Land Slides Coast


Land Slides

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.

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It inspired writers like Jane Austen and was the setting for the classic opening scene

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of The French Lieutenant's Woman.

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But this wall has a far more important practical function.

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For the last 700 years,

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it's stopped the sea from literally sweeping Lyme Regis away.

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The town sits on top of one of the most unstable stretches of coastline in the country.

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The sea and the insecure ground underneath the town

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conspire to create huge landslides.

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The residents of Lyme Regis are well aware of the town's fragile foundations.

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Over the centuries many buildings have been lost to landslides,

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including the family home of Harry May back in 1962.

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-And what was this from here?

-This was down two steps and into the dining room.

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-All meals here.

-Yeah. There's not much left of it now?

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-No, there isn't.

-What did it look like then?

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I have a picture of it here.

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-Which is your house?

-This one here.

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Good heavens. It's absolutely beautiful, isn't it? With a balcony.

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Yes.

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Huge pagoda-style roof, looking over the bay and the Cobb.

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The building stayed upright, but in a terrible mess.

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So where did you live? Where did your parents take you?

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We couldn't move from this place.

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We have 180 degrees of sea view. It's the most spectacular place to live.

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My parents put up a mobile home in the back garden here, and then a caravan, and so it went from there.

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Gradually built things up again.

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How long have you been living in temporary accommodation yourself?

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Since 1962, always on this site.

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That's over 40 years!

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Yes, yes.

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Yes. It is.

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For 44 years, Harry has dreamed of rebuilding his house,

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but the land is simply too unstable.

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What is it that causes so many landslips in this area?

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Some answers, it seems, can be found at nearby Charmouth Beach.

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I'm meeting earth scientist Richard Edmonds

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who's been studying this coastline's subterranean secrets.

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This is the Black Ven landslide, the largest coastal landslide

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in Europe. It happened in 1958-1959.

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-This great tongue of vegetation reaching out into the channel.

-Yes.

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Why is it that Lyme Regis is at such risk, Richard?

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It's built on this stuff. Its Lower Jurassic clay.

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It dates back from about 195 million years ago

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and it's very soft.

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Even worse is that the hilltops are capped with a sandstone. The sandstone is porous.

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The rainwater soaks down through it, but once it reaches these dark clays,

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it ponds up at the junction between the two rock types, lubricates the clay surface

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and great big chunks of clifftop break off and slide down the cliff face.

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It wasn't until the late 1990s that technology became available

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to offer Lyme Regis some long-term security.

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The town is now in the middle of a £24 million defence scheme -

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the first of its kind in the world.

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There are two elements. There's this massive new beach

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and then there's work in the actual hill behind the sea wall, which is prone to landslides, to stabilise it.

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75,000 tonnes of gravel have been put onto this beach.

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It's really aiming to absorb the wave energy, so the waves, rather than smash against the sea wall,

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the wave energy will be focused onto the beach.

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A second really important element is it's adding weight

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to the toe of the landslides behind here,

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so the landslides are being propped up by this massive weight of shingle.

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40 years after Harry May saw his house collapse,

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the land has been stabilised.

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Harry is now close to realising his dream of finally rebuilding his family home.

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What will you feel when you walk through the front door for the first time?

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Oh...

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Wonderful!

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Mmm, wonderful.

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Really will be.

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Very emotional.

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Mmm.

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Very.

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