Axmouth Undercliff

Last week as I was sitting quietly in the middle of a forest that’s been designated as a nature reserve, I couldn’t help thinking about the number of people out walking there, who seemed totally oblivious to their surroundings, walking through not really looking around and talking in very loud voices to their companions. It’s something that I’ve observed many times in many different places, and is actually the concept behind my PhD. Why are they there? The scenery was fantastic; a little like I’d imagine it would be walking through a jungle. The sounds were amazing, the nearest road being several miles away meant that, apart from the occasional passing aeroplane, there was a near total absence of any anthropogenic noise.

Nature seems to be quite sensitive to our intrusion. I find that it takes a good few minutes from my arriving in a location, and sitting quietly before the wildlife there becomes accustomed to my presence, and starts to move about and make sound again. A similar thing occurs when people walk through where I’m recording, everything stops and goes quiet. The people generally tend to be behaving as if they’re walking along a busy and noisy high street. Surely the whole point of them being there is to experience the intrinsic natural qualities of that particular place?

 

An undercliff is an area of land that slippage has caused to become separated from the mainland. There are several such areas in the UK, mostly scattered along the southern coast of England, including a five mile section of the southern coast of the Isle of Wight, there’s one on the cliffs near to Branscombe in East Devon, yet another at White Nothe in Dorset, and then Axemouth undercliff on the Dorset and Devon border. All were formed by the movement or slippage of strata rock over a layer of softer clay. Erosion caused by the combined action of rain, frost and other elements has given rise to irregular, and often visually stunning landscapes of tall peaks, deep gullies and slipped blocks. These areas over time have generally also become very densely vegetated due to their isolation.

The Axmouth Undercliff; a wooded no-mans-land between cliff-top and shoreline, that stretches for 5 miles along the coast between Lyme Regis and Seaton. It is designated as a National Nature Reserve, and is home to a myriad of wonderful birds, insects and small mammals. The South West Coast Path runs along the full length of the undercliff, meandering its way through the dense jungle-like canopy of vegetation that includes ferns, wild garlic, oak and ash trees. The absence of any roadway, and thus the absence of any motor vehicle noise, provides the perfect location for field recording. The area possesses a very natural soundscape of birds, insects, and the occasional sound of scurrying animals.

Some of the landslips that helped to create the Axmouth Undercliff took place within historical record, there are slips recorded as occurring in 1775, 1828, 1839 and 1840. The great slip that took place on Christmas Day in 1839, was especially well-documented by the geologists of the time. A large tract of land below Bindon Manor and Dowlands Farm slipped, creating the features that are nowadays called Goat Island and the Chasm.

Although the route that this particular stretch of the coastal path follows is for the most part inland away from the sea, the sound produced by it; in any one of its guises is never too far away. Due to distance and the covering from the dense canopy of trees, the sea is very rarely viewed, when it is however, thanks to the height of the area the views are incredibly spectacular. As you reach the end of the undercliff, the path enters the National Trust land at Ware Cliffs, giving uninterrupted views out to sea, and around the coast as far as the Isle of Portland and Torquay, as well as below over the harbour or Cobb in Lyme Regis.

My journey along this section of the coastal pathway, began on the outskirts of Seaton. Crossing a bridge over the river, you then make a very steep ascent up and over the edge of a golf course, before going forward onto the path proper. For the first mile or so you skirt along the edges of fields and arable farmland. The fields, and most of the borders of the arable land have been left to grow wild, they were filled with many thousands of wild flowers, and were alive with the luxuriant chorus of insects, including bees, grasshoppers and butterflies. The pathway itself is for the most part very densely shaded, cool, and rich with the scent of wild garlic. Trees including Lime, Beech, Sycamore, Ash and Field Maple dominate the tree canopy here. The sound of birds and insects fills the air. I’ve discovered that nature seems to be quite sensitive to our intrusion. It takes a good few minutes from arriving in a location, setting my recording equipment up, and sitting quietly before the wildlife living there becomes accustomed to my presence, and starts to move about and make sound again. It’s when you stop to record, and sit down on the ground and look carefully around you, that you begin to notice the many small creatures that inhabit the area, the ants and beetles that can be seen crawling about across the forest floor, through the leaves, plants and fallen twigs. At one point I realised that I was sitting just a metre away from a wasp nest that was hidden from plain view by fallen leaves and foliage.

Midway along the pathway; towering up on the left-hand side you get your first glimpse of how the area has been formed, slipping and dropping away, creating as it did a new new cliff formation between the main land area and the undercliff area.
Among the many species of insect that inhabit the reserve, one of the most common seems to be the hover fly, their presence is announced by a high-frequency buzzing sound. Aptly named, they appear inquisitively on the pathway in front of you, their wings are just a blur, and are amazingly able to keep them airborne yet stationary at the same time. After a brief period of time spent in apparent observation of you, they suddenly take off either diagonally, vertically or sideways at a remarkably high speed, only to reappear seconds later in a different position. They seemed more than happy to be photographed, videoed and of course, recorded.
This area is also home to many birds, including Robins, Marsh Tits and Bullfinches, Crows, and Tree Creepers, their calls and sounds combining to create a rich and wonderful, interwoven sonic tapestry.