The hidden East Devon coast
JACQUI HITT ventures into the closest we get to wilderness in Southern England with a perilous yet fascinating walk along the coast
Taking a walk through the Undercliffs National Nature Reserve between Axmouth and Lyme Regis is the nearest it’s possible to get to being in true wilderness in Southern England. Relatively untouched by man for over 120 years, it’s a place where nature thrives, but people can (quite literally) fear to tread.
Situated in one of Europe’s largest landslip systems, the dramatic landscape of these Undercliffs inspires powerful emotions and stories. The dark, impenetrable woods in Tolkien’s The Hobbit, as well as several memorable scenes in John Fowles’ famous novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, were both inspired by what has been described as the closest we get to sub-tropical rainforest in the British Isles.
For some, this place is romantic, captivating and beautiful. To others, it’s claustrophobic, damp and scary. But which of those reputations does it deserve?
To find out, I joined earth scientist, Richard Edmonds and Robert Beard (a member of the Natural England team that manages the reserve), on a journey into the more challenging parts of the Undercliffs.
I had been forewarned that it might be an arduous trip. The South West Coast Path that runs through this stretch of coastline is notorious for its steep and muddy sections. It’s also known for how easy it is to get lost if you stray from the well-marked route.
Our first stop was Bindon Cliffs. Peering over the cliff-edge at the sea far below, the inherent instability of this landscape was obvious. It was further reinforced at our next stop on Goat Island – what remains of pasture land after a huge section of land
collapsed and slid on the night of Christmas Day 1839.
Between the plateau on which we were stood and the scarred chalk cliffs opposite, is a 200metre chasm, filled with ash trees, rock debris and ridges of rough ground. Only the calls of rooks, pigeons and crows, broke the silence. Left undisturbed since the 1900s, it looks, and feels, like a lost world.
‘For some, this place is romantic, captivating and beautiful. To others, it’s claustrophobic, damp and scary’
The next section Richard and Robert took me too involved descending into a jungle-like forest of ivy clad trees at the foot of which were groups of soft shield and Hart’s-tongue ferns. Despite being a sunny day, daylight struggled to penetrate through the leaf canopy above. The ground undulated beneath our feet. Everything smelt of damp, moss-encrusted earth.
Further along the coast at Pinhay, we rose out of the trees to visit the Crimean Seat, a lookout high up above another section of chalk cliff. Convinced a Russian fleet was on its way to invade England during the Crimean War, local landowner John Ames decided he needed a land-based crow’s nest to check for signs of their ships arriving in Lyme Bay. Today, it still offers spectacular views of the coast.
As we took in the scene, Robert explained some of the challenges of managing the reserve. Due to its inaccessibility, most of the site is left to its own devices. Where management is needed, it’s done to help protect the species-rich chalk grassland habitat, keep the coast path open (when there are landslips sections can easily be damaged), and control highly invasive non-native species like holm oak, laurel and pampas grass.
The active character of this coastline means that the landscape is constantly moving and changing. It’s obvious from the way trees lean at odd angles and cracks are opening in the ground. Landslides occur on an ongoing basis, especially in late spring after a period of wet, winter weather.
While man no longer disturbs it, the power of nature constantly shapes this place and encourages successions of plants to establish themselves and grow. It’s a vivid reminder of how resilient nature can be when left to its own devices.
By the end of the walk, we had walked through deep geological time as well as some of the most testing terrain on our shores. It was an invigorating and captivating experience but one where we were ever aware of the dangers that lay beneath our feet. Whether you love or loathe this sort of landscape, you can’t help but respect the forces of nature that make it such a remarkable place. Jacqui Hitt is a writer specialising in nature, people and place. Most of her work focuses on uncovering the hidden stories and voices in the landscape – whether past or present, close to home or further afield.