Saturday, 11 June 2011

Under the cliffs again

I don't normally rate glossy regional publications very highly; they have a habit of recycling local factoids. But the 2011 Summer issue of East Devon Coast & Country has a very interesting article by the Seaton historian Ted Gosling - The Platts at Branscombe - on coastal potato farming at Branscombe.

I've mentioned previously how the slopes of the Hooken Undercliff were used to raise early young potatoes. I didn't realise that this extended to the "plats" - the more usual spelling than "platts" - that were tiny sloping fields all along the cliffside at Branscombe, where early daffodils, crocuses, tulips, broad beans and strawberries were also grown. It must have been ghastly work: donkeys were used to cart seaweed up from the beach for fertiliser, and a regular task was "drawing forehead" (carrying slipped soil from the bottom of the field up to the top). The Branscombe Project has in its postcard archive - here - views of these fields, described by the Sidmouth historian Peter Orlando Hutchinson in 1858 as "a beautiful undercliff, a sort of stage, half way down to the sea, well cultivated with corn, potatoes, etc".  Cheap imports have long since made obsolete this arduous and precarious use of the sheltered cliffside; see the modern view.

On the topic of undercliffs, I've an update to Seaton, slips and Sabine Baring-Gould. Baring-Gould's 1900 novel Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs is now on the Internet Archive (ID winefredstoryofc00bari).

The opening paragraph ...

One grey, uncertain afternoon in November, when the vapour-laden skies were without a rent, and the trailing clouds, without a fringe, were passing imperceptibly into drizzle, that thickened with coming night, when the land was colourless, and the earth oozed beneath the tread, and the sullen sea was as lead — on such a day, at such a time of day, a woman wandered through Seaton, then a disregarded hamlet by the mouth of the Axe, picking up a precarious existence by being visited in the summer by bathers.

... definitely compares with Maxwell Gray and Edward Bulwer-Lytton, and it gets distinctly geeky in places, as in this description of the Axton - Lyme Regis Undercliff and its microclimate:

But, as every tyro in geology knows, the chalk is built up over the green sand, below which are impervious beds of clay. The rain soaking down through the faults in the chalk reaches the argillaceous stratum, and, unable to descend farther, forms innumerable land springs such as come forth at the base of most chalk hills. But where the chalk cliffs rise out of the sea, the water converts the gravelly stratum into a quicksand, and that is liable to be carried into the sea, and this causes subsidences, much as would occur if you lay on a water-bed 1 that had in it a rent out of which would rush that which swelled the mattress.

There had been no sinkages of any importance along this coast within the memory of man. Nevertheless, an observant eye would have noticed that Captain Rattenbury's cottage stood on the undercliff, and was on a lower level than the down, but was nevertheless cut off from the sea by a sheer face of precipice. This undercliff formed an irregular terrace that overhung the sea. It was reached by an easy descent from the down above, and lay sufficiently below it to be sheltered from the north winds. His garden was consequently a warm spot even in mid-winter; whenever the sun shone, primroses starred the ground there even at the end of January, and crane's-bill there was never out of flower. The entire undercliff, raised three hundred feet above the sea, had a ruffled and chopped surface, was broken into ridges and depressed into basins, and was densely overgrown with thorns, brambles of gigantic growth, ivy and thickets of elder.

Nevertheless, it's very readable and a good story ("Love, iniquity, treachery, smuggling, redemption"), in which the heroine Winefred Marley, made homeless, is torn between the twin heritages of her mother (who comes from rustic stock among the smugglers and seafarers of East Devon) and her gentleman father (who moves in Bath high society). The smuggler Jack Rattenbury and the evil ferryman Olver Dench, who is after Winefred's mother's cache of gold, are thrown into the mix, with the Great Bindon Landslip of 1839 being the climax of the novel.

1. Yes, a water-bed in 1900. They're actually even older: see Victorian waterbeds.
- Ray

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