Christmas Day, 1839 was not a day off for William Buckland, theologian, palaeontologist, Geological Society Fellow and ‘the man who ate everything.’ Instead, it found him standing at the scene of what was to become the first large-scale landslide ever to be studied in detail by geologists.
The Axmouth-Lyme Regis stretch of the south coast of England is one of the best known landslipping areas in the country. On Christmas Eve that year, new cracks were observed along the brow of the Downs. But it was not until two farm labourers made their way home at midnight from their landlord’s Christmas Eve supper, that anyone noticed anything serious. The steep path to their cottages had sunk more than a foot since that morning.
“They retired to rest, however, but were disturbed about four o’clock in the ensuing morning by observing the walls of their tenements rending and sinking, and fissures opening in the ground around them. They repaired before six o’clock to alarm their landlord at the farm above, and then found their usual path nearly cut off, as the subsidence near the brow of the cliff had received a fresh accession of several feet since midnight, and they had to scramble up with difficulty.” (1)
Buckland, with his colleague William Conybeare, quickly began research into the causes of the catastrophe, while Mrs Buckland made a series of drawings of the scene. Their conclusions, that heavy rain in the latter half of 1839 had seeped through the overlying chalk and opened up fissures, are still valid today.
Poet Michael McKimm, who also happens to be Senior Library Assistant and frequent blogger here at the Society, included a poem based on the event in his recent collection, Fossil Sunshine, and has kindly allowed us to reproduce it here.
The Bindon Landslide
When the earth began to move, cracks daggering
the chalk cliff path, they thought nothing of it,
went home to their beds, the landlord’s Christmas
whisky still hot on their breath, bellies happy
with sweetmeats and pickle. They slept with deep,
dark dreams of the day, of the horse buckling
in the limestone quarry and heavy hods cutting
their shoulders, then darker dreams of sulphur
and sinkholes, dank pools of bitumen, rivers
of leachate, pipelines, convoys, midnight tankers,
and the sea roaring, agitated, an intolerable
stench that woke them, their tenements rending
and sinking, the moon in the window entirely ajar,
fissures gaping, they’d say, like the mouth of hell.
‘The Bindon Landslide’ is reprinted from Fossil Sunshine (Worple Press) by Michael McKimm. Fossil Sunshine is available from the Geological Society Bookshop.
1. Ten plates comprising a plan, sections, and views, representing the changes produced on the coast of East Devon, between Axmouth and Lyme Regis by the subsidence of the land and elevation of the bottom of the sea, on the 26th December, 1839, and 3rd of February, 1840 by Rev William Conybeare and William Buckland (London: John Murray, 1840)