Saturday, 21 March 2009

Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould

Further to Sidmouth and nearby, yesterday - showing the area to a friend on holiday - we took the bus to Beer, walked up and over to Seaton, then took the bus back to Sidmouth for a potter. Beautiful but rather odd day: hot sun but distinctly cold; and bright but very hazy, giving vivid near views but indistinct far ones, with a dazzle of misty headlands.

Seaton (or its eastmost end, Axmouth Harbour) is one end of the famous Axmouth-Lyme Regis landslip terrain, the Undercliff, a region bibliographically under the vast shadow of John Fowles' The French Lieutenant's Woman. However, I didn't know until recently about Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs (Sabine Baring-Gould, 1900) which looks rather fun as a romantic melodrama ("Love, iniquity, treachery, smuggling, redemption") set around the then hamlet of Seaton. The heroine Winefred Marley is torn between twin heritages, that of her gentleman father and her smuggler mother, and the novel features a Jack Rattenbury, implied to be a son of the famous Lyme Bay smuggler Jack Rattenbury (who is called Job Rattenbury in the book). Its climactic event is the great Bindon landslip on the Christmas Eve of 1839, where a huge tract of farmland slipped to produce the feature now called Goat Island. Toward the end of the book Jane Marley, Winefred's mother, is shown something worrying by a man working near her clifftop house:

"Missus," said he, "I advise you to budge. Something is going to take place; we don't know what, and I've had orders to give you warning."

"I do not understand you."

"Come and see for yourself."

Jane followed the ganger, and he led her from the house, through the bushes, to a point on the edge of the cliff that commanded the beach and the sea some three hundred feet below.

She was silent.

No wind was stirring. The moment was that of the turn of the tide. At a distance of half a mile from the shore the surface of the water heaved like the bosom of of a sleeper in rhythmic throb. There were no rollers, no white horses.

But nearer land the sea was boiling. Volumes of muddy water surged up in bells as from a great depth, and spread in glistening sheets, that threw out wavelets which clashed with the undulations of the tide. Moreover, there appeared something like a mighty monster of the deep, ruddy brown, heaving his back above the water.

"That which is coming in is sweet water," said the man. "One of our chaps has ventured down and tasted it. It is not the fountains of the deep that are broken up, but the land springs are feeding the ocean. Did you ever witness the like?"

"Yes," said Jane, "there was something of the kind took place, but only in a small way, before the crack formed when my old cottage was ruined."

"Exactly, missus. And there is going to happen something of the same sort here, but on a mighty scale, to which that was but as nothing. Where it will begin, how far it will extend, all that is what no mortal can guess. Now you know why I have been sent to tell you to clear out as fast as you can. If you want my help, you are welcome to it."

Oo-er. And furthermore, the birds and the rabbits have deserted the cliff. But in true movie-cliche style she goes back to the house alone, locking the door behind her to pack (because she has a secret stash of gold), but who should be hiding there but the villain, the evil ferryman Olver Dench, who attacks her, packs a carpet-bag with the gold, and leaves her tied up and locked in the house. She manages to get to the window in time to see the landslip starting:

Looking out she saw Dench standing irresolute — as one dazed. She saw something more. At that moment the house swayed like a ship. The surface of the land broke up, and seemed transmuted into fluid, for in one place it heaved like a mounting billow, and in another sank like the trough of a wave. It was to Jane, peering through the little window as though she were looking at a tumbling sea through the porthole of a cabin. Again the house lurched, and so suddenly and to such an acute angle, that Jane fell from the table.

(To be concluded) - The Graphic serialisation

Sabine Baring-Gould was an interesting character. Yet another prolific - see bibiliography - but largely forgotten novelist, he combined broad antiquarian and folklore interests, such as The Book of Were-Wolves (Gutenberg EText-No. 5324) and Curious myths of the Middle Ages (Internet Archive curiousmythsofmi00bariuoft), with hymn-writing, folksong collection and, it appears, general eccentricity (as told in the story of his failing to recognise his own small daughter at a children's party). The diverse contents of his library can be seen at Devon Libraries' Sabine Baring-Gould's library at Killerton list.

Judging by the description of Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs by Seaton Visitor Centre Trust, Baring-Gould's overall geekiness is reflected in the wealth of geological and topographic detail. As The Pall Mall Gazette review said:

He doubtless knows his public, and his public doubtless enjoys the didactic manner in which he pauses in his story to give long passages on the geological formations of the cliffs of South Devonshire, wedges of informing discourse on the history of smuggling on the south coast, instructive scraps about bacon-curing and tinder-boxes, and long string of platitudes upon the general influence of education.

- The Pall Mall Gazette (London, England), Wednesday, December 19, 1900

It's still a good yarn, though. It was serialized in The Graphic in 1899, as I managed to find via the British Library (text as usual hacked via Google Books). I'm not sure why the book isn't online in its entirety; S B-G died in 1924 so it's out of copyright.

Of related interest, William S. Baring-Gould, the prominent Sherlock Holmes scholar and analyst, was one of Baring-Gould's grandsons, so it looks as if the cataloguing fervour ran in the family.

PS: I'm pleased to say I found the resolution to the cliffhanger in The Graphic. Spectators above, including Winefred Marley, see a running figure. It's not Jane Marley, but Olver Dench, carrying the carpet-bag. He runs in terror as the landscape tears itself to pieces around him, giant fissures opening.

Rendered crazy with fear he mounted a fragment of rock and saw about him the wreckage as of a world - prostrate trees, leaning pillars of rock, disrupted masses of soil, bushes draggling over to drop into the throats open to swallow them.

Dench makes a final attempt to escape by jumping one such chasm, but can't or won't leave the heavy bag of gold:

He ran, leaped, was flying in space over the chasm, touched the rock on the farther side, caught at the grass, but was overbalanced, dragged backward from the crest by the weight of the bag, and went down with a tuft of wiry grass and hawkweed in his right hand, and disappeared in the midst of the rock and earth that was in process of being chewed. Now the carpet-bag, then a leg, next a hand appeared, and went under again. Then up came the head, only next moment to be drawn beneath and disappear in the mighty mill.

When the landslip ceases, however, amid the general devastation the house remains, damaged but still largely intact, and Jane Marley is found alive and not badly hurt. She and Winefred are reconciled, Jack Rattenbury promises to go straight and gets parental blessing to marry Winefred, and all (except the buried Dench who "has gone to his account") live ever after, happily and presumably well-informed about rotational slump processes.

You might be interested in a contemporary account:

Supposed earthquake in Dorsetshire

One of the greatest convulsions of nature ever on record, or that has taken place within the memory of man in this neighbourhood, has occcurred in Dowlands and Bending Cliffs, situated between Lyme and Axmouth harbour. Various are the opinions respecting it - some attribute it to the long-continued and heavy rains, others insisting on its being an earthquake. It certainly has every appearance of the latter. The inhabitants are no strangers to the occasional sliding of the cliffs, on this part of the coat, both east and west, but here is presented a scene of awful grandeur.

The above cliffs, which are very lofty, are about three miles west of Lyme Regis.

On Christmas Eve, Mr Chaple, the tenant of Dowland's estate, invited his workmen to the farm-house, to regale them for the evening, among whom were the occupants of four cottages, situated on the common at the foot of the cliffs. On their return home they found considerable difficulty in opening their doors, but took little noticce of it. On rising on Christmas morning they discovered a settlement of their homes; and becoming alarmed, removed their goods with all speed, and retired to Dowland's farm, about a mile on the top of the cliffs, for safety. And very providentially too; for shortly after an immense portion of the top cliffs, consisting of between forty and fify acres of arable and pasture land, with their crops, together with the common below, sunk to a depth varying from 50 to 100 feet; two of the above tenements being completely buried, whilst the other two are shattered to their very foundations. The scene presents a spectacle not easily described - gigantic rocks having been rent asunder, lofty trees buried beneath the mighty mass, with only their tops visible; large fields with their crops, separated, one part here and another there - immense precipices formed, awful chasms which appear bottomless, the whole of which strike the beholder with terror and amazement and present a striking view of the Almighty power of Him "who holds the mountains in the scales and the hills in a balance." The length of cliffs affected by this shock is more than two miles, and perhaps in breadth about one, encompassing about a thousand acres. But perhaps the most remarkable phenomenon of the whole is, that immense and ponderous rocks in front of this scene of action have been forced by the concussion from their beds, where they have reposed for ages, under the bed of the ocean beyond low water mark, and made their appearance in pyramids and different forms - in some places 40 or 50 feet above the sand, and have wonderfully formed a sort of harbour, while the beach adjoining the land remains unmoved. Boats have entered this naturally formed harbour on the eastern side, which is shallow, and found in the middle three fathoms of water. Outside the rocks thus formed, towards the sea, is about five fathoms at high water. Thousands of persons have already been to visit this extraordinary scene. No doubt but it will attract numbers of the nobility and gentry to Lyme Regis. The celebrated Pinney cliffs, which are situated betwixt Lyme and Dowlands, and which have been admired for their romantic scenery, sinks into comparative insignificance, and its lofty rocks must "hide their diminished heads" when compared with the grandeur and sublimity which Dowland's cliffs wll in future present. Dr Buckland, of Oxford, the eminent geologist, who has been residing in Lyme for some time past, has prolonged his stay, in order to explore and view the wonders of this phenomenon of nature. He states that he never witnessed anything equal to it in England. It is to be hoped that his, or some other able pen, will gratify the public by a full and proper description of the scene.

- The Hull Packet, January 10, 1840

PPS: I'm not sure why I consider Baring-Gould geeky, when (just as Katin in Samuel R Delany's Nova is a fan of moons rather than planets) I'm a fan of chines, the miniature coastal valleys of the English south coast. The majority are in the Isle of Wight, notably the now-lost Blackgang Chine, but Seaton in East Devon has one - Seaton Chine - whose foot is occupied by a cafe at the western end of its esplanade. But about 100 yards to the west, a flight of steps leads up from the beach to a fenced-off deeply-incised stream valley that I can't find in any accounts but surely deserves to count as a minor chine. See Google Maps: Seaton Chine and its cafe are at the right; the second chine is to the left. The dark shape is the shadow of a knife-edged section of cliff created by erosion between the sea and the stream, which runs almost parallel to the coast at this point.

PPPS: Winefred; a story of the chalk cliffs is now on the Internet Archive (ID winefredstoryofc00bari).

- Ray


  1. Hi Ray,

    It's a small but beautiful World we live in.
    We had a lovely afternoon on Beer - although as you say the haze did nothing for the photos. The ice cream shp had the most delicious "rhurbarb and custard" ice cream though!
    One of these days we should arrange to meet up with our respective partners and enjoy a drink or an ice cream - what do you think?
    Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

    Jan (Author)

  2. Here I was trying to steal a march (pun intended) on you be referencing Sebald's "The Rings of Saturn" with its walk and its cataclysmic wind storm (which I think I remember in 1992) but going to Google Map I discover that he was in Suffolk Co and not Devon Co. (Just as I was way wrong on where York was when reading Dalziel and Pascoe. We don't learn these things in school.)

    *Mark and march refer to a border region similar to a frontier, such as the Welsh Marches....

    You find the most amazing things when you Google like: Mouse X at Otley College. Clearly a Growlery clone.

  3. I shall have to check out Sebald: he sounds like a more melancholic Cecil Torr. I've only been a couple of times, but East Anglia is a very haunting landscape.