Tuesday, 17 May 2011

IOW (3): Return to Blackgang

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... and so our walk ended at Blackgang. Near the southern tip of the Isle of Wight, the geology becomes more complicated, with higher cliffs and a succession of Upper Greensand rocks overlying soft clay.

Walking from Whale Chine toward Blackgang

The whole succession is easily eroded by streams, and two centuries ago Blackgang was the location of a "steep gaunt ravine", Blackgang Chine, which features in many contemporary prints. For instance, there's this image in George Brannon's 1840s Brannon's Picture of the Isle of Wight (The Expeditious Traveller's Index to Its Prominent Beauties & Objects of Interest. Compiled Especially with Reference to Those Numerous Visitors Who Can Spare but Two or Three Days to Make the Tour of the Island), and the excellent "Black Gang Chine, Isle of Wight" drawn and engraved by Charles Cousen, published in The History of Hampshire, 1869.

The Victorian entrepreneur Alexander Dabell saw the opportunity in 1842 and opened what was probably the first British theme park, charging an entrance fee to see the chine and the skeleton of a beached whale. The park still exists - see its website - with a continued succession of ownership by Dabell's descendants, and its entrance has long been guarded by a giant smuggler (below), alluding to the possibly exaggerated connection of the the chine with smuggling. Its flavour I recall from childhood was quaint and rather dry - there was a whale skeleton that formed the ceiling of the curio room, peepshow machines showing innocuous things such as the inside of an ants' nest, a wishing chair, a "electric shock chair" (I never had the nerve to try it, so have no idea if it genuinely shocked you or simulated it with vibration), and, chiefly, gardens and scenic paths. But over the latter part of the 20th century it has focused more on appeal to children with themed rides and entertainments. YouTube has some nice footage of the park approximately in the era I remember: 1960, 1965 and 1966

Entrance to Blackgang Chine theme park

However, the geology - hard rock over soft clay - also means that Blackgang is an active landslip zone. Over two centuries, and particularly the 20th, the chine has eroded away entirely, as has a large portion of the adjacent land belonging to the park (see the Google Earth aerial view). The owners, understandably, have added a string to their bow with an inland park, Robin Hill, but have also incorporated the process of coastal destruction into their theme with a more adult-focused presentation, Blackgang: The Disappearing Village.  We didn't have time to go in, but made do with a restful moment feeding bread to the crows on the tearoom lawn.

One place I did want to explore was the east side of Blackgang, where a lane leads down from the theme park entrance. Originally this was a low-level route east, connecting with the "Sandrock Road" to Niton, but it was broken by a landslip in 1928. However, for many years after, the Blackgang end was largely intact, a track across a small landslip giving access to a section of road running through woods at the foot of Gore Cliff for half a mile or so. I just about remember this from childhood. But much of this section was obliterated in a major slip in 1978; there's a good map on page 191 of Slope stability engineering: developments and applications (1991), and the paper starting at page 189 - The recent history and geotechnics of landslides at Gore Cliff, Isle of Wight - is an interesting overall account.

The end of the road

It's very different now. The lane descends just a few hundred yards before narrowing to a path, still on overgrown tarmac, then the tarmac becomes cracked, and shortly you reach the cliff edge, with the last piece of road still showing its double yellow "no parking" lines. There is a rough footpath leading on over the slipped rock into a typical jumbled and overgrown undercliff landslip; unfortunately we didn't have time to explore further. I've seen undercliff areas before, but I found it quite chilling to see such literal erasure of a whole landscape I remember.

Gore Cliff and the Blackgang Undercliff

An intriguing aspect is that if you look at Google Maps (here) you can see that within the disrupted landscape of the Blackgang Undercliff, beyond the 1978 slip, there's an isolated section of woodland with the road intact, and signs of buildings and caravans. Time apart, we weren't kitted out to cross the landslip and investigate, but a number of explorers have done so, and documented it on YouTube (it reminds me of Pripyat). There are a number of unusual points, particularly the Shakespeare Fountain, which was in the grounds of Southview House - the nearby temple is gone; and the remains of a nudist holiday camp, The South View Sun Club, with quaint murals. See Blackgang Chine abandoned village & landslip exploration; Blackgang Chine,The Lost Village, I.O.W; and Walking over the lost Blackgang Road, Niton Undercliff, IoW, July 2006 (below).

Note: this post is an update to The disappearing Chine, August 2008.

Addendum: I've mentioned Mimi Khalvati's poem The Chine a couple of times. Sorry to mention it again, but every time I read it I find more layers; it encapsulates so powerfully the "double exposure" experience of returning to a place changed by time, and all the more so for being the same kind of place that's in my own early memories. It's online in full here (scroll down - it's below the French translation) at Poezibao, Florence Trocmé's online poetry journal.

Addendum 2: At the end of October 2011, I revisited the Blackgang again, and did the walk into the Undercliff - see On the lost road.

- Ray


  1. I've been trawling my memory stores relating to 1966/7 for any trace of that huge smuggler, without any result.

    Obviously further evidence for the fallibility of memory ... it's huge enough enough to have expected that I would still recall its looming presence in a place of which I have fond memories! :-)

  2. further evidence for the fallibility of memory

    Not this time... I'm moderately sure it dates from maybe a couple of decades later, when they were developing the themed areas more targeted at children/families: Dinosaur-Land, Smugglers-Land, Jungle-Land, and whatever.

  3. Ah ... sorry ... my misunderstanding. I elided "its entrance has long been guarded by a giant smuggler" with your reference to "the era I remember" as being 1960-1966 and rashly jumped to the assumption that the smuggler must have been there in that era.

    Sadly, i have reached the age when the adjective "long" doesn't seem to apply to the span of time since 1966, which seems remarkably recent... [grin]

  4. You will find Letts' Shakespheare memorial temple partly re-erected in Hasely Manor garden, Arreton.

    1. Thanks! That's very interesting. I know there have been rumours for some years that it was still extant somewhere.