The Jurassic Coast is a beautiful, varied and iconic stretch of coastline and one which is constantly changing. The force of the sea has created stacks, arches and beautifully shaped horseshoe bays. This same power, often combined with heavy rain, frost, ice and drought conditions can also result in landslides and rock falls along some specific stretches of the coast where the local geology makes the rock vulnerable to the forces of nature.
This natural process of destruction serves to create a dynamic landscape, unveiling rocks and fossils detailing over 185 million years of Earth’s history, a near complete record of the Triassic, Jurassic and Cretaceous periods and provide invaluable insight into the natural processes that formed the coast and continue to shape the world today.
The area between Lyme Regis and Charmouth known as “Black Ven and the Spittles” is one such area and has been studied by geologists for generations. The word “vena” is an old English word for “bog”. In 2008 400m (1,312ft) of cliff slipped and blocked a beach between the two towns. The coast path is still diverted inland along this section of coast, a safe route across land prone to movement.
Sandstone and chalk cliffs are also particularly vulnerable as wave action can rapidly erode the base of the cliff, creating a heavy overhang which eventually collapses onto the beach below. This area is often referred to as the “undercliff” and over time can create wonderful havens for flora and fauna, the most spectacular of which being the Undercliff between Seaton and Lyme Regis.
So, for the Jurassic Coast, coastal erosion is a two-edged sword.
Last week, the golden red sandstone (actually a combination of Jurassic Bridport sands, inferior oolite and fullers earth) cliffs to the east of West Bay- the ones which featured so heavily in the highly atmospheric panoramic sweeps in ITV’s series, Broadchurch- suffered a heavy rock fall. The rock at the top of the cliff is soft and very permeable to water. Following a period of heavy rain, between 1,500 and 2,000 tonnes of rock collapsed onto the beach, closing the coast path between West Bay and Freshwater. Fortunately, on this occasion the fall happened overnight, so no one was hurt, but it is not the first time that this stretch of coast has made the news. It is the second collapse in this area in less than a week cliffs and experts are fearful of further collapse.
Authorities have alerted visitors to heed the warning signs and keep away from this section of the beach.
Mindful of the particular instability of this section of cliff, Footscape have advised walkers in recent years to bypass this section of the coast path, using footpaths running inland from the coast, re-joining the path at Hive Beach.
The land involved in the latest cliff fall formed part of the perimeter of Bridport and West Dorset Golf Club, along a stretch of coastline owned by the National Trust. The organisation own about 10% of the country’s coastline and a third of the South West Coast Path.
In its report into coastal erosion ˜Shifting Shores” published in 2015 https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/documents/shifting-shores-report-2015.pdf the National Trust concluded that a necessarily pragmatic approach should be adopted.
“There will always be a place for defence, but on National Trust coastline our approach will be adaptive and focused on moving out of harms way. We want this land to function in a natural way”.
So, although the case of the large landslip between Lyme Regis and Charmouth the decision was taken by Dorset Council to construct concrete defences in the form of a new seawall to protect nearly 500 homes, utility and road access, this intervention is an exception to the norm as much of the coastline will be left to the forces of nature.
So, what can the walker do to help ensure a safe walk along this beautiful stretch of coastline?
The coastline and coast path are constantly monitored by The National Trust, The South West Coast Path organisation and the local authorities
Following the latest cliff fall Chief Inspector Steve White from the Dorset Police has this advice
“We urge the public to obey warning signs, not to stand near the edge of cliff faces or stand directly underneath them.
“Landslides and rock falls can happen at any time and without warning.”
The Jurassic Coast website has list of guidelines to staying safe along the coast, whether walking or bathing. http://jurassiccoast.org/discover/staying-safe-and-enjoying-the-coast/
- Do not take unnecessary risks and stay away from the edge of the cliff top.
- Stay away from the base of cliffs: rock falls can happen at any time.
- Do not climb or walk over landslide or rock fall debris, especially after wet weather.
- Always pay attention to warning signs; they are there to advise you on how to stay safe.
- Check the weather forecast before you go.
- Beware of steep, shelving beaches and large waves.
- Be aware of tide times. The sea comes in and out twice a day and it is possible to get cut off by the incoming tide or forced up against the cliffs.Check the BBC website for tide times in the south west of England http://www.bbc.co.uk/weather/coast_and_sea/tide_tables/10
- If you are looking for fossils, do not hammer into the cliffs or solid rock as this will cause long lasting damage and can be dangerous.
In addition to these guidelines we would recommend that the walker consult the website for the South West Coast Path to discover whether any route changes have been put in place. https://www.southwestcoastpath.org.uk/walk-coast-path/trip-planning/route-changes/
Remember, published sources, even the most recent and respected of trail guides will be out of date before they hit the shops. Footscape guides are continuously updated to reflect any changes in this dynamic stretch of coastline.
In case of emergency
In case of an emergency on the coast, dial 999 and ask for the Coastguard.