Golden sandstone heights that stretch eastwards from Lyme Regis
Dowlands Cliffs, between Seaton and Lyme Regis, are the scene of Britain’s biggest recorded landslide, which in 1839 sent 20 acres of land slithering seawards. As if in compensation, a huge bank of shingle has built up over thousands of years between the seaside village of West Bay, near Bridport, and the Isle of Portland. Splendid cliffs dominate Lyme Bay and reach 626 ft at Golden Cap, the highest point on England’s southern coast.
FOSSILS FROM THE CLIFF Ever since Mary Anning, a carpenter’s daughter, found the complete skeleton of an ichthyosaurus in a cliff near Lyme Regis in 1811, the area has been a happy hunting ground for amateur fossil collectors. Climbing the cliffs is dangerous, but among the fallen rocks at their foot can often be found the remains of animals that lived some 200 million years ago, when the area was under the sea. Descendants of many of the fossilised creatures survive today.
This village of thatched and colour-washed cottages was one of the busiest ports in Britain in Roman times, before landslides choked the mouth of the River Axe. Ships sailed out laden with West Country wool and iron, while cargoes from Europe were taken inland along the Foss Way. The village is now 1 mile from the sea, and the muddy river, flanked by saltings, is a feeding ground for sea-birds and wildfowl.
Eight million tons of waterlogged chalk are estimated to have been involved in the great landslide on Christmas Day, 1839. No lives were lost, because cottages on the cliffs had been evacuated during the previous 48 hours. But witnesses later related how the beach had bucked and heaved like the deck of a small boat in rough seas.
The area is now a national nature reserve, rich in plants, wildlife and fossils, but the only access points for walkers are from a lane south of Axmouth, where there is very limited parking space, and from Ware, on the outskirts of Lyme. The waymarked coastal path passes along the landslip. The western end of the landslip is about 15 minutes’ walk from the Axmouth end of the path. Beyond this point, it is impossible to leave the path until it reaches the outskirts of Lyme Regis, some 4 miles further east.
A harbour bright with boats, narrow streets elegant with colour-washed buildings, lofty cliffs and a great sweep of sea combine with a backcloth of high, steep hills to make Lyme Regis one of the most memorable small towns on England’s southern coast. Its roots go back to AD 774 when Cynewulf, King of the West Saxons, gave monks permission to produce salt from seawater. The ‘Regis’ dates from 1284, when Edward I granted the town a charter and used the port as a base for his wars against the French.
Five local ships helped to defeat the Spanish Armada in 1588, but the most notable event in Lyme Regis’ history was the Duke of Monmouth’s landing in 1685. He stepped ashore on sandy, shingle-backed Monmouth Beach, west of the harbour, raised his standard and declared his intention to wrest the throne from his uncle, James II. Monmouth and his men were defeated at the Battle of Sedgemoor, and 12 of his supporters were hanged on the spot where their leader’s ill-fated attempt had started.
Lyme Regis is no longer a commercial port, but its attractive harbour, sheltered by the stone breakwater known as The Cobb and dating from the 14th century, is still used by fishing boats and private craft. In 1980 the town was swept back to its Victorian past during the filming of The French Lieutenant’s Woman. The novel from which the film was adapted was written by John Fowles, who lives in Lyme Regis.
The town has a museum of local history, prominently featuring the fossils which can be found in the nearby cliffs. Motor boats can be hired, and there are fishing trips, a sailing school and club, and a windsurfing school.
AMMONITE The fossil most commonly found is that of the spiral-shaped ammonite, an extinct mollusc which is a distant ancestor of today’s octopus and squid.
BRITTLE STAR This thin-armed starfish, its mouth at the centre of its body , appears in rocks at Golden Cap. Its descendants today , are little altered in appearance.
NAUTILUS Less coiled and smoother than the ammonite, the nautilus shell is largely hollow. The nautilus still lives on Atlantic and Mediterranean sea-beds.
Swans and ducks patrol the deep pool, held back by banked shingle, where the River Char trickles into the sea over a beach which is sandy at low tide. In 1811 the cliffs of Black Ven, now part of a 161 acre nature reserve, yielded the first complete fossil of an ichthyosaurus, a prehistoric marine reptile resembling a giant porpoise. Discovered by a local girl, 12-year-old Mary Arming, the fossilised skeleton was 21 ft long.
When Charles II was forced into hiding in 1651 after his defeat by Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, he took refuge for a time at the Queen’s Arms Inn in Charmouth. His plan was to escape to France by sea with the help of Stephen Limbry, a local boatman. But news of his presence leaked out to Roundhead sympathisers, and the king had to flee the town on horseback instead.
Reached by a lane from Chideock, this village with thatched cottages of honey-coloured stone has a beach of golden shingle which shelves steeply above low-tide sand. Like other beaches in the area it is popular with fishermen who cast for bass and mackerel. The coast between Seatown and Charmouth was a favourite landing place for contraband when smuggling was rife in Dorset.
A narrow lane from the A35 wriggles down to Eype Mouth’s beach of smooth, steeply shelving shingle at the foot of unstable cliffs. There are fine views westwards over Lyme Bay to the chalk cliffs of Beer Head.
This ancient town was so famous for its rope-making industry during the age of sailing ships that being ‘stabbed by a
Clumps of bright yellow gorse and an expanse of golden sandstone near its summit explain the name of the highest cliff in southern England. Golden Cap, 626 ft high, is part of a 2,000 acre National Trust estate embracing most of the coastal land between Charmouth and Seatown. The cliff, a breathtaking viewpoint, can be approached from Seatown or from the National Trust’s small, woodland car park on Langdon Hill.
Bridport dagger’ was another way of saying that a person had been hanged. The hemp used for making ropes flourished locally, together with flax, and is believed to have been introduced by the Romans. Records of the industry in Bridport go back to 1211. Nets are still made in the town, although the last of the old-fashioned ropewalks, where the lengths of hemp were twisted to make rope, was abandoned in 1970. The amount of space needed to make rope is said to explain Bridport’s exceptionally broad streets. Bridport is the ‘Port Bredy’ of several novels by Thomas Hardy.
Bridport has a museum and an art gallery. A street market is held every Wednesday and Saturday morning.
Bridport Harbour, as it used to be known, was built in 1740 and visited by as many as 500 ships a year during the 19th century. Sluice gates, added in 1823, enable a torrent of river water to be released to scour sand and shingle from the entrance channel. Schooners and other ships, including naval vessels, were built at West Bay until 1879.
The River Brit flows to the sea between huge ‘waves’ of fine shingle which slope steeply down to patches of low-tide sand. The shingle runs south-eastwards for several miles, merging eventually with the sweep of Chesil Beach. Cliffs in which bands of hard and soft rock alternate have been eroded to resemble huge, battered shelves.
Rowing boats can be hired, and fishing trips are available.
From the low cliffs above this beach of shingle and low-tide sand there are wide views which range from Beer Head to the Bill of Portland. The grassy area at the end of the lane from Burton Bradstock is ideal for picnics and forms part of more than 80 acres of National Trust land.
There is a car park in Beach Road. A steep and rather rough track from the B3157 east of Burton Bradstock runs down to a parking area behind the shingle bank of Cogden Beach.
A car park and a few beach huts overlook the shingle shore, which shelves very steeply.
LAGOON BEHIND A SWEEP OF SHINGLE
One of Britain’s most remarkable wonders of nature, the 10 mile long Chesil Bench which stretches from Abbotsbury to the Isle of Portland is a bank ofshingle – 40 ft high in places -piled upon a blue clay reef. The brackish lagoon behind the beach is called the Fleet; it is rich in eel-grass, which provides food for the Abbotsbury swans.
Notices warn of the hazards to swimmers. It is, however, a popular beach for sea fishermen. From the top of Wears Hill, on the road to Abbotsbury, there are views of Chesil Beach and the Isle of Portland.
St Catherine’s Chapel, built in the 14th century and now used to store thatchers’ reeds, looks down from a steep hill over the roofs of one of England’s most enchanting villages. It has many picture-postcard cottages, a thatched, 15th-century tithe barn and a church with a pulpit that is pockmarked from shots fired during the Civil
War when the village fell to the Parliamentarians. The abbey that gave the village its name was founded in the 11th century, and some idea of its former wealth can be had from the size of the tithe barn, which measures 272 ft by 31 ft and is one of the largest buildings of its kind in Britain. The Church of St Nicholas contains a 13th-century statue of one of the abbots.
The village still celebrates an ancient custom, Garland Day, on May 13 each year. In what is thought to be a survival of sea-god worship, two garlands are carried through the village, and one is sometimes cast into the sea.
South of the village, a 5 minute walk from the car park leads to a unique swannery, where 400-500 mute swans may be seen in summer. The number increases to nearly 1,000 in winter, It is the only nesting colony of mute swans in Britain, and dates from the 11th century, when the Benedictine monks oi Abbotsbury reared the birds for meat.
The breezy, gorse-gold summit of Black Down, 3 miles north-east of the village, is topped by an octagonal tower built in memory of Vice-Admiral Sir Thomas Master-man Hardy, commander of HMS Victory, Nelson’s flagship at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805. He lived in Portesham, at the foot of the hill.
Generations of experts on coastal geology have failed to work out how the billions of pebbles which form this immense bank of shingle are automatically graded from west to east, and become bigger and bigger towards the Isle of Portland. The beach is more than 40 ft high in places and has been the graveyard of many a sailing ship when gales swept across Lyme Regis Bay.
In one violent storm in 1795, seven ships of the line were lost and 200 men and women died. The ships were part of a fleet commanded by Rear Admiral Sir Hugh
Christian, who was on his way to the West Indies to take up the post of Commander-in-Chief. In 1824 the beach was swamped by a gale-driven tide which swept the 95 ton sloop Ebenezer into the Fleet, the 7 mile long lagoon behind the beach. In the same storm the West Indiamen Carvalho and Cohille were less fortunate, both being destroyed with all hands lost.
The storm of 1824 destroyed much of East Fleet village. Fleet House, dating from 1603 and now the Moonfleet Hotel, features in Moonfleet, a stirring tale about smugglers written by J. Meade Faulkner and published in 1898. Chesil Beach’s shingle absorbs and retains enough of the sun’s heat to create a very mild ‘mini-climate’, which accounts for the subtropical Abbotsbury Gardens where exotic trees, shrubs and flowers flourish. The gardens were part of an estate given by Henry VIII to Sir Guy Strangways in 1543.