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

Devon Life - - Inside -

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.

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