Tag Archives: William Buckland

Goat Island and the Great Chasm – the day the earth moved

Nearly 180 years ago, about three miles west of Lyme Regis (in the south west of the UK), a huge chunk of the East Devon coast split off to form a plateau separated from the mainland by a deep, dry ravine.  This was the largest movement of land ever experienced in this part of the country; it remodelled the coast and created a unique new environment.  The plateau, now called Goat Island, and the ravine are still unique and when I walked there in late June, pink and purple orchids flowered across the grassy surface of the plateau whereas the ravine was populated by a tangled jungle of trees and other vegetation. 

Goat Island
The grassy surface of Goat Island with the sea in the background

 

In the early 19th century, the land behind the cliffs in this part of East Devon was dominated by farming.  Between the cliffs and the sea there was an area of land, the undercliff, formed by subsidence that supported fertile market gardens and orchards with some pasture for animals.   Cottages had also been built here for farm labourers who walked up and down the steep cliff path to the farmhouse a short distance inland.  The latter part of 1839 had seen unprecedented rain and as Christmas approached, there had been ominous signs of instability in the cliffs with deep fissures opening on the cliff tops and settlement cracks appearing in cottages built on the undercliff.

One of the farm labourers who lived in the cottages with his family was William Critchard.   At about 1am on Christmas Day 1839, Critchard and his wife returned to their cottage having been generously entertained along with other labourers’ families by their master at his farmhouse.  Their Christmas Eve gathering had included the West Country custom of burning the ashen faggot (a large ash log) accompanied by the drinking of copious amounts of cider.  On their way back to the cottage, the couple noticed that part of the cliff path had dropped about a foot since the morning and new cracks had appeared in the cottage walls.  Still merry after their evening’s entertainment they retired to bed unconcerned.  At 4 am, however, they were awoken by a “wonderful crack” and by 5am they rose to find deep fissures appearing in the garden.  They realised that something major was happening and set off up the cliff path, now almost impassable owing to subsidence, to spread the alarm.

Movement in the cliffs continued over the next 24 hours and as the day dawned on December 26th it revealed a landscape changed almost beyond recognition.  Contemporary drawings show that a massive section of cliffs, about three quarters of a mile long and estimated as 8 million tons of rock, had moved seawards by several hundred feet creating a dry ravine, the Great Chasm, in its wake. The plateau of land that had moved was bounded by cliffs 150 feet high and came to be called Goat Island. The ravine held a gothic landscape of lumps and bumps, peaks and troughs, vividly expressing the power of the convulsion that had occurred. (See here for some contemporary illustrations of the landslip)

The cliffs in this part of Dorset and Devon are notoriously mobile, but the events of Christmas 1839 represented the greatest ever movement of land in the area.  At the time there was much speculation as to the cause of the landslip: might it have been the result of an earthquake or a volcano, was it the work of rabbits, or could it have been a punishment from God? By chance, two of the most eminent geologists of the time, William Buckland and William Conybeare, were staying nearby and could interpret the events; Buckland’s wife Mary made invaluable drawings of the changed landscape.  Buckland and Conybeare concluded that the excessive rain had saturated the permeable layers of chalk and greensand that constituted the upper part of the cliffs.  Beneath these layers was an impermeable layer of clay and the chalk/greensand, saturated and very heavy, moved forward on the impermeable clay leading to the landslip.

The new landscape became a tourist attraction.  Queen Victoria arrived on the Royal Yacht to view the scene and others took to paddle steamers to gaze in wonder while specially composed music, the Landslip Quadrille, was played.   Bizarrely, fields of corn and turnips growing on cliff top land had moved intact with Goat Island and were ceremonially harvested the following August by local village maidens dressed as attendants of Ceres, the Roman Goddess of the Harvest.

But what of Goat Island nowadays?  It’s only accessible on foot but the walk along the coast path is worth the effort.  I set off from Axmouth on a misty but mild morning in late June to make the steep climb across the golf course and on to the cliff top.  I followed narrow lanes with high banks and skirted cornfield edges to reach the coast path.  Cliff edge scrub obscured the sea most of the time but occasional breaks revealed Beer Head lurking mysteriously in the mist.

About two miles into the walk, with my attention captured by the many flowers lining the path, I was jolted from my reverie as the path twisted and dropped down steeply into dense vegetation.  It continued to descend with the occasional squirm to the right or left before bottoming out.  About me now was a disorienting, tangled jungle of trees, shrubs and ferns with brambles and creepers dangling downwards to catch the unwary.  Dampness hung in the air and only brief vestiges of light filtered through the canopy.  This is the undercliff near the edge of the Great Chasm, no longer an open ravine but taken over by nature in the intervening 180 years.

Quite soon the track reared upwards again climbing steeply towards the light past a cushiony chalk hillside with a scattering of wild flowers.  In time, the path levelled out to a long, lush grassy meadow sloping gently towards sheer cliffs above the undercliff and the sea; this is Goat Island.  Woven within the grass were the frilly flowers of eyebright, many yellow dandelion-like flowers of catsear, patches of yellow rattle and wild thyme and two blue spikes of viper’s bugloss. It was, however, the orchids that surprised me with their number and variety: pyramidal orchids with their intensely pink, three-lobed petals overlapping like ornate roof tiles and common spotted orchids with their cylinders of lilac pink flowers carrying magenta hieroglyphics.  I searched for bee orchids and found only two spikes, each bearing several flowers.  With their mauve propeller-like sepals and their large central petal complete with furry edges and yellow horseshoe patterns on a maroon background, these flowers are one of nature’s marvellous mimics said to resemble bumblebees.  Butterflies, especially marbled whites completed the scene.  Goat Island nowadays is a beautiful, unusual place, an oasis of calm where noise means bird song.  It is also a managed landscape, a cooperation between nature and humans, as every year the grass is mown to encourage flowers and to prevent scrub taking back the land.

Goat Island is also a place of history and I stood there for some time, trying to imagine the scene 180 years ago when the land beneath my feet moved and the lives of the people living there were changed forever.

The picture at the head of this post shows common spotted orchids and catsear on Goat Island.

This article appeared in the August 2019 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

Down into the undercliff near the ravine

 

Bee orchid and pyramidal orchid on Goat Island
bee orchid and pyramidal orchid

 

pyramidal orchid
pyramidal orchid

 

Vipers bugloss on Goat Island
Vipers bugloss

 

wild thyme with bumblebee
bumblebee on wild thyme on Goat Island

 

Marbled white butterfly
marbled white butterfly

 

Meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram
meadow brown butterfly on wild marjoram

 

The Lyme Regis Museum – a treasure trove fit for the 21st century

The new geology gallery showing the ichthyosaur and plesiosaur skeletons on the left. (courtesy of Lyme Regis Museum)

 

The Lyme Regis Museum reopened last year after a major makeover including the addition of a new wing named after Mary Anning, the famous fossil hunter and one of Lyme’s most celebrated citizens.   Mary Anning possessed a unique talent for finding, reconstructing and interpreting fossils in the cliffs of west Dorset and her discoveries transformed the field of geology in the 19th century.  The new Mary Anning Wing has transformed the Museum into one fit for the 21st century.

I remember visiting the Museum some years ago on a bitterly cold mid-December day. I recall a pretty but rather spartan Victorian building crammed with interesting exhibits but very much a museum in the old style.  I returned this January to a completely different experience.  The Museum now has a spacious, welcoming entrance area and shop with natural light flooding through plate glass windows giving spectacular views across Lyme Bay and the Jurassic Coast.  The important features of the old building such as the beautiful spiral staircase and rotunda are still emphasised but there is a new Fine Foundation Learning Centre and with the installation of a lift, the Museum is accessible to all.

I enjoyed the bright, interesting and well-presented galleries covering the Early History of Lyme, the Cobb and the Sea, the Undercliff, Lyme during the War and the Branch Line Railway. A large display on Literary Lyme features, in particular, the writer John Fowles, who lived in the town and was a great supporter of the Museum acting as Curator for a decade.  Fowles’ novel “The French Lieutenant’s Woman” was famously made into a film putting Lyme on the international map.  Jane Austen also features strongly; she spent holidays in the town and set some of her novel “Persuasion” there.

All this alone is worth the price of admission but, in my opinion, the real jewel in the crown is the new interactive Geology Gallery.  Here the visitor can see fossils similar to those discovered locally in the 19th century that changed the face of geology forever and made Lyme Regis famous around the world.  The Gallery celebrates these discoveries and the people who made them while not forgetting those who continue this quest into the 21st century.

The large, high-ceilinged room is packed with exhibits: many different kinds of fossil, drawings, artefacts and mementoes. There are striking examples of large fossilised creatures on the walls and suspended above are models of these same creatures.  The exhibits are so impressive and so well presented that there is a strong “wow factor” but the interactive displays bring the exhibits to life showing what the fossilised bones mean and what these creatures might have looked like.  It is a gallery for all ages but there is no dumbing down.

Mary Anning (from picture in Lyme Regis Museum)
Mary Anning (from picture in Lyme Regis Museum)

 

As I looked around the Gallery, I felt that even if she wasn’t actually there by my side, Mary Anning “spoke to me” from almost every exhibit.  Her story is outlined in the displays, how she was born in Lyme Regis in 1799 to a very poor family, received no formal education but learned from her father the way to collect fossils from the surrounding cliffs.  When she was about 12 years old, she and her brother made their first major fossil discovery, an Ichthyosaur, a now extinct “fish-lizard”.  One of the most dramatic objects on display in the Gallery is a partial Ichthyosaur skeleton, about 5 metres long, discovered in 2005 by Paddy Howe, the Museum geologist, similar to the one discovered by Mary Anning. There is also a massive fossilised Ichthyosaur head in one of the cabinets, so we can get a real sense of how exciting it must have been to discover one of these creatures for the first time.  Mary went on to become the greatest fossil hunter ever known, possessing a unique skill and persistence in finding and reassembling fossils together with the intelligence to learn about the underlying science.  Among her other unique fossil discoveries were two Plesiosaur skeletons, the first ever found and probably her greatest finds. The Plesiosaur was a small-headed marine reptile with a very long neck and the Gallery contains the skeleton of a juvenile Plesiosaur with a model of the creature hanging above the display.

Despite her lack of formal education and her humble origins, Mary came to be well respected by the leading geologists of the time, Henry de la Beche, William Buckland and William Conybeare, all of whom are described in displays.  These men sought her out in Lyme and befriended her but despite this friendship, they used the fossils she found to further their own reputations and gave her little or no credit.  As a woman in the 19th century, she was never able to assume her rightful place in the scientific hierarchy.  After she died in 1847, however, Henry de la Beche read a eulogy to the Geological Society dedicated to Mary Anning and her discoveries.  This was an honour usually accorded only to fellows of the Society which did not admit women for another half century.

The new Gallery tells the story of Mary Anning but I feel that her importance is slightly underplayed, especially in relation to the male scientists of the time. Her discoveries were unique, showing that large reptile-like creatures had existed millions of years ago but were now extinct.  These findings challenged existing ideas in geology and questioned contemporary biblical accounts of creation.  They also contributed to changes in thinking that led Charles Darwin to propose theories of evolution by natural selection.   The importance of Mary Anning should not be underestimated and it is surely significant that in 2010 the Royal Society voted her one of the 10 most influential women in science.

I very much enjoyed my visit to the remodelled Lyme Regis Museum with its new Mary Anning Wing.  It is a treasure trove of fascinating displays, a museum fit for the 21st century, and the staff should be congratulated on their achievement.  I urge you to visit, you will not be disappointed.

Lyme Regis Museum
Lyme Regis Museum

 

Spiral staircase, Lyme Regis Museum
Spiral staircase, Lyme Regis Museum

 

Ichthyosaur head in Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum
Ichthyosaur head in Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum

 

Model of Ichthyosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum
Model of Ichthyosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum

 

Model of Plesiosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum
Model of Plesiosaur above Geology Gallery, Lyme Regis Museum

 

This article appeared in the March 2018 edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine

The picture at the top of this post shows a model of a pterosaur in the Lyme Regis Museum.   Mary Anning found the first skeleton of a pterosaur outside  continental Europe.