a sea of foliage the white cliffs shoot out in the boldest fashion, and out of the gorge start horns, pinnacles of chalk of the most fantastic description. The whole is a labyrinth of chasms, not to be ventured into with good clothing, as the brambles grow in the wildest luxuriance and are clawed like the paws of a panther. But, oh! what blackberries may be gathered there—large, sweet, luscious as mulberries. Moreover, the whole sunk region is a paradise for birds of every description, and not a step can be taken that does not disturb jackdaws, magpies, warblers of every kind. One of the cottages that went down has been rebuilt with the old material. As already said, it descended at least a hundred feet with its well. The well still flows with water; that, however, is not now marvellous—how it was that it held water previously is the extraordinary fact.

At the extremity of the landslip the visitor will see that there is still movement going on, but on a small scale—cracks are still forming and extending through the turf. It may be safely said that the landslip between the mouth of the Axe and Lyme Regis is one of the most interesting and picturesque scenes to be found in England.

There is a good deal more in the neighbourhood to be seen than the landslip at Rousdon and Pinhay. If the cliffs be explored to the west of the mouth of the Axe, they will be found to well repay the visit. The splendid crag of the White Cliff towers above the sea, showing the slanting beds of the cherty matter below the dazzling white of the chalk, and from their inclination giving to the whole cliff an appearance of lurching into the waves. Beyond this is Beer, a narrow cleft in the hills, in which are fishermen's cottages, many of them very picturesque, and above them rises a really excellently designed modern church.

A walk up the valley leads to the famous Beer quarries that have been worked for centuries. This splendid building-stone lies below the chalk with flints. There are eight beds, forming a thickness of twelve feet four inches, resting on a hard, white, calcareous rock five or six feet thick, which reposes in turn on sandstones. There is very little waste from these quarries, which are carried on underground; and all that is seen of them are the yawning portals in a face of white cliff. But a shout at the entrance will summon a workman, who will conduct the visitor through the labyrinth underground. The roof is sustained by large square pillars formed by portions of the workable beds left standing.

The stone is nearly white, and chiefly composed of carbonate of lime, with the addition of some argillaceous and silicious matter, and a few scattered particles of green silicate of iron. When first quarried this stone is somewhat soft, and is easily worked, but it rapidly hardens on exposure.

Opposite the new quarry are the mounds that mark the site of the old quarry, from which the stone was extracted for Exeter Cathedral. The subterranean passages there are now blocked, but during the time of the European war they were much used by smugglers, who abounded in Beer. The Memoirs of Jack Rattenbury, the most notorious of these, were published at Sidmouth in 1837, but are not of conspicuous interest. Beer Head has suffered from landslips, and is broken into spires of rock in consequence.

Books on the Landslip, and on Seaton:—
Conybeare and Dawson, Memoir and Views of Landslips on the Coast of East Devon, 1840. A very scarce work.
Hutchinson (P. O.), Guide to the Landslip near Axmouth. Sidmouth, 1840.
Davidson (J. B.), "Seaton before the Conquest," in Transactions of Devonshire Association, 1885.
Mumford (G. F.), Seaton, Beer, and Neighbourhood. Yeovil, n.d.