Sunday, 18 January 2015

Branscombe: "curious rather than beautiful" petrifactions

The South Devon Coast by Charles G Harper mentions an interesting phenomenon I'd not heard of previously: the formation of petrified moss in the outflow of cliff springs near Branscombe. This led to an associated local vogue for petrifying things deliberately.
The location Harper describes is around here
There is fine, rough walking up over the cliffs past the coastguard station of Branscombe, or down by the sandy shingle to Littlecombe Shoot and Weston Mouth, where the landsprings well out of the marly cliff-sides and petrify everything within reach. At the cost of scaling some of the buttery slides of red mud, and becoming more or less smothered with an ochreous mess resembling anchovy paste, it is possible to find most interesting examples of petrified moss and blackberry brambles ; but the weaker brethren and those "righteous men" (as defined by Mrs. Poyser), who are "keerful of their clothes," purchase such specimens as they may at Branscombe, and on their return home, yarn about the Alpine difficulties of discovering them.
Away up the valley road [at Branscombe] are little groups of the quaintest cottages, with tiny strips of gardens scarce more than two feet wide, forming, as it were, a fringe or hem to the walls, and merging directly, without fence, into the roadway. But no gardens anywhere can show greater fertility or a more pleasing variety of flowers. Among them are to be seen spoils of the neighbouring cliffs, in the shape of petrified vegetation from the coast between Branscombe and Weston Mouth.
-  pages 40-41, The South Devon coast (Charles G Harper, 1907, Internet Archive southdevoncoast00harpuoft)
Here's a compilation of a number of other accounts, which help locate where precisely it was:
At Lincombe shoot, half a mile to the eastward of Weston mouth, is a singular petrifying spring. A considerable quantity of moss beautifully encrusted, is here dug out from the cliffs, and frequently offered for sale at Sidmouth.
- page 96, A Descriptive Sketch of Sidmouth (Theodore Hands Mogridge, 1838, Google Books ID GplYAAAAcAAJ).

The springs that filtre out of the cliffs near Salcombe Mouth contain much earthy matter in suspension, which they deposit upon whatever substances they run over. Thus we there found a snail-shell completely coated with stone, at first sight having all the appearances of a fossil: and the "petrified moss" so called, which is little else than this plant similarly covered with the earthy particles which the water deposited during the time that it percolated its fibres, is so far admired as to be often collected for the sake of ornamenting- lawns, rockeries, and gardens.
- pages 41-42, The Geology of Sidmouth and of South-Eastern Devon (J. Harvey, 1843, Google Books ID 9vo4AAAAMAAJ).

At the opening where the stream from Salcombe emerges, the walk can be pursued inland, as described: but we will keep to the beach. Just beyond Salcombe mouth, there used to be some petrifying springs at the base of the cliff, among the reeds growing there: but they have either lost their lythic qualities, or the fall of the earth has choked them. As the water was charged with earthy matter, such objects as pieces of wood, twigs, snail shells, or moss, on which it may have dripped, soon became covered with a coating of stone. Great quantities of petrified moss used to be collected at this spring and others, and used as ornament for rockeries, fountains, &c.
-  page 26, A New Guide to Sidmouth and the Neighbourhood (Peter Orlando Hutchinson, 1857, Google Books ID JPcGAAAAQAAJ).
POH also mentions the petrifying springs in his diaries, indicating the interesting detail that they were used to deliberately petrify objects (as with the Dropping Well at Knaresborough, and similar locations). He was, however, disappointed:
Thu. Mar. 31- Walked to the Dunscombe Cliffs again. Went along the beach: entered at Salcombe Mouth: mounted Maylands Hill: saw two swallows, the first this year: placed three short tobacco pipes in the brook at Lincombe Shoot, to see if they will get coated with stone: (see Sept.10. 1858).
Mon. Nov. 14- After much rain, the weather for the last week has been dry. Walked with Captain Greatheed to the petrifying spring, Lincombe Shoot, Dunscombe, to look for my tobacco pipes deposited there months ago. Alas I could not find them.
- Sidmouth, November 1859, POH Transcripts - 1859, East Devon AONB
Another account expands on this use of the spring:
Near the mouth of the Salcombe brook, at the base of the cliff, are petrifying springs, and in most of the houses in Sidmouth, stone and glass bottles, masses of moss, and every sort of object encrusted with lime from these springs, are treasured up as curiosities.
- page 358, The Route Book of Devon (1870, Google Books ID GPgGAAAAQAAJ).

Dunscombe overlooks another combe Weston Mouth. From the path a track descends through a wood to the coastguard station near the shingle. At eventide the white houses are overshadowed by the tall precipice called Dunscombe Cliff, 351 feet high. The cliffs hereabouts are full of springs which, washing down the red and yellow soil, stain the pebbles with parti-coloured streaks. Between Weston Mouth and Branscombe, the next mouth, these springs have petrifying qualities. It is worth, I am told I have never tried it a scramble up the undercliff to obtain specimens of the fossilised vegetation. A friend of mine found a beautiful piece of bramble petrified most perfectly, even to the thorns. Specimens may be seen about the cottage doors at Branscombe, principally mosses. They are curious rather than beautiful, and, having in the process turned a greyish colour, bear some resemblance to that digestible but very unromantic comestible tripe!
- page 409, The Coasts of Devon and Lundy Island; their towns, villages, scenery, antiquities and legends (John Lloyd Warden Page, 1895, Internet Archive coastsofdevonlun00pageuoft)

In the springs that run down from the cliffs at and around Weston Mouth, Barbula lurida Lindb. forms large blocks of "petrified" moss, of which only the extreme. tips remain free from deposit.
- page 567, Report and Transactions of the Devonshire Association for the Advancement of Science, Literature and Art, Volume 50, 1918.
I wonder if any of this stuff is still extant as ornaments locally? And despite Peter Orlando Hutchinson's statement of this being a phenomenon that "used to be", whether such springs still exist in the vicinity? Another exploration for the summer...

Update: it seems there may be traces. I was just reading Cliff and Beach at Branscombe (Barbara Farquharson & Sue Dymond, Branscombe Project, 2014), and it mentions that "during the great storms of Spring 2014 a great block of sandstone crashed to the beach near Littlecombe Shoot, bringing with it a 'cushion' of brittle petrified moss.

- Ray

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