Nicholas Crane unearths the story of massive mudslides in Lyme Regis, meeting a man who can at last rebuild his house - 40 years after it was demolished by a landslip.
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Lyme Regis's most famous landmark is the striking harbour wall, known as the Cobb.
It inspired writers like Jane Austen and was the setting for the classic opening scene
of The French Lieutenant's Woman.
But this wall has a far more important practical function.
For the last 700 years,
it's stopped the sea from literally sweeping Lyme Regis away.
The town sits on top of one of the most unstable stretches of coastline in the country.
The sea and the insecure ground underneath the town
conspire to create huge landslides.
The residents of Lyme Regis are well aware of the town's fragile foundations.
Over the centuries many buildings have been lost to landslides,
including the family home of Harry May back in 1962.
-And what was this from here?
-This was down two steps and into the dining room.
-All meals here.
-Yeah. There's not much left of it now?
-No, there isn't.
-What did it look like then?
I have a picture of it here.
-Which is your house?
-This one here.
Good heavens. It's absolutely beautiful, isn't it? With a balcony.
Huge pagoda-style roof, looking over the bay and the Cobb.
The building stayed upright, but in a terrible mess.
So where did you live? Where did your parents take you?
We couldn't move from this place.
We have 180 degrees of sea view. It's the most spectacular place to live.
My parents put up a mobile home in the back garden here, and then a caravan, and so it went from there.
Gradually built things up again.
How long have you been living in temporary accommodation yourself?
Since 1962, always on this site.
That's over 40 years!
Yes. It is.
For 44 years, Harry has dreamed of rebuilding his house,
but the land is simply too unstable.
What is it that causes so many landslips in this area?
Some answers, it seems, can be found at nearby Charmouth Beach.
I'm meeting earth scientist Richard Edmonds
who's been studying this coastline's subterranean secrets.
This is the Black Ven landslide, the largest coastal landslide
in Europe. It happened in 1958-1959.
-This great tongue of vegetation reaching out into the channel.
Why is it that Lyme Regis is at such risk, Richard?
It's built on this stuff. Its Lower Jurassic clay.
It dates back from about 195 million years ago
and it's very soft.
Even worse is that the hilltops are capped with a sandstone. The sandstone is porous.
The rainwater soaks down through it, but once it reaches these dark clays,
it ponds up at the junction between the two rock types, lubricates the clay surface
and great big chunks of clifftop break off and slide down the cliff face.
It wasn't until the late 1990s that technology became available
to offer Lyme Regis some long-term security.
The town is now in the middle of a £24 million defence scheme -
the first of its kind in the world.
There are two elements. There's this massive new beach
and then there's work in the actual hill behind the sea wall, which is prone to landslides, to stabilise it.
75,000 tonnes of gravel have been put onto this beach.
It's really aiming to absorb the wave energy, so the waves, rather than smash against the sea wall,
the wave energy will be focused onto the beach.
A second really important element is it's adding weight
to the toe of the landslides behind here,
so the landslides are being propped up by this massive weight of shingle.
40 years after Harry May saw his house collapse,
the land has been stabilised.
Harry is now close to realising his dream of finally rebuilding his family home.
What will you feel when you walk through the front door for the first time?
Really will be.