Sunday, 10 June 2012

The Landslip - Bonchurch to Shanklin

And so to the Bonchurch Landslip ... From Ventnor (see previously) we took the flat but rather dull route eastward along the sea wall via a couple of bays - Wheelers Bay and Horseshoe Bay - backed by rubbly cliffs. When you get to Monks Bay and the shoreline settlement called Bonchurch Shore, things start getting interesting.

The location was very popular with artists, as testified by this blue plaque to various watercolourists that were mostly unknown to me: Clarkson Stanfield, Edward W Cooke, Thomas M Richardson, Thomas CL Rowbotham, Myles B Foster, and Ernest A Waterlow.

At Bonchurch Shore, it's a very short detour inland up the Bonchurch Old Church (see previously) and to the new church, where Swinburne is buried. From there you can pick up the coastal path again, and after passing a playing field with the very ominous sign about there being a deep crack in the ground behind the goal, you ascend into the Landslip proper, which occupies a blunt promontory historically called East End.

Visitors have been enthusing about the East End Landslip for around two centuries. It's an odd thought, in this era of easy travel and Google Maps, that a spectacular landslip took place in 1817 or 1818 (accounts differ), and its scenic aftermath remained little-known for many years. John Albin's 1823 A companion to the Isle of Wight has a good contemporary account of the scene only a few years after (see page 80), and it begins:
To those who have time and inclination, we would recommend the examination of an highly interesting scene in the neighbourhood of Bonchurch, hitherto almost unknown to strangers; and indeed, from the remoteness and privacy of its situation, nearly so to the greater part of the inhabitants of the Island.
And this was what those with time and inclination got to see:

East End landslip, mid 19th century print - uncredited image from The Life Project
A few decades after the slip, when it had acquired a patina of vegetation, it must have been an amazing sight. At the time, when there was still the 18th century classification of landscape on a scale between "beautiful" via "picturesque" to "sublime"(awesome but scary) it was regularly described as "sublime".

East End Landslip, from WB Cook's 1849
Bonchurch, Shanklin & the Undercliff, and their vicinities
Descending the sloping grounds of Luccombe by a beaten track, we pass the gate of Luccombe Chine Cottage, and through an enclosed field, we enter the wood at East End, which leads immediately to the Landslip. Its devious path, winding through the thicket of small branching trees and brushwood, where —

"Huge fragments jutting forth, display
Their crowns of evergreen."

One of these fallen rocks, in the midst of the wood, is aptly converted into a seat for the accommodation of pedestrians, and here silence and solitude seem to fix their reign. Proceeding a little further, the scene suddenly opens, and the stranger is at once struck with the stupendous devastation spread around. A portion of the mighty rocks that have slipped from their bases appears leaning in towering grandeur, against the parent cliffs that still maintain their station, above the chaos below them, resembling an extended line of fortification, from whose yawning clefts protrude large trees, whilst among the detached heaps, huge roots of holly, ivy, and other evergreens are entangled and interspersed, presenting a fine contrast to the gray and hoary tinge of the vast rocky fragments with which the scene abounds. Wild flowers of various hues have sprung up amidst the verdure, peering in their native beauty amongst the ferns of this romantic tract.

Not a trace of human habitation is here to be descried, scarce a track, but of the cattle that graze the waste, or of stragglers from the sheep-walks that have made their way from the downs above. The hawk, the wild pigeon, and the lapwing, the inmates of the cliff, appear to be the rightful occupiers of the spot, or share it with the crow and chough, who frequent these scattered heaps, and feast upon the carcasses of luckless sheep and cattle that often fall over the rugged precipices of this desolate region and are dashed upon the rocks beneath.

- Bonchurch, Shanklin & the Undercliff, and their vicinities, WB Cooke, 1849, Internet Archive bonchurchshankli00cook
The Victorians and Edwardians added a level of safety to the sublimity, with broad paths, railed steps and amenities. Check out Isle of Wight Historical Postards - Bonchurch, the Landslip and Luccombe - for images that include the tea tent and the stone seat (which still exists as the "Wishing Seat" - see Flickr). Nowadays, much the same applies, though the landscape is highly overgrown with mature trees; the overall impression is of an attractively tumbling woodland, with only the general switchback nature of the path and occasional vistas  giving away the disrupted nature of the landscape hidden underneath. As I said before, if you want a kind of 'lite' preview of the landscape of the Lyme Regis Undercliff (see Undercliff - visited at last), it's very similar in flavour, but with better-kept paths and minus the sheer distance and isolation.

Note the fairly sparse vegetation - this area was the scar of the 1995 slip

Photo taken October 2010
I did, however, take a brief detour up the westward path that climbs out of the Landslip via the Devil's Chimney. As I mentioned in Balaam's and other narrow paths, this is a narrow crevice through the crags that top the Landslip. I didn't get there - it being a hot day and very close, it was a slow climb and I was keeping Clare waiting (she didn't fancy the detour, and we were a bit pushed for time). However, I got as far as the crags and the steps leading up to the Chimney, and it was rather sublime in the old sense.

What these photos don't adequately indicate is how dark it was in these glades under the cliff; I had a lot of trouble getting photos. It may not be as scary as the early Victorians experienced it, but it's still a magical and impressive place. It would be quite easy to spend a day exploring the many paths inside the Landslip, but we'd booked a meal and had to move on.

steps up toward the Devil's Chimney

Ivy and ferns fill a glade below a large slipped block of the Greensand capping the Landslip

Just some of the steps down through the wood below the Devil's Chimney
A definitely tulgey wood

The walled path as you exit the Landslip at the Luccombe end

The Landslip section proper is about a kilometre. After this, the path turns into an easy track through more open woodland, with the occasional upmarket villa and garden. We passed the signpost to Luccombe Chine, but this was still flagged as out of commission - a reminder that the Landslip is still active. This paper (which has a useful primer on the geology) - Geotechnical Study Area G3: Bonchurch Landslide, Ventnor Undercliff, Isle of Wight, UK - documents the major slip of 1995; and a house called North Court collapsed as recently as April 2011 as a consequence of that slip (see VentnorBlog).

Ultimately, the path joins a road, and from there it's an easy descent northward to Shanklin; the road forks at the end of the descent, the left going via the top of Shanklin Chine into upper Shanklin (where the bus stop is) and the right into Rylstone Gardens, from which there's a set of cliff steps to lower Shanklin and the beach.

Finally, the view northward to Shanklin (left) and Sandown (far right)
- Ray

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