Wednesday, 6 June 2012

Balaam's and other narrow paths

The story of Balaam isn't terribly well-known these days; most people don't get past sniggering about him having a talking ass. Briefly, he's a rather ambivalent prophet in the Torah and the Bible's Book of Numbers, whose central story is his journey to the plains of Midian (against God's wishes) to curse the Israelites. The Angel of the Lord blocks the road, but only the ass sees this, diverting Balaam down narrower and narrower paths until God gives the ass the power of speech and she complains about being hit, whereupon Balaam eventually gets the message. See Numbers 22 for the full story.

This is pertinent to my current meander along the Isle of Wight Undercliff, as several Victorian accounts refer to a "Balaam's Path" (presumably alluding to its narrowness) in the hillside village of Bonchurch. One of them is William P Breed's 1885 collection of travel letters Aboard and abroad in eighteen hundred and eighty four. Although Breed was writing for several religious magazines - he was an American Doctor of Divinity in Britain for the Great Presbyterian Council of 1884 - he generally let the religion take a back seat to the travel accounts, and his letters are very readable and full of erudite appreciation for the places he visited.
We have often thought that if the doctrine of transmigration of souls were true, we should try so to live as not to be sent into an omnibus horse ; and after a day or so at Bonchurch, we added " and of all omnibus horses, not one of Bonchurch ;" for his up-hill drags strain every muscle to the last degree, and his down-hill hold-backs do the same, and he is always tugging up hills that are only not perpendicular, or propping his legs to keep the " 'bus" from running him down the descent. But a conversation with an experienced and intelligent driver changed all our ideas on the snbject. " For, ye see, the 'oss is alius a-goin' hup the 'ill or down the 'ill, so 'e cahn't do nothink but walk. Well, w'en 'e's a-goin' hup, 'is muscles is strained one way ; an' w'en 'e's a-goin' down, they is strained the bother way. An' this keeps 'em heven, you see. So w'ile the London 'osses gives out in two y'ahs, the Bonchurch 'osses lasts ten y'ahs or fifteen y'ahs. Now this 'oss as I'm a-drivin' hon — w'y, 'e's been a-goin' now thirteen y'ahs come next Haugust. " So we have rescinded our exception to — though we do not quite pine to become — a Bonchurch " 'bus" horse.
Bonchurch occupies a portion of "Undercliff." It seems that many years ago a strip of land some seven miles long, and from a quarter of a mile to a mile wide, lying along the extreme south-eastern shore of the Isle of Wight, sank down some hundreds of feet, leaving behind it a sheer cliff, and behind that chalk-hills seven hundred or eight hundred feet high. These hills are called "downs." Why such lofty heights are called downs is explained by the fact that "downs" is a corruption of " dunes," which means sand-hills. In the descent of this tract of land there was anything but unanimity among the various sections. Some portions went very far down, and some not so far. Here and there a vast mass of rock refused to accompany the neighboring earth, and still stands in majestic isolation, bristling now with shrubbery and waving with ivy. The result was a surface about as varied as one can imagine. By and by the Celt came (if he were not there already), and the Saxon, the Dane, the Norman, and their children. One of them finding a terrace far up, and big enough, built a beautiful villa, surrounding it with high walls to keep the children from falling off, which walls the eager ivy imbedded with its luxuriance, and among the ivy, wild flowers built their bright nests. This process was repeated on a terrace lower down, and this by others east, west, north, and south. Then these walls were connected, and streets were evolved — streets winding in short distances to every point of the compass — streets made up almost exclusively of those sharp ascents and almost precipitous descents so favorable to the health, comfort, and longevity of omnibus horses ....
The high walls that hem in the grounds and form the sides of the streets are not only mantled, but deluged with ivy. Ivy grows along the ground, climbs the trees, flows over the walls, and hangs down in luxuriant curtains often a foot deep on the top of the wall. Frequently as you pass along a street your head is on a level with chimney-tops on one side, while it is below the surface of a garden on the other. You are all the time running into surprises. Surrounded with profuse vegetation, ivy-hung trees, and walls buried in green, you feel as if you were in a lonely wilderness. In a few moments an opening in the wall shows you a carriage road, as usual between two high massive walls. Following it, you are amazed to find yourself on a spacious plateau and in a fairy scene of grounds sparkling with flowers and under most tasteful cultivation, and in the midst of all a beautiful mansion. Early one evening we passed through a gate under an arch, or rather through a tunnel of massive masonry. It looked as if we might be making our way into a dungeon. At the other end, however, we emerged into a wide and lovely expanse of lawn, grove, and garden ; here a large circle inclosed with a wire screen, the screen wreathed with flowering plants ; there a high wall lined with wall-fruit — peaches, apricots, apples, and pears ; here a path disappears in a bower of branches interlacing overhead, and at the other end leading you out on the edge of the cliff above the sea ; and in the midst of all a mansion, with greenhouse full of fine tropical plants, and festoons of delicate vines hanging from the ceiling. To-day, seeing a narrow gateway in the street wall, I entered, ascended ninety-nine stone steps, and found myself in a lane, walled of course on each side, floored with asphalt, and openings on each hand, here into a garden behind a house, and there into a flower-clad yard in front of another. We have since learned that the stairway of stone is "Jacob's Ladder," and the narrow lane at the top is "Balaam's Path." The floor of the room we occupy is higher than the top of new Bonchurch steeple, scarce a stone's throw distant from us. On the other side of new Bonchurch, and very near at hand, is old Bonchurch, whose roof is a good way below the foundations of the former. For rambling or rest, for luxuriant beauty of grove and garden, for sheer precipice and superlative richness of landscape, and sea-view from terrace and hill-crest, we have so far seen nothing equal to Bonchurch.
- Aboard and abroad in eighteen hundred and eighty four (WP Breed, 1885, Internet Archive aboardabroadinei00bree)
The places Breed noted in Bonchurch still exist.  The mansion accessed by the tunnel is called Undermount, named after the large wall of rock, now overgrown with trees, that conceals it from the road (see Venables, 1867, page 30).  The flight of steps called Jacob's Ladder appears on old postcards - see Francis Frith - but from contemporary descriptions its location is easily findable on Google Maps: here on Bonchurch Village Road.  At its summit, what was Balaam's Path - here, though its name no longer appears on maps - connects it to the western end of the cul de sac called The Pitts.

Paths in this part of the Island present a few very interesting byways. The coastal land comprising the Undercliff is backed by a nearly continuous vertical escarpment around 60m high, and there are not many ways down. They include ancient steep roads with the local name "Shute" - Niton Shute, St Lawrence Shute and Bonchurch Shute - as well as a number of footpaths, some precarious (the particular difficulty being to ascend the overhanging crags that top the escarpment).

Probably the best known is the Cripple Path at Niton, as described in John Gwilliams's 1844 Rambles in the Isle of Wight:
At a short distance from Niton, he will find Cripple Path, a sort of terrific staircase, cut out of the side of the Cliff: it is, however, not prudent to ascend, or descend this path in very windy weather: a young female was some years ago blown from the summit of the Cliff, after ascending this singular spot, into the brambles and trees beneath, and though the fall was nearly for the space of 200 feet, she sustained no injury or inconvenience whatever, except a slight insensibility of a few minutes' duration.
It was closed a couple of years ago due to fears about the overhang, but was open as of May this year: see YouTube for a good video - the cripple path - st lawrence / niton undercliff - isle of wight - and check out the poster's channel, MrWilliestrokes, as he has posted a lot of excellent IOW/exploration videos. A second well-known one is St Rhadegund's Path, which crosses the fields from nearby Whitwell, then drops to St Lawrence; it involves steep but uncomplicated steps (here's a nice image). The names of both may well involve folk etymology:
The ‘Cripple Path’ linked the Undercliff portion of Niton Parish with the village and church. The name was first recorded in 1608 and comes from an Old English word [crypel] for a narrow passage (Kökeritz 1940, 182)
St Rhadegund’s Path linked the Undercliff portion of Whitwell Parish with Whitwell Church, which bore the unusual dedication to St Rhadegund. However, the path was called ‘Radegang’ in AD 1285 and Kökeritz (1940, 284) has suggested that the original meaning was ‘bridle-path’, with the modern form being a corruption due to popular etymology.
- Historic Environment Action Plan: The Undercliff, Isle of Wight County Archaeology and Historic Environment Service, October 2008
Further east, there's a third well-known path off the escarpment: The Devil's Chimney between Shanklin and Bonchurch, a claustrophobic descent down steps right through the crags (perhaps exploiting natural joints in the rock). This is also well-known: see and another great video by MrWilliestrokes - the devils chimney - the landslip - bonchurch - isle of wight.

But it doesn't stop there.  MrW has another video, which he calls "The son of Devil's Chimney", of a very similar path in the same vicinity; I think its name is actually The Chink. It's of curiosity that these features seem undocumented until very recently; I can find no reference to a "Devil's Chimney" in the many Victorian accounts of this area.

And above Bonchurch itself, there's a little-known descent called The Chimney (you can see the top in Google Maps). Chimney Steps are pretty scary - see MrW's Panoramio photos under the label "Steep and windy steps" (59618090 and 59617998). Here's a video, first ascending Jacob's Ladder, then going along Balaam's Path, then ascending The Chimney.

I find the whole thing fascinating: the idea that amid suburbanized and overgrown terrain, there exist forgotten landscapes. To the north of Undermount is a crag surmounted by a summit called Flagstaff Rock aka Hadfield's Lookout; this still exists, but overgrown. You can see it from Bonchurch Village Road - see Google Maps. Another feature, Pulpit Rock, is described in some detail in Bonchurch, Shanklin & the Undercliff, and their vicinities (1849, Internet Archive bonchurchshankli00cook) ), and sounds a remarkably twee development. Does it still exist somewhere in a garden or under trees?

I don't know, but I guess not: this 1849 engraving suggests it looks pretty ready to collapse. Are there other paths up the cliff at Bonchurch still extant, those mentioned in Edmund Venables's 1867 A guide to he Undercliff of the Isle of Wight, Shanklin and Blackgang:

Passing the gate of Cliffden (Gr. Hibbert, Esq.) one of the loveliest of the many lovely spots in this place where all is beautiful, and the Rectory, we reach the Upper Terrace, and the Hotel (Ribbands'), which has acquired a well-deserved reputation as one of the best and most comfortable in England, and offers an admirable winter retreat to such as are indisposed to incur the trouble of housekeeping. The grounds at the back command some fine views, and the heights may be reached from them by a rough rock staircase.
Several of the houses on the Upper Terrace enjoy the same privilege with the Hotel of scaling the cliffs by one of the rifts that seam its face. There is also a public path or "chimney" at the back of Woodbine Cottage, but so steep and so badly kept as to deter all but expert clamberers. A more ready and easy access from Bonchurch to the Downs is greatly needed, and should be provided at any sacrifice of private convenience.
Again, I don't know. But there are other unnamed paths, elsewhere, between the top of the escarpment and the Undercliff . We went up one of them on May 26th - see The road more travelled ... - and I'm investigating others that appear on the map.

And by the way, do check out Historic Environment Action Plan: The Undercliff, Isle of Wight County Archaeology and Historic Environment Service, October 2008. If you're into the IOW Undercliff, this has some excellent information.

- Ray


  1. That was a great read Ray. I'm hoping to visit the area this week with some friends over from Canada. They'll have never seen anything like this!

  2. Thanks, Lee. Bonchurch is very cool; and if you want similar (and even more spectacular) descents, check out The Devil's Chimney and The Chink. They're just a little way along the road. The Landslip is wonderful woodland: you expect to see unicorns in there.