Exploring England 2015, Part 2 – Around the Edge.

Thursday, Sep 10, 2015 at 17:00


The edge of the island that is the UK seems as good a place as any to start this account of our adventures. We had only had fleeting glimpses of English beaches before, enough to know that comparisons with our sundrenched Aussie versions were entirely misplaced. What we found on closer inspection was a surprising variety of coastal forms and scenery, interlaced with much interesting history and geology.

Our first coastal encounter was near Horsey in Norfolk on a very grey, windy day. A gravel road led us to a carpark complete with a ticket vending machine, although there were few hardy souls there to face the wind and stinging sand. Signs indicated there was a seal colony nearby, so we had to investigate.

For some distance we walked along a gravelled track behind the dunes seeking shelter from the wind. Then a structure on the skyline beckoned so we climbed up through the tussocky grass to find an old WWII pillbox. While the concrete roof was still intact, rust was slowly degrading the concrete. Our noses told us that it was used as a toilet so we didn’t stay for long.

We could see the sandy beach, gently sloping away from a sharp drop-off at the base of the dunes, and sand control structures of wood and rock running out from the beach. The wind whipping in from the North Sea carried stinging sand making walking down on the beach quite unpleasant. That was soon forgotten though when we realised that what we thought were rounded rocks began to move, as a few seals stirred as we approached. There were actually a lot of seals, snoozing seemingly oblivious to the sand and wind. Most were packed together in a dense mass while a few lazed on their own, stretched out on their backs like contented dogs.

It seemed a long walk back to the car in thickening drizzle, but we had a new respect for English beaches and what we might find on them.

A little to the south at Caister-on-Sea there was more variety and history. We saw the remains of a Roman coastal fort, now about 1km inland due to the build up of sand dunes over the intervening 2000 years. Nearby on the sandy but otherwise unremarkable beach, were more modern structures – a lifeboat station and an off-shore windfarm both attesting to the power of the wind from the North Sea.

The next beach that we saw – we didn’t actually set foot on the beach - could hardly have been more different. After a difficult drive through hilly Eastbourne, in East Sussex, just south of the town called Battle, where the Battle of Hastings was fought so long ago in 1066, we headed for Birling Gap and a view of the Seven Sisters. The country there is open rolling downs and the soft white chalky “rock” has been eroded by the sea to form sheer cliffs up to about 150m high, as if the country had been abruptly sliced off. The Seven Sisters are a series of chalk cliffs and the undulating tops of the truncated ridges. Today they were clearly visible.

There is a big viewing platform from which flights of stairs descend to the narrow gravelly beach below. Just a few people were lazing on what looked to our eyes to be a very minimal beach, though it could have been high tide. Up on the viewing platform a stiff cool breeze was blowing in from the Channel so we stayed long enough to take photos of what is a quite spectacular view. We opted against the long haul up and down the stairs. Instead we tried to find some shelter from the wind in the big carpark while we had our lunch (although apparently having lunch in an English carpark is really not the “right thing” to do).

Then the big headland behind us stretching away east to the old Belle Tout lighthouse beckoned, so it was into the wind again for a brisk walk. In 1831, construction began on the lighthouse, but because mist and low clouds could hide the light of Belle Tout, Beachy Head Lighthouse was later built in the sea below Beachy Head. The old lighthouse has featured in film and TV, but has more recently been converted into an upmarket B&B. The walk from the carpark took us over windswept grassy downs, though we kept well back from the cliff edges from where many people have fallen (deliberately or not) to their death. Visibility was reasonable and there were plenty of ships to see. The paths were surprisingly busy with walkers and sightseers, and the few seats offered an opportunity to chat with some of the locals, something we do whenever we can.

Further west at Portland Castle and harbour, we saw a stretch of coastline that Henry VIII thought necessary to protect against invasion by Catholic Europeans. The harbour is now protected by breakwaters built from local Portland stone quarried by convict labour in the 1840s. The sea here was very calm and forests of yacht masts attest to more peaceful circumstances, although the harbour has a long and significant naval history. There are visible reminders of the dark days of WWII in the form of two large (hollow) concrete blocks out in the harbour. As part of the D-Day operations in Normandy, a number of these Phoenix caissons were moored at Portland in 1944 before being towed to France where they formed temporary harbours. After the war, in 1946, ten caissons were towed back to Portland Harbour, and in 1953 eight units were given to the Netherlands to repair breaches in the dykes following a violent storm. However two of the units remain permanently moored in the harbour where they act as a wind break for ships berthing in the harbour.

A short drive up to the high ridges of the Isle of Portland allows wonderful views over the harbour and of the eastern end of Chesil Beach where the shingle seems to be encroaching on some of the buildings. This shingle beach is 29 kilometres long, 200 metres wide and up to15 metres high, sloping sharply on the seaward side. The size of the flint and chert shingle varies from pea-sized at the north-west end to orange-sized at the south-east or Portland end. It is said that smugglers who landed on the beach in the middle of the night could judge "exactly where they were" by the size of the shingle and the sound that waves made as they broke onto the beach.

We found a spot near Abbottsbury (packed with visitors come to see cygnets at the local swannery) from where we could access Chesil beach, walk along it (uncomfortable walking on the grape-sized stones) and have our lunch there. By now we were becoming accustomed to having to get a parking voucher to park in relatively isolated places, although this carpark was full. There was quite a crowd on the beach, many huddled behind colourful wind shelters, while some tried their luck fishing. This was a very different, sand-free beach experience.

Chesil Beach forms part of the World Heritage Jurassic Coast. The Jurassic Coast consists of sedimentary rocks from the “age of dinosaurs” spanning 180 million years of geological history from about 250 to 66 million years ago. These rocks contain many hundreds of different fossils including those of fish, ammonites, plesiosaurs and ichthyosaurs.

Lyme Regis near the western end of Chesil Beach was the home of Mary Anning (1799 – 1847) a British fossil collector, who became known around the world for important finds she made in the Jurassic marine fossil beds in the cliffs along the Channel coast. Her findings contributed to important changes in scientific thinking about prehistoric life and the history of the earth. At nearby Charmouth is a famous beach, frequented by Mary Anning, where fossils are still regularly found. The tiny shop at the visitor centre is crammed with local fossils for sale, and would-be fossils hunters can hire equipment there to try their luck. We didn’t hire any gear but did walk along the rather rocky, sometimes muddy beach hoping to spot something that looked like a fossil. The beach was by our standards crowded with people, kids and dogs all enjoying the sun, many looking for fossils. All those eyes had scanned that narrow stretch of beach so we left empty handed. Despite that we relished the sun and the lovely coastal views including nearby Golden Cap, at 191 metres the highest cliff on the south coast of England.

Our final taste of the Jurassic Coast was east of Portland under a clear blue sky. At Lulworth Cove we found a big, busy carpark from where we walked through the pretty little village tucked into a fold in between big hills above the cove. From the top of the cliffs the cove appears almost circular, with just a small seaward entrance. The water was very clear, an ideal mooring for the few sailing boats there. Down on the narrow sand and pebble beach the tall chalk cliffs towered above us, the folded layers of ancient sedimentary rocks easy to see. School holidays meant that this beach too was very busy, so we found a spot to sit on the sand for a while and watch the locals at play. Leaving the beach we walked past a long queue of people waiting to take a 15 minute boat ride to Durdle Door, another scenic spot just around the point.

We probably could have walked there but the country is very hilly so we opted to drive around to yet another busy parking area. From there a long and rather steep path led down to Durdle Door which is a natural limestone arch in folded and tilted rock layers. We decided against that hike as well, instead finding a seat where we could have our lunch. There were marvellous views from that seat as we could see across to Portland harbour and the many sailing boats from there, out stretching their wings in the light breeze.

Our final seaside encounter in the UK was much further north, along the west coast of Scotland, around Oban in Argyll. Water abounds there but it can be hard to tell the difference between sea, lochs and rivers. In Oban the main street hugs the harbour wall and fish and chips are staple fare for tourists. A climb up the steep narrow streets took us to McCaigs Tower from where there were sweeping views over the harbour and out towards the Isle of Mull. For a while we watched the busy harbour as ferries, fishing and sailing boats all went about their business.

Travelling both north and south of Oban, the road winds around the coast, affording glimpses of water nestled among the high hills. On a calm day there were wonderful reflections of those hills, but on other days they were shrouded in fog. There were dramatic tidal races and evidence of extreme tidal ranges. Garlands of pretty white cottages were strung around the edges of bays on a narrow strip of almost level land. Behind them the hills rose steeply, and close by high peaks were still capped with snow. Fairytale castle ruins added drama and mystery.

So we grew to have a deeper appreciation of those UK coasts that we saw. Maybe they don’t have the swathes of Aussie sun drenched sand, but the dramatic cliffs and coastal scenery, the shingles, bays and wildlife and the long history all come together to make an enduring impression.
J and V
"Not everything that can be counted counts, and not everything that counts can be counted."
- Albert Einstein
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