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Sunday 11 October 2015

More Oddities of the Jurassic Coast

The latest issue of Fortean Times (FT333) has just gone out to subscribers, and will be in the shops next Friday. If you turn to the back of the magazine, the regular Fortean Traveller feature consists of an article by Paul Jackson and me called “Oddities of the Jurassic Coast”, based on excerpts from our new book Weird Wessex. Due to space limitations the article only includes a few of the places on the Jurassic Coast (or the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site, to give it its less exciting official name) that are mentioned in the book. So here are a few more…

The picture at the top of this post shows Monmouth Beach in Lyme Regis. Today it’s a popular spot with holidaymakers and fossil hunters, but back in June 1685 it was the place where the Duke of Monmouth landed with his distinctly unimpressive “invasion force” of 82 men. Monmouth was the illegitimate son of Charles II, who died 4 months earlier. When the Crown passed to the unpopular James II, Monmouth decided to try to seize it by force. After recruiting a few followers in Lyme Regis he proceeded northwards, gathering more “troops” along the way – mainly young farmworkers armed with sickles and pitchforks! Monmouth’s haphazard rebellion came to a bloody end a few weeks later at the Battle of Sedgemoor (also described in Weird Wessex) – the last full-scale battle fought on English soil. After the defeat, twelve of the rebels who had been recruited in Lyme Regis were publicly executed on Monmouth Beach.

By the early 19th century the area to the west of Monmouth Beach was packed with market gardens, orchards, sheep and pig farms and hazel coppices – all perched on top of the towering Jurassic cliffs. Then in the space of a few hours on Christmas Day, 1839, the whole thing came crashing down in one of the biggest landslides in recorded history. An estimated 8 million tonnes of rock and earth collapsed into the sea, along a stretch of coast about four miles long.

All that carefully cultivated farmland was lost forever. In its place was a rocky, barren landscape the like of which had never been seen before. Within weeks, people were travelling from miles away to view the scene. The local farmers, sensing a way to cut their losses, quickly began charging visitors sixpence to enter their fields! The ultimate cause of the landslip was underground water loosening the clay on which the upper rock strata sat. Some geologists at the time realised this, but many ordinary people believed it was an earthquake – possibly even the wrath of God!

The area of the landslip, which became known as the Undercliff, was too unstable for human cultivation. Since the middle of the 19th century it has been left in the hands of nature, resulting in the closest thing to a jungle that it’s possible to find in modern-day England. The 800-acre site is now a National Nature Reserve, only accessible from two points, about five miles apart, that are joined by a long, winding footpath. It’s difficult to take photos that give a sense of the huge scale of the site, but here is a montage that attempts to give a flavour of it:
In 1859 a commission set up by the Prime Minister, Lord Palmerston, recommended that a sprawling complex of fortifications should be built along the English coast to deal with a possible invasion from France. These are collectively known as Palmerston’s Follies, since by the time they were finished the threat of a French invasion had long since vanished. Several of Palmerston’s Follies are featured in Weird Wessex, including Brean Down Fort in Somerset and the Portsmouth sea forts in Hampshire. But one of the most impressive is to be found on the Jurassic Coast, on the Isle of Portland. It’s called the Verne Citadel, located 500 feet above sea level at the highest point of the island. This has been a strategically important site since the Romans built their own fort there. Its Victorian successor is a monumental edifice – 56 acres in area, surrounded by a deep moat and designed to house a thousand troops, with heavy artillery pointing out to sea on three sides. It was later converted into a prison.

The Verne Citadel was built from local Portland stone – the same building material used in Buckingham Palace and St Paul’s Cathedral. In the case of the Verne, even though the stone didn’t have far to travel, a huge amount of it was needed. The free-standing rock pillar known as Nicodemus Knob (pictured below) shows the extent of the quarrying that was required – all the surrounding stone was cut away for use in Palmerston’s fortress.
A few hundred metres from the Verne is the High Angle Battery, built in the late 19th century as an additional defence for Portland Harbour. The complex also incorporates an underground laboratory, a large bombproof shelter and a network of tunnels – the latter reportedly harbouring a number of ghosts!

This is just a small sampling of the many strange facts contained in Weird Wessex. You can get your copy (as a paperback or Kindle ebook) from Amazon UK, or at the special price of just £10 direct from CFZ Publishing.


Anonymous said...

Do you have any fossils from that coastline, Andrew ? I'm quite interested in fossils and it must be a fascinating place as they are quite easy to find, I believe.

Andrew May said...

Thanks Colin - that's a good suggestion. I did mention one small fossil (actually found by my co-author Paul Jackson) in the post about Skull the Slayer (of all places) earlier this year, but a full-length post on the subject might be a good idea as you suggest.