|Hooken Undercliff - Sept 06, 2012|
A part of the high cliff facing the sea, between Beer and Branscombe, called Southdown, was the scene of a great landslip in 1790, when upwards of ten acres of land sunk down about 250 feet.
- History, gazetteer, and directory of Devonshire, William White, 1850
Woodward and Ussher's The Geology of the Country Near Sidmouth and Lyme Regis dates it more precisely to March 1790, quoting George Roberts (the historian of Lyme Regis) saying that two years before a fine stream had ceased to flow at the site, and that cracks had appeared long before the catastrophe. This extract from the Geological Conservation Review gives a graphic account of the event:
... in the middle of the night, a tract of from seven to ten acres, ranging along the brow of a steep cliff immediately overhanging the sea, suddenly sank down from 200 to 260 feet, presenting a striking group of shattered pinnacles and columns of chalk entangled with the sunken fragments of the fields thus torn away from their native site; the remains of hedges still traversed these fragments, and a stile was seen undisturbed on the summit of one of the subsided columnar masses. The subsided mass pressed forward into the sea … fishermen relate that points on which they had laid their crab-pots beneath the water, and over which they had sailed the night before … were raised … on a reef at a height of fifteen feet in the air
- W Dawson (Civil Engineer of Exeter) et al, 1840
See here for a geological account, which notes that a great deal of fallen material from the slip has been eroded by the sea. See the Westcountry Studies Library image - Rocks at Branscombe (1819) - which shows a deal of now-disappeared rock to seaward of the present-day pinnacles. Another interesting point is that it wasn't always as overgrown as today; there are one or two remnants of stone buildings in the undergrowth, and this sign of human presence is explained in Arthur William Clayden's 1906 The History of Devonshire Scenery; An Essay in Geographical Evolution:
There is a beautiful walk here along the sloping undercliff through the little fields where early young potatoes are raised in quantities. Tall pinnacles of fallen blocks stand out above the greensward of Under Hooken.
Perhaps one should visit the Hooken Undercliff sooner rather than later, as such features are not long-lasting on a geological, or even historical, time-scale.