Walking the Undercliff

Well, that’ll teach me to endorse wonderful ideas! After reading my blog on Axmouth which included the Undercliff Walk, my friend said “we should do that one day”, and today was the day!

I woke up to something I couldn’t really distinguish as either drizzle, fog, rain or sea mist, and knew then it would be wet and murky, with no chance of any sea views at all. Still, we had a plan, so we met at Holm Bush Car Park in Lyme Regis, where you can leave a car all day for £1.50. She jumped in my car and we popped across to Axmouth, where I left my car in the lay-by just by the Golf Club entrance.

Navigation on this walk couldn’t be easier – head up the killer hill to the golf club, and follow the signs! The Undercliff Walk is about 7.5m (12km) from one end to the other, and you really don’t have any choice but to do the whole thing, as there are no opt-out routes inland once you get onto the coastal path. This is clearly marked at either end, and it says to allow 3.5 to 4 hours to do it, which seems fair. It is also marked as a challenging route, with lots of lurid signs highlighting the dangers of uneven surfaces, uneven steps, falling rocks and all sorts of dangers! It is certainly not an easy walk, and does have many steps and (very!) slippery slopes, but to put it in perspective, I am quite overweight and not the fittest, and I managed it fine (albeit with a few tactical photo stops at certain points).  It is a good energetic yomp, and the rooty, rocky sections will slow you down, so don’t bother trying to beat any records, just enjoy the route.

It is a very interesting walk, as the terrain is quite unlike most of the local landscape. It is not a cliff-top walk with sweeping panoramas like the sections west of Lyme – it follows the contours of land slips along the edge of the coast, often in thick, twisty woodland, which with the monumental creeper-like ivies and clematis and the thick carpets of mosses and ferns giving it quite a jungly feel at times.  There are many fallen trees, often crusted in various fungi, ferns and lichens. Other sections are scrubby, and there is a large, open woodland of Holm Oak, which we don’t tend to see around here. The whole area is a National Nature Reserve, and part of the East Devon AONB.

I can see how in the summer, when it’s warm and still, all the pockets and dips, sheltered from the sea breezes, would be full of butterflies and bees, but today, it was wall-to-wall drizzle, so not today. Apparently it’s beautiful in the spring, with bluebells, wild garlic & wild daffodils. It is quite a wilderness, and in 3 hours we didn’t see another soul, which is pretty rare within spitting distance of Lyme Regis.

To be honest, the weather didn’t really matter, as I was expecting something jungly, damp and atmospheric, so the mists and drips were actually quite in keeping.

The Undercliff is one of the largest active coastal landslide systems in Western Europe, and has a pretty cataclysmic event in its history.

Jagged cliffs seem to be held together purely by ivy

On Christmas Day in 1839, 15 acres (6 hectares) of land slipped from the cliff to form a chasm 180 feet (60 metres) deep and ½ mile (800 metres) long. On the seaward side of the chasm a whole area slid in one unbroken piece, and left isolated, quickly became known as Goat Island. At the time, the spectacle drew thousands of tourists, including Queen Victoria, and there is a great display all about it in Lyme Regis Museum. The Bindon Landslide is also well illustrated and explained at Seaton Jurassic. Goat Island is now very important for wildflowers, as it hasn’t seen cultivation or fertiliser since the day it was isolated, making it fantastic for native species.

About halfway along, the path crosses the Peek Estate at Rousdon.  The land was bought by the eccentric but generously beneficent Henry Peek, who spent a vast fortune on a mansion house, incredible kitchen gardens, workers accommodation and entertainments, including a vast menagerie of exotic animals and a 100ft bowling alley for his workers. He also set up model schools, and in a revolutionary move, started a school garden and provided the first ever school meals for his often pitifully impoverished pupils. The estate is now a mix of holiday lets and private homes, and is private property, sadly.

We ended up coming into Lyme Regis with enough visibility to at least see the Cobb, Lyme Regis and Charmouth in the distance, and the path pops out in the Holmbush car park. There is a cafe there, or you could walk into town for a celebratory coffee, but we headed back towards Axmouth and stopped en route for a coffee at The Rousdon Village Bakery. I won’t describe this in detail as I have already blogged about it – suffice to say I had one of the best coffees ever, and a pretty magical Eccles cake, which was exactly what I needed.

Considering we both admitted to secretly hoping the other would cancel, despite the murky weather we both really enjoyed the walk – the varied terrain, Lord-of-the-Rings landscapes and atmospheric scenery made it a good energetic morning and an easy way to manage a long, linear walk, and I am tempted to go back in a different season to see it in a different guise. The only trouble is, we have so many walks around here, we are spoilt for choice, so I’ll have to make a date for it again to make sure it happens!

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