The Undercliff

The Undercliff is the name of several areas of landslip on the south coast of England. They include ones on the Isle of Wight; on the Dorset-Devon border near Lyme Regis; on cliffs near Branscombe in East Devon; and at White Nothe, Dorset. All arose from slump of harder strata over softer clay, giving rise to irregular landscapes of peaks, gullies and slipped blocks, that have become densely vegetated due to their isolation and change of land use. The Kent coast at Folkestone and Sandgate also has similar undercliff areas.

Isle of Wight

Iow undercliff sep08
Undercliff at St Lawrence, looking down from the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.

The Undercliff on the Isle of Wight skirts the southern edge of the island from Niton to Bonchurch. A favourable climate here has resulted in a semi-tropical environment, covered by lush vegetation.

The microclimate of warm sunshine, moist air and few winter chills was recognised by leading physicians in Victorian times as a beneficial environment for sufferers of respiratory diseases. This led to the establishment by Arthur Hill Hassall of a chest hospital at Ventnor.

The development of Ventnor and St Lawrence during the mid-19th century saw the construction of many fine houses and villas, and the creation of some beautiful gardens. These developments included the now-demolished Steephill Castle, and a number of houses built for the industrialist William Spindler in the 1880s.[1]

The Undercliff is mostly accessible by a road, Undercliff Drive, running its length from Niton to Ventnor. It can be accessed by foot along the Isle of Wight Coastal Path.

There are some coastal erosion and landslip concerns associated with the Isle of Wight Undercliff region.[2][3][4][5][6]

West Dorset

The west Dorset coast around Charmouth and Lyme Regis includes unstable cliffs which have given rise to undercliff areas with varied topography.[7] There was a mudslide at Stonebarrow east of Charmouth in December 2000,[8] and in May 2008 there was a large landslip at Black Ven between Charmouth and Lyme Regis.[9][10]

East Devon

Axmouth to Lyme Regis

Goldencap from undercliff 06.05
Golden Cap across Lyme Bay from the Undercliff (Lyme Regis)

The Undercliff in Dorset-East Devon stretches the 5 miles (8.0 km) between Lyme Regis, near to the Cobb harbour, and Seaton. Like its namesake on the Isle of Wight, this feature also arose as a result of landslips and has become a rare and unusual habitat for plants and birds. It is a national nature reserve – the Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs NNR – and the South West Coast Path runs through it. The footpath stretches for 7 – 8 miles (13 km) and is not accessible except at each end. It is not permitted to leave the path due to the nature reserve status and the dangerous terrain.[11]

Some of the landslips that created the Undercliff took place within historical record. Recorded slips took place in 1775, 1828, 1839 (the Great Slip) and 1840. The 1839 slip was especially well-documented since the geologists Buckland and Conybeare were in the area to survey it.[12] A large tract of land below Bindon Manor and Dowlands Farm slipped, creating the features now called Goat Island and the Chasm. It took with it an area of sown wheatfield which remained sufficiently undamaged for the wheat to be harvested in 1840, when the slip was a popular visitor attraction.[13][14]

The Undercliff was formerly open rough pasture, grazed by sheep and rabbits, including features such as Donkey Green (an area of turf used for picnics and sports), Landslip Cottage (which used to sell teas to visitors),[15] and Chapel Rock (where, according to tradition, Tudor religious dissenters met).[13] However, it became heavily overgrown in the 20th century following the cessation of sheep farming and the decline in rabbits due to myxomatosis, and access is now difficult, the terrain being treacherous due to its unstable cliffs, deep gullies and dense undergrowth.[14]

Sabine Baring-Gould's 1900 novel Winefred, a story of the chalk cliffs is set in the Undercliff area, with the Great Slip as its climax. The Undercliff was also one of the settings for the novel The French Lieutenant's Woman and a location for its film adaptation.


The Hooken Undercliff is on the cliff route between Beer, Devon and Branscombe. A slump in the Chalk cliffs in 1790 separated a 10-acre (40,000 m2) tract of land, now a wooded and sheltered habitat with chalk pinnacles on the seaward side. It is reached via a steep footpath leading from the clifftop to Branscombe Beach.

East Sussex

The Undercliff Walk from Brighton to Saltdean (a path under the Brighton to Newhaven Cliffs, a Site of Special Scientific Interest) is popular with walkers and cyclists but often closed because of rockfalls.


The towns of Folkestone and Sandgate have undercliff areas formed by landslips.[16] Folkestone Warren, since stabilised by sea defences to protect the Dover-Folkestone railway that runs at its foot, is designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest and a nature reserve.[17]

Undercliff wildlife

These sections of undercliff represent some of the most important sites in the UK for the conservation of rare beetles, bees and other invertebrates. Coastal soft cliffs and slopes support a specialised assemblage of species reliant on a historical continuity of bare ground, pioneer vegetation habitats, and freshwater seepages. Rare species entirely restricted to soft cliffs in the UK include the Cliff tiger beetle Cylindera germanica, the Chine beetle Drypta dentata, the Large mining bee Osmia xanthomelana, and Morris's Wainscot moth Chortodes morrisii morrisii.


  1. ^ The Isle of Wight, David Wharton Lloyd, Nikolaus Pevsner, Yale University Press, 2006, ISBN 0-300-10733-1,
  2. ^ Isle of Wight Coastal Visitors Centre
  3. ^ Landslips on The Isle of Wight
  4. ^ West & South Isle of Wight, Standing Conference on Problems Associated with the Coastline.
  5. ^ LUCCOMBE – BLACKGANG ISLE OF WIGHT (UNITED KINGDOM), Robin G. McGiness, Isle of Wight Centre for Coastal Environment
  6. ^ Life on the Edge, Undercliff Matters, English Nature, Issue 2, September 2003.
  7. ^ West Dorset Coast SSSI citation Archived 4 June 2011 at the Wayback Machine
  8. ^ British Geological Survey: Landslide at Stonebarrow Hill
  9. ^ BBC: Dorset'sJurassic Coast
  10. ^ BGS: Landslide at Lyme Regis
  11. ^ GCR Site: 800 Axmouth to Lyme Regis Archived 8 July 2007 at the Wayback Machine, South West Grid for Learning Trust
  12. ^ Conybeare, Buckland. Memoir and Views of Landslips on the Coast of East Devon &c. 1840, John Murray, 1840
  13. ^ a b Geological Site – Axmouth to Lyme Regis Undercliffs National Nature Reserve (PDF) Educational Register of Geological Sites, Devon County Council
  14. ^ a b The Undercliff: a sketchbook of the Axmouth – Lyme Regis Nature Reserve (foreword by John Fowles), Elaine Franks, Dent & Sons, 1989
  15. ^ Rousdon Cliffs: turning back time Archived 26 October 2007 at the Wayback Machine (PDF) Natural England leaflet
  16. ^ The Sandgate Landslip, W Topley, The Geographical Journal, Vol. 1, No. 4, Apr 1893, pp. 339–341
  17. ^ East Cliff & Warren Country Park, The White Cliffs Countryside Project

External links

Arthur Hill Hassall

Arthur Hill Hassall (13 December 1817, Teddington – 9 April 1894, San Remo) was a British physician, chemist and microscopist who is primarily known for his work in public health and food safety.

Hassall was born in Middlesex as the youngest son of five children in a house of a surgeon. His father was Thomas Hassall (1771–1844) and his mother, née Ann Sherrock (c. 1778–1817). He spent his school years in Richmond.

He entered medicine through apprenticeship in 1834 to his uncle Sir James Murray (1788–1871), spending his early career in Dublin, where he also studied botany and the seashore. In 1846 he published a two-volume study, The Microscopic Anatomy of the Human Body in Health and Disease, the first English textbook on the subject.

After further studying botany at Kew and publishing on botanical topics, particularly freshwater algae, he came to public attention with his 1850 book A microscopical examination of the water supplied to the inhabitants of London and the suburban districts, which became an influential work in promoting the cause of water reform. In the early 1850s he also studied food adulteration; his reports were published in The Lancet by reformer Thomas Wakley and led directly to the 1860 Food Adulteration Act and subsequent further legislation against the practice.He also worked as physician at the Royal Free Hospital, but required long breaks through ill-health due to pulmonary tuberculosis, and in 1869 moved to the Isle of Wight. On the basis of his experience of the microclimate of the Undercliff, he established the National Cottage Hospital for Consumption and Diseases of the Chest (later Royal National Hospital for Diseases of the Chest), a sanatorium at Ventnor, Isle of Wight. The buildings were designed by local architect Thomas Hellyer.From 1878 onward, aiming to rest in warmer climates, he spent most of his time in Europe, gaining permission to practise both in San Remo, where he and his family lived, and Lucerne, where he worked in the summer. During this time he wrote extensively on climatic treatments for tuberculosis, works such as the 1879 San Remo and the Western Riviera Climatically and Medically Considered. His autobiography, The narrative of a busy life, was published in 1893.

Two medical terms are named after Hassall: Hassall's corpuscles, which are spherical bodies in the medulla of the thymus gland, and Hassall–Henle bodies, which are abnormal growths in the Descemet membrane of the eye.

His Ventnor hospital operated until 1964 when it closed, made obsolete by drug treatment of tuberculosis, to be demolished in 1969. Its grounds are now the site of Ventnor Botanic Garden.


Bonchurch is a small village to the east of Ventnor, now largely connected to the latter by suburban development, on the southern part of the Isle of Wight, England. One of the oldest settlements on the Isle of Wight, it is situated on The Undercliff adjacent to the Bonchurch Landslips (or "The Landslip") Site of Special Scientific Interest. The main village is backed by a cliff to the north, with the Upper Bonchurch section on the clifftop halfway up St Boniface Down on the main A3055 road.

Bonchurch Landslips

Bonchurch Landslips is a 28.2 hectare site of special scientific interest which is located north-east of Ventnor, Isle of Wight. A wooded coastal landslip zone, the site was notified in 1977 for both its biological and geological features.

Part of the Isle of Wight Undercliff, it is accessed by several footpaths, including V65C, that descends into the landslip via the Devil's Chimney rock cleft; V65, descending via another rock chimney called 'The Chink'; V65b from Ventnor; and V65a from Luccombe.


Branscombe is a village in the East Devon district of the English county of Devon.

The parish covers 3,440 acres (1,390 ha). Its permanent population in 2009 was estimated at 513 by the Family Health Services Authority, reducing to 507 at the 2011 Census. It is located within the East Devon Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty, overlooking Lyme Bay.

Branscombe has one of the South West's most scenic bus routes. AVMT Buses run service 899 from Seaton to Sidmouth via Beer & Branscombe.

Brighton to Newhaven Cliffs

Brighton to Newhaven Cliffs is a 165.4-hectare (409-acre) biological and geological Site of Special Scientific Interest and Geological Conservation Review site, which stretches along the coast between Brighton and Newhaven in East Sussex. An area of 16.4 hectares (41 acres) is the Castle Hill, Newhaven Local Nature Reserve

French invasion of the Isle of Wight

The French invasion of the Isle of Wight occurred during the Italian Wars in July 1545. The invasion was repulsed.

France had a long history of attacking the Isle of Wight, and the 1545 campaign proved to be the last time to date that the French have attempted to take it. Although the French forces, led by Claude d'Annebault, greatly outnumbered those of the English, the battles fought (including the battles of the Solent and Bonchurch) ended without a clear winner. However, as the French were repelled, it could be considered an English victory. Although the operation was inconclusive, the English suffered heavily, including the loss of the carrack Mary Rose in the Battle of the Solent. Details of the conflict have not been very well recorded, and some accounts claim that the French were defeated at each battle rather easily.French strategy was to effect a landing at Whitecliff Bay and cross Bembridge Down to attack Sandown, and another landing at Bonchurch with a view to marching to link up at Sandown. The northern force was intercepted whilst crossing the Down, but fought its way to Sandown Castle, which was then under construction offshore. Both forces were repulsed after stiff fighting.

The Chronicle of Charles Wriothesley (died 1562) reports: "The 21 day of July the French galleys and navie came before Portesmouth haven, and landed certeine of theyre armye in the Yle of Wyght, and there burned and camped there about to the nomber of 2,000 men, and came every tyde with theyr gallies and shott their ordinaunce at the Kinges ships in the haven; but the winde was so calme that the Kinges shippes could bear noe sayle, which was a great discomfort for them." Three days later a muster of 1500 men was sent from the City of London to repel them, but by the King's command turned back at Farnham, the French having left the Isle of Wight "and divers of them slaine and drowned."

Contemporary accounts suggest that the French (or their mercenaries) sacked the area in order to provoke the English fleet into battle against a far larger fleet. Martin Du Bellay wrote: "...To keep the enemy's forces separated, a simultaneous descent was made in three different places. On one side Seigneur Pierre Strosse was bidden to land below a little fort where the enemy had mounted some guns with which they assailed our galleys in flank, and within which a number of Island infantry had retired. These, seeing the boldness of our men, abandoned the fort and fled southwards to the shelter of a copse. Our men pursued and killed some of them and burned the surrounding habitations..."A later mention by Sir John Oglander evidently paraphrases du Bellay: "They landed at three several places at one time, purposely to divide our forces. Pierre Strosse landed at St Helens where there was a little fort, and beat our men, being divided from the fort, into the woods. Le Seigneur de Tais, General of the Foot, landed at Bonchurch, where there was a hot skirmish between them and us, and on either party many slain."The French seem to have landed at undefended points and then attacked defences from inland. At Whitecliff Bay and at Bonchurch they moved swiftly to seize the high ground. However the attacks were expected and in both cases local forces reached the high grounds to oppose them. The settlement at Nettlestone and its manor were burnt.

At Bonchurch the French landed easily at Monk's Bay, but were then faced with the difficulty of breaking out from what is known descriptively as the "Undercliff". Their solution was to ascend the extremely steep slopes of St Boniface and Bonchurch Downs, which are over 700 feet (210 m) high. The defenders thus had them at a considerable advantage, having taken up positions on the top of the hill.

Lisle Combe

Lisle Combe is an English country house on the Undercliff near Ventnor, Isle of Wight. In 1929, Alfred Noyes resided there; Hugh Noyes lived there subsequently. The house was first built in 1839 for the second son of Lord Yarborough. It was originally rectangular.

A wing addition in 1843 included a single-storey link. Another renovation followed in 1849. The many-gabled house of sandstone features fretted bargeboards, windows with square-sided bays and small oriels, a veranda, and brick work.

Merton Russell-Cotes

Sir Merton Russell-Cotes (Wolverhampton 8 May 1835 – 27 January 1921 Bournemouth) was Mayor of Bournemouth, England, 1894–95. During his Mayoralty, Meyrick Park, two free libraries, and the first two schools of art in the borough were opened.

Although his name is usually hyphenated today, there is no hyphen in his Who's Who entry or the London Gazette entry for his knighthood, and he is described on the plaque marking the opening of the Undercliff Drive and Promenade as Cllr. Cotes, not Cllr. Russell-Cotes.


Niton is a village on the Isle of Wight, west of Ventnor, with a population of 1142. It has one pub, several churches, a pottery workshop/shop, a pharmacy , a busy volunteer run library, a medical centre and three local shops including a post office. The post office includes a café that serves as a local meeting place. The village also offers a primary school with a co-located pre-school and nursery.

Roedean, East Sussex

Roedean is a village in the city of Brighton and Hove, England, UK, immediately to the east of the seaside resort of Brighton.


Rousdon is a village in East Devon off the A3052 road between Colyford and Lyme Regis in Dorset.

The small village developed around the Mansion of the Peek family in the early 19th century. A boarding school called Allhallows moved there from Honiton in 1937 and closed in 1998.

Immediately to the south are the coastal cliffs and The Undercliff wilderness area that resulted from a landslip in 1839. The South West Coast Path is the only route through it and there is no public right of way from Rousdon to that path.

Sandown Bay

Sandown Bay is a broad open bay which stretches for much of the length of the Isle of Wight's southeastern coast. It extends 8 1⁄2 miles (13.7 km) from Culver Down and Yaverland in the northeast to just south of Shanklin in the southwest, near the village of Luccombe. Near Luccombe, the bay is separated from The Undercliff by a large headland from which Upper Ventnor sits atop. The towns of Shanklin, Lake and Sandown are located on the bay's coast, while Luccombe and Upper Ventnor feature panoramic views across both Sandown Bay to the East and the Undercliff to the southwest. Due to the bay being relatively sheltered from offshore winds it is often used as temporary anchorage point for boats, including large cargo ships, before continuing east towards Continental Europe, or north towards The Solent.

St. Catherine's Down

St. Catherine's Down is a chalk down on the Isle of Wight, located near St Catherine's Point, the southernmost point on the island. The Down rises to 240 metres at its highest point, between the towns of Niton and Chale.

Upon the hill is St. Catherine's Oratory (known locally as the pepperpot"), which is a stone lighthouse built in the 14th century by Walter De Godeton. It is the second oldest, and only surviving medieval, lighthouse in the British Islands: only the Roman lighthouse at Dover is older.

Reportedly, de Godeton was found guilty for having plundered wine that belonged to the Church from the shipwreck of the St. Marie of Bayonne in Chale Bay. He was ordered to make amends, under threat of excommunication, by building and maintaining the lighthouse. It was completed after his death, and manned by a priest; fires were lit in the tower to warn ships of the coast. There was originally a chapel attached, since demolished.

There is a Bronze Age barrow near the Oratory, which was excavated in the 1920s.

A replacement lighthouse was begun in 1785, but was never completed, because the Down is prone to dense fog. Locally the surviving foundations are known as the "salt cellar".

A new lighthouse was built after the wreck of the Clarendon in 1837 to the west of Niton at the foot of the Undercliff.

The northern end of St. Catherine's Down carries the Hoy Monument. This was created by Michael Hoy in 1814 to commemorate the visit of the Russian Tsar to Great Britain, hence its informal alternative name the "Russian Monument". There is an 1857 plaque at the base that commemorates soldiers killed in the Crimean War. The Hoy Monument was repaired in 1992 at a cost of £85,000, which was donated.

St Catherine's Point

St. Catherine's Point is the southernmost point on the Isle of Wight. It is close to the village of Niton and the point where the Back of the Wight changes to the Undercliff of Ventnor.

On nearby St. Catherine's Down is St. Catherine's Oratory, locally known as the "Pepperpot", a stone lighthouse built in the 1323 by Walter De Godeton. It is Britain's oldest medieval lighthouse.Reportedly, de Godeton felt guilty for having scavenged wine, destined for a monastery from the wreck of the St. Marie of Bayonne in Chale Bay. He was ordered, on pain of excommunication, to make amends by building this lighthouse. Fires were lit in the lighthouse tower to warn ships at sea of the presence of the coast.

There was an attached chapel at one time, but it has been long demolished. There is a Bronze Age barrow nearby which was excavated in the 1920s.

A replacement lighthouse was begun in 1785. However it was never completed. Locally this half finished building is known as the "salt pot".

St. Catherine's point is often foggy, so it is not the best location for a lighthouse, but as a weather station the location is fairly suitable. The weather station is one of the 22 locations whose reports are included in the BBC Shipping Forecast.

St Lawrence, Isle of Wight

St Lawrence is a village on the south side of the Isle of Wight, in southern England. It is located to the west of Ventnor and many consider it a part of that town. St Lawrence is situated on the Undercliff, and is subject to frequent landslips. The village is a 1 1⁄2-mile (2.4 km) strip along the coast next to the English Channel, nearby bays include: Woody Bay, Mount Bay and Orchard Bay. The area of the village is around 329 acres (133 ha) in size.

Undercliff (Isle of Wight)

For other locations of the same name, see The Undercliff.

The Undercliff, Isle of Wight, England is a tract of semi-rural land, around 5 miles long by 0.25–0.5 miles wide, skirting the southern coast of the island from Niton to Bonchurch. Named after its position below the escarpment that backs this coastal section, its undulating terrain comprises a mix of rough pasture, secondary woodland, parkland, grounds of large isolated houses, and suburban development. Its sheltered south-facing location gives rise to a microclimate considerably warmer than elsewhere on the island. Although inhabited, the Undercliff is an area prone to landslips and subsidence, with accompanying loss of property over time. Settlements along the Undercliff, from west to east, are: lower Niton (also called Niton Undercliff), Puckaster, St Lawrence, Steephill, the town of Ventnor, and Bonchurch.

Undercliff State Hospital

Undercliff State Hospital was a roughly 40-acre (16 ha) hospital situated on Undercliff Road, Meriden, Connecticut. It operated from 1910 to 1976. The hospital was first built under the name Meriden Sanatorium to serve children with tuberculosis, German measles, chickenpox, and smallpox, but began to accept adult patients in 1939. In the early 1920s, the site name was changed to Undercliff Sanatorium. In 1967, it was changed once again to Undercliff Mental Health Center.The facility was decommissioned in 1976, with remaining patients being moved to cottages on the property. In 2004, the state changed the name to "Undercliff State Hospital" to be more appropriate for patients and residents. It remains open to the Connecticut Department of Developmental Services, the Department of Child and Family Services, various other state agencies and Connecticut State Police. There are several newly built DDS buildings that house mentally and physically disabled residents under the care of the state, DMR field offices, residential programs, day services programs, a respite center, and maintenance operations. Outlying cottages and houses serve more independent developmentally disabled adults, juvenile and adult sex offenders, and surplus police and military equipment.

Connecticut prohibits the public from accessing the grounds and recently removed the Undercliff Road sign. Police patrol the grounds and trespassing laws are enforced. A state police officer lives on the premises. The state is debating whether a portion of the property can be utilized for economic development to generate revenue to pay for city expenses. However Cliff House and the larger building at the top of the campus may be uninhabitable because of Americans with Disabilities Act of 1990 compliance issues.

Demolition of the campus to make way for a juvenile courthouse began in October 2013. The recreation section of the Administration and Infirmary Building was demolished, followed by the rear portion of the hospital. Current plans for the other buildings, currently used for storage, are unknown.


Ventnor () is a seaside resort and civil parish established in the Victorian era on the south-east coast of the Isle of Wight, England, eleven miles (18 km) from Newport. It is situated south of St Boniface Down, and built on steep slopes leading down to the sea. The higher part is referred to as Upper Ventnor (officially Lowtherville); the lower part, where most amenities are located, is known as Ventnor. Ventnor is sometimes taken to include the nearby and older settlements of St Lawrence and Bonchurch, which are covered by its town council. The population of the parish in 2016 was about 5,800.

Ventnor became extremely fashionable as both a health and holiday resort in the late 19th century, described as the 'English Mediterranean' and 'Mayfair by the Sea'. Medical advances during the early twentieth century reduced its role as a health resort and, like other British seaside resorts, its summer holiday trade suffered the changing nature of travel during the latter part of that century.

Its relatively sheltered location beneath the hilly chalk downland produces a microclimate with more sunny days and fewer frosts than the rest of the island. This allows many species of subtropical plant to flourish; Ventnor Botanic Garden is particularly notable. Ventnor retains a strongly Victorian character, has an active arts scene, and is regaining popularity as a place to visit.

White Nothe

White Nothe (meaning "White Nose") is a chalk headland on the English Channel coast at the eastern end of Ringstead Bay, east of Weymouth in Dorset, England. The area is well known for its geology and fossils. Its flanks are the result of prehistoric landslides and the inaccessible slopes of the undercliff provide a secluded wildlife habitat.

A zigzag path up the cliff is believed to be one of the locations alluded to as a smuggler's path in the British children's book Moonfleet by J. Meade Falkner. It is possible to walk to the base of White Nothe along the shore from Ringstead Bay, but it is cut off at high tide, so much care should be taken. At the top of the Smugglers path there is a protruding nose shape coming out of the white cliff giving the name to the area.

The area is partly owned by the National Trust. From the top of White Nothe, to the east, the chalk headland of Bat's Head can be viewed. It is possible to walk east along a clifftop path below the summit of Chaldon Hill to Durdle Door and Lulworth Cove. The Isle of Portland can be seen to the southwest across the sea.

Immediately to the northwest of White Nothe is the Burning Cliff, which from 1826 smouldered with an underground fire for several years due to the bituminous shale.Situated at the top of White Nothe is a World War II pillbox, constructed in 1940–41 of brick and concrete, as part of the anti-invasion measures. Unusually, the structure is also fitted with a Royal Observer Corps observation post built on top, which was to spot and report aircraft.

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