Documenting the seasons of coastal Dorset. I'm a complete amateur so don't trust I'm always right. If ever you see I'm wrong - whether with identifications or in anything else - do say!

Thursday, 30 March 2017

THE DAY I LOST MY NERVE

On the tops of the cliffs at Burton Bradstock there are sheep fields with dry stone walls.
This morning I emailed a friend to say I was about to walk beside the Broadchurch cliffs near Burton Bradstock.

Quick fire he replied; he'd be frightened to go to the Broadchurch Cliffs but for someone living in Midsommer it would probably feel like a holiday.

Explanations.

The cliffs along the short stretch of Dorset Coast between Burton Bradstock and West Bay are integral to the plot of the television drama 'Broadchurch'. They loom over it. They set the atmosphere.

In the first series a boy's body is found beneath them. (Not a spoiler - the start of the story.) I'm not sure what happened in the second series because it was all a bit of a blur - so very much overloaded with events and surprises it's forgettable; all but the scenery. - the scenery can never be ignored. We're into the third and final series now. It's about rape. It's not cheerful TV. The music is drone. It never lets up. The action is slow. Little happens. But it's well plotted and well acted so each hour-long episode flies as fast as twenty minutes. (Come to think of it, there are three advert breaks in each so it probably is only twenty minutes.)

Midsommer Murders is a long-running detective series set in rural Oxfordshire. There are so many people murdered in every episode it's a standing joke there's anyone left to kill. For the residents of Midsommer, one dead boy is nothing. (They are different genres.)

That's all fiction.
What is not fiction is that these cliffs are terrifying.
They are so terrifying I didn't take any photos.
I didn't walk beside them.
I didn't walk beneath them.
I ran away.

The sea was magnificent.
The waves were enormous.
The roar was exciting.
There was a small crowd of people waiting for the tide to turn so there would be enough safe space between cliffs and water wide enough to pass through safely.

I was terrified. It wasn't just that the cliffs might crumble (which they might) . . . I couldn't stand the feeling of being loomed over. Nature-bloggers aren't supposed to scream inside and flee from their subject matter. But these cliffs are big and red and cracked and gold and they ripple like tall curtains from sky to beach.

I don't like them.
(Shame you can't see them!)

Fortunately, cliffs have grassy tops as well as pebbly bottoms so I walked along up high instead - where there were gulls and fulmars and larks and crows and sunshine and drizzle.

Of course these tops are the earth and rocks which would fall to the beach if the cliffs were to crack, so the choice was not between living and dying but between being crushed by hundreds of tons of rubble or being part of the rubble hurtling down. But light is good. And it's reassuring to imagine one might be able to leap fast enough to cross an unfolding chasm and run inland if necessary. (Through the sheep-field.)

I didn't walk far. When I reached the mouth of the River Bride, I turned back. Rain threatened. 

If I could have turned it into a sunny day for you, I would have.
The River Bride is a pretty little river - and pretty creepy too. Here, as it fights its way into the sea, it carves the most extraordinary shapes. (Its birth at Little Bredy, six miles inland, is the setting for the first Broadchurch rape.)

Dorset is a weird county. It's one of the most beautiful places on earth yet the fiction it inspires is cruel.

Take Thomas Hardy. He wasn't exactly a barrel of laughs.
Mayor of Casterbridge - a drunken man sells his wife to a stranger.
The Trumpet Major - a young woman is sexually harassed by the nephew of the local squire. 
Tess of the d'Urbervilles - a young woman is raped, her baby dies, there are all sorts of complications, she eventually kills her 'seducer' and is executed.

Because I didn't walk below the cliffs I can only show you views from the top!
I had a nice walk though.

P.S. If this were a literary blog I would be wanting to know why there's a cheerful picture of someone hanging out washing on the front cover of Tess of the d'Ubervilles and how come Penguin can describe The Trumpet Major as 'Lyrical and lighthearted'.

The links between literature, landscape and sorrow can be pretty weird.
Humans are weird.
Wouldn't you say?

P.P.S. Readers who've never visited these cliffs may be disappointed there's no picture to show what it's like to look up at them. I just say they frighten me because they loom and might fall over. . . . So I suppose I'll have to go back soon and have another bash at being brave. Not brave for long, you understand. Just brave enough to aim my camera at their stark and dark and rippled faces - before running.

16 comments:

happywonderer.com said...

Ha! Yes...humans are weird. I'm a fan of Midsommer Murders. When Dear and I were in England in 2014 we tracked down one of the pubs that were featured in an episode or two and tried the Midsommer brew. Beautiful landscape albeit scary!

Marie Smith said...

One line of my ancestors came from Dorset. It is beautiful. I hope to visit there one day, to walk the beaches and the cliffs.

Down by the sea said...

I fully understand why you didn't want to walk under those cliffs! We try and only walk under them when the tide is out not that it would be completely safe if there was a cliff fall as it covers a wide area. I didn't appreciate how much more sheltered Weymouth Bay and Portland harbour compared with the coastline here! It is amazing standing on the beach and watching the River Bride make it's course to the sea. The banks of the river on the shingle constantly move. Sarah x

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Hello Happy Wonderer. I like Midsommer Murders too. The scenery is lovely, the characters engaging and the plots so incredibly daft and predictable there's something comforting about them: the baddy gets caught, the police go home for tea and everyone is safe again.
Oxfordshire in real life can be a bit scary too. In one part there are miles of straight lanes instead of bendy between hedgerows; with flat fields either side and no people. That area reminds me of Waterland by Graham Swift - awfulness in emptiness. (Set in the Norfolk Broads. I'm not necessarily recommending it - you might not like it. It too is pretty grim but it's another example of beautiful landscape used to show up the worst in people.)

Marie - if ever you get an opportunity to see Dorset then do take it. It's incredibly beautiful, incredibly varied, incredibly un-known and surprisingly under-visited.

'Broadchurch' grips our imagination and is a proper story but is too 'real' to be comfortable.

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Morning Sarah. I'm thinking I'll start from the West Bay end next time. I think the gap between the cliffs and the sea is wider along that western bit. I'd checked the tide-table in advance and waited till I could see the sea was going out pretty fast - but the beach still seemed very narrow. A woman ahead of me fell as she hurried back from the water. She wasn't in danger of being swept away - just of getting her feet wet. But it un-nerves me that the only way to escape the danger of the sea is to run towards the danger of the cliffs. (And they don't half LOOM!)

WILLIE........! =^..^= said...

Dorset....God's own county..!
I was saying to Sarah, in a comment on one of her
lovely posts recently, l must jump in the car and
get down Bridport again, it's a few years since,
l've been down that way, it used to be part of my
area, when working full time. great place to be and
visit! And, Burton Bradstock...Yes! Lovely place, so
open and lovely. And, the photo of the 'dry stone wall'
is quite unique..with such character!
I enjoy watching Last of the Summer Wine..Mon~Frid..The
area is full of them!

And, the photo of the sea, on your other post..Amazing!
Wish l was there right now...With my shoes and socks of
of course! :).

Barbara Fisher said...

I’m going to get there one of these days Lucy, and when I do I will take a photo of those cliffs and share it on my blog – just for you, and anyone else who cares to take a look. (I might just chicken out when I get there, in which case there won’t be any photos on my blog!)

I loved this post even with its missing photos, thank you. Barbara

PS I only watch Broadchurch so I can ogle David Tennant, I don’t really care about the plot. :-)

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Hello Barbara - it would be good to read your 'take' on these cliffs if ever you do visit.
One of the things which grabs one about Broadchurch, I think, is the wide view of them taken from out at sea. I imagine some people will take this to be CGI they are so extraordinary. Indeed, they look impossible.

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Hello Willie. I think if you took your shoes and socks off in this surf you might be swept away!

philipstrange said...

Like Sarah, I would only walk at low tide but I think you have done a Thomas Hardy and invested these cliffs with their own malevolent character, which I completely understand.

As for old Mr Hardy, dont forget The Woodlanders with its multiple adulteries and lingering death, The Return of the Native with Eustacia and Egdon Heath,scary stuff, and I refuse to ever open Jude again (the same is true for Tess whch is beyond sad).

I did the Trumpet Major for O level and recently reread it. I was surprised how poor it was although I do agree with your comment about sexual harrassment.

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Hello Philip. It's true, I'm adding an emotion to these cliffs which they don't deserve. The cliffs are neutral; it's me that's frightened.
I do hope I'm not casting too much unwarranted gloom over the landscape. That's one of the things which puzzles me about Hardy - how can he have lived somewhere so beautiful yet have been so morose in his writing? Maybe he thought using beauty to show beauty would have landed him in sentimentality. Have you read any of his short stories? Some of them I like better than the novels. (Perhaps it's best to take gloom in small doses!)

Brian Skeys said...

Dorset use to be one of my favourite holiday destinations........perhaps the secret is not to read too much. (Excluding garden blogs!)

liz said...

I borrowed the first two seasons of "Broadchurch" from the local library and do remember the beach and cliffs in the opening to which you refer. I think, like you, I would have stayed above, although I wouldn't have looked down (vertigo). "Midsommer Murders" are on TV here in the middle of the night and if I happen to see one, it's much gentler fare!
Your literary landscape was very interesting. I must visit Dorset again one day.

philipstrange said...

Hi Lucy
I think my comments about Hardy were unduly negative. I recently re-read The Return of the Native and despite the awful things that happen, I did like it. I see it as a Dorset version of Wuthering Heights and Hardy's decription of Eustacia in the chapter entitled "Queen of Night" is truly gripping.
I have read some short stories and I particularly like the one about the drunken Quire. Then there is the poetry, which I do like.
I think Hardy tried to portray his fellow humans, warts and all. He saw the way people behaved, often selfishly, and how this affects the lives of others and tried to write this down. Philip

desertskyquilts said...

I had to look at the cliffs on the internet photos. I hope to see your take on them, since I don't know at what point your were walking. They ARE awfully tall, but in the pictures don't look too scary. I expect up close and personal, they could have a different effect entirely. =)

Lucy Corrander at Loose and Leafy said...

Hello Brian. There's every reason to have Dorset as one of your top holiday destinations as it's one of the top-most beautiful places in the world. Maybe you are right - the answer is not to read too much fiction! - except it really is interesting to work out why a particular story is set in a particular landscape . . or what story a particular landscape might inspire. Something I've never managed to come to terms with is that some of the worlds greatest horrors, its greatest cruelties, take place in beautiful locations.

Hello Liz. Just to add to the drama . . . people can fall off the crumbly tops as easily as they can get squashed by the falling rocks. Some edges are held together by the roots of grass alone. Definitely a 'mind the void' situation.

Hello Philip. I used to hate Thomas Hardy's books. Now I like some a lot and would even recommend them. I like The Return of the Native and, believe it or not, The Mayor of Casterbridge. The latter, perhaps, because after being initially overwhelmed by inevitable awfulnesses I began to wonder what the worse thing was that could happen next and gained some pleasure from feeling proud that I'd scored points when I got it right. (I'm not sure one is supposed to treat literature like a game though!) Can't stand the dreariness of The Woodlanders - surely Hardy should have felt bound to give us a break from coincidences from time to time?

Hello DesertQuilts. I don't know which pictures you looked at . . and I must try to put some here . . . but the thing about these cliffs is not just that they are very tall but that they are very crumbly. Indeed, it's their tendency to collapse which is the danger. When there are rock-falls the debris carries a long way - right out across the water - and it is not uncommon (though fortunately not frequent either) that people are trapped under the fallen rocks.