Sea cliffs are unstable on the Devon/Dorset coastline and landslips are common. It's all to do with the geological deposition of harder rocks like chert and chalk over the softer Gault clay. Every now and then a chunk of land breaks off and slides into the sea. Normally these are small erosions, but occasionally there are much bigger slips — for which there's plenty of evidence all along this section of coast.
On Christmas Eve 1839, between Seaton and Lyme Regis, eight million tons of rock and soil slid seawards forming a completely separate block of land — later named 'Goat Island' — and a huge gully called 'The Chasm'. Acres of farmers' cultivated fields disappeared in an instant. Over the following years and decades wild nature took its inevitable course. This is the most impressive by far of all English coastal slips (though there are some good ones on the Isle of Wight), and the whole area is known as the Undercliff. There's a narrow path which runs all the way across it.
However, walking the seven and a half miles through the Undercliff — particularly when the path is sticky with mud and slippery with leaves — is not for the faint-hearted. A single path winds up and down through a jungle of ash and maple, birch and sycamore, ivy-covered boulders and dense undergrowth. Toiling through it, I had the illusion I was walking on the spot and getting nowhere. Time hung suspended. This was a lost and secret world.
Long strands of brambles brushed and pricked at my face; shiny hart's-tongue ferns sprouted from rock crevices. It was not the time of year for wild flowers, and the only bright colours which stood out from the muted, background green were the reddish-orange seeds of the stinking iris and the red breasts of the robins. Ivy was pervasive, enveloping everything — the rocks, the tree trunks, the whole woodland floor itself.
There were birds — I could hear ravens and seagulls calling above the canopy — but most proved elusive, except for the blackbirds scuffling through the dead leaves and the mouse-like wrens with their cocked-up tails. I felt, as I so often feel in overgrown forest, that something wonderful and exciting, something unusual and momentous, was happening in a place just out of sight and out of reach. That beyond that tree root embedded in the path, beyond that mossy stump, beyond that creeping ivy and spreading rhododendron, a woodland Holy Grail was waiting to be discovered: a rare orchid perhaps, or a tawny owl sitting motionless on a branch, or a golden chalice from some Anglo-Saxon hoard gleaming in a sudden burst of sunlight. But everything remained obstinately hidden in some near-yet-far cleft in the rock, in some secluded glade or clearing — or in some dark recess of the mind.
I emerged from the Undercliff, and made my way down to the Cobb at Lyme Regis, the famous breakwater featured in The French Lieutenant's Woman, that classic novel by John Fowles. This book was, of course, later made into a film directed by Karel Reisz and starring Meryl Streep as the femme fatale, Sarah Woodruff, and Jeremy Irons as Charles Smithson, the fossil collector. I recalled that the last time I'd been in Lyme Regis, over a quarter of a century ago ago, I'd seen Fowles himself in the town's museum. He was the museum's curator, and remained so for ten years (from 1978 to 1988), and then became its archivist.
I walked to the end of the Cobb, to the spot where Meryl Streep had stood in the film, and the weather was equally wet and windy. Then, retracing my steps, I suddenly noticed thousands upon thousands of fossils imprinted in the stone slabs which paved the breakwater.