Experts warn massive Axmouth landslip could be repeated

Great landslip of 1839 formed a new harbour as big as Lyme’s Cobb and a reef more than 40ft high

THE ever changing face of the Jurassic Coast regularly reminds us of the precarious nature of man’s relationship with this volatile shoreline.

The relentless movement of the clifftops, sliding inexorably towards the sea, is awesome in its unstoppable progress.

Huge falls have been recorded over recent years – like the massive slip which transformed the 16th fairway at Lyme Regis Golf Club into a 250 yards long bunker.

Yet, they are nothing new – small fry, in fact, compared to the big slide that hit the coast between Lyme Regis and Axmouth in the 19th century.

It was on Christmas Day, 1839, that the eyes of the world switched from the great topics of the day to focus on the “great catastrophe”.

With coastguard reports of flashes of fire and the stench of sulphur fumes, some thought there had been an earthquake - or even a volcanic eruption.

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Questions were asked in Parliament, scientists scurried from all corners of the globe and even Queen Victoria set sail in her yacht to see the new wonder at first hand. Meanwhile fashionable people in London had created a dance to commemorate this great event and clergymen preached it as a judgement - “A warning from God”.

In fact, when the dust settled, it turned out to be a recurrence of what had been happening in the area for thousands of years - a landslip - but the biggest and most spectacular ever seen with over eight million tons of mostly farmland dislodged and moved.

It was rightly named the Great Landslip of 1839.

The massive movement of earth left a chasm filled with grotesque peaks and pinnacles extending for three quarters of a mile with new cliff faces over 150ft high. The gulf was from 400ft to 800ft wide.

Land moved towards Culverhole Point where coastguards found the beach violently shifting and lifting, waves crashing down as the seabed changed.

One man had his leg trapped in a fissure that suddenly appeared and had to be rescued by colleagues.

The immense pressure forced up part of the seabed, which formed a reef more than 40ft high covered with molluscs and starfish.

It enclosed two basins or harbours at each end - one bigger than the famous Cobb harbour at Lyme Regis!

This reef was washed away after a few months, but not before there was talk in Parliament of making it a safe haven for ships.

For the farmers and workers of Dowlands and Bindon farms, and other cottagers in the area, this was the most frightening Christmas ever with the land literally disappearing under their feet in the pitch dark while weird groans and moans of shifting and tearing earth were heard all around.

The landslip also resulted in the formation of Goat Island, which separated from the main farmland yet remained upright and stable with 15 acres of corn and turnips growing on top.

As news of the phenomenon spread, thousands of sightseers and scientists, with many geologists, arrived to view what seemed one of the wonders of the world.

A dance called the landslips quadrille was sold in the Capital with a lithograph of the scene. Queen Victoria sailed around in her yacht to see it for herself. But it was not such a happy time for the farmers who lost over 20 acres of corn and turnips, mainly James Chappell at Bindon. Several weeks passed before it occurred them to make good their losses or even show a profit by charging spectators which they did up until the late 1930s. The night of the famous landslip was a particularly terrifying ordeal for farm worker William Critchard and his family who lived below Dowlands Farm at newly built Rock Cottage. They woke on Christmas morning to thunderous noises and saw the floors being pushed up and the walls and ceilings cracking. The back door was stuck and a boulder had rolled into the garden where fissures were appearing. William was later hailed a hero after he ran up to warn his neighbours who took out their possessions and got clear before the major slide occurred. Today the landslip’s legacy is a spectaculare coastal stretch run as a National Nature Reserve, with a unique landscape teeming with wildlife and rare plants.

Some scientists would say conditions are exactly right for a repeat of the great landslip – and next time it could be even more spectacular.