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the undercliff

There runs, between Lyme Regis and Axmouth six miles to the west, one of the strangest coastal landscapes in Southern England. From the air it is not very striking; one notes merely that whereas elsewhere on the coast the fields run to the cliff-edge, here they stop a mile or so short of it. The cultivated chequer of green and red-brown breaks, with a kind of joyous indiscipline, into a dark cascade of trees and undergrowth. There are no roofs. If one flies low enough one can see that the terrain is very abrupt, cut by deep chasms and accented by strange bluffs and towers of chalk and flint, which loom over the lush foliage around them like the walls of ruined castles. From the air ... but on foot this seemingly unimportant wilderness gains a strange extension. People have been lost in it for hours, and cannot believe, when they see on the map where they were lost, that their sense of isolation - and if the weather be bad, desolation - could have seemed so great.

The Undercliff - for this land is really the mile-long slope caused by the erosion of the ancient vertical cliff-face - is very steep. Flat places are as rare as visitors in it. But this teepness in effect tilts it, and its vegetation, towards the sun; and it is this fact, together with the water from the countless springs that have caused the erosion, that lends the area its botanical strangeness - its wild arbutus and ilex and other trees rarely seen growing in England; its enormous ashes and beeches; its green Brazilian chasms choked with ivy and the liana of wild clamatis; its bracken that grows seven, eight feet tall; its flowers that bloom a month earlier than anywhere else in the district. In summer it is the nearest this country can offer to a tropical jungle. It has also, like all land that has never been worked or lived on by man, its mysteries, its shadows, its dangers - only too literal ones geologically, since there are crevices and sudden falls that can bring disaster, and in places where a man with a broken leg could shout all week and not be heard. Strange as it may seem, it was slightly less solitary a hundred years ago than it is today. There is not a single cottage in the Undercliff now; in 1867 there were several, lived in by gamekeepers, woodmen, a pigherd or two. The roedeer, sure proof of abundant solitude, then must have spent less peaceful days. Now the Undercliff has reverted to a state of total wildness. The cottage walls have reverted to ivied stumps, the old branch paths have gone; no car road goes near it, the one remaining track that traverses it is often impassable.

- Jown Fowles, 'The French Lieutenant's Woman' (1969)

Here's the Undercliff today, a well-trodden part of the South West Coast Path, though it continues to be unstable ground, and the track indeed proved impassable near Axmouth, blocked by ample warning signs...

The Undercliff - 1

The Undercliff - 2

The Undercliff - 3

The Undercliff - 4

The Undercliff - 5
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