Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 4/A run upon the Chesil Bank

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Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV (1860-1861)
A run upon the Chesil Bank
by Daniel Pidgeon
2345490Once a Week, Series 1, Volume IV — A run upon the Chesil Bank
1860-1861Daniel Pidgeon


In a previous Number[1] we took occasion, while describing one of the chief breakwaters now in course of construction on our coasts, to advert briefly to the beach of the Isle of Portland, or, as it is locally named, the “Chesil Bank.” Those of our readers who did us the honour to make one of our party on that occasion will remember that we promised to give some additional details of this remarkable bank at a future time; may we hope they will not be disinclined to accompany us once more while we endeavour to fulfil our pledge?

Presuming, as in duty bound, the day to be fine and breezy, that we have left the little town of Weymouth some four miles behind us, given a parting glance at those very common objects of the shore with which all sea-side visitors and admirers of Mr. Leech are so well acquainted, paid our halfpenny at the “ferry-bridge” which unites the beach and the mainland, and crossing, we stand ancle-deep in small pebbles. Dismiss from your mind at once, dear reader, all your commonly received ideas of the general peculiarities of a beach if you would understand what this one is like; let Brighton, Hove, and Eastbourne fade from your recollection; banish Folkestone and Hastings, Ventnor and Sandown, from your thoughts: we tread no common pebbles. Before us is a steeply sloping wall of shingle rising some thirty feet above our heads, and, almost washing our feet; the calm ripple of Portland Roads breaks on this hither slope of the bank. Struggling with many slippings and sinkings to the summit, another sea stretches out before us, downwards towards which again the beach gently slopes. We stand upon a comparatively narrow isthmus of pebbles, the sea landlocked and quiet within, white, restless, and limitless without. At about a mile to our left the beach strikes the island of Portland, and is rapidly lost in its cliffs, while towards the right it trends away ten miles or more from where we stand, the grey brown tint of the stones about us gaining a ruddier hue as they recede, till in the middle distance the shingle looks like a long dull red line parting the blue and white water; gradually this too becomes more aërial and refined, till it is finally lost in a reddened haze on the view horizon.

Strolling as well as the nature of the ground will permit us towards Portland, we soon become aware of a sensible increase in the dimensions of the bank; its height and width become greater, and the pebbles larger and larger as we advance. In the opposite direction the reverse of this takes place; the beach dwindles slowly mile by mile, and we need only walk far enough to find the big stones dwarfed to the size of eggs, then marbles, and, lastly, gravel and sand at the Eype rocks some two miles beyond Bridport. It would probably take any one of our party many weary marches over this treacherous heavy ground before he could tell, within a long, long way, the position in which he stood upon the bank by reference to the size of individual pebbles; yet in days of high duties instead of French treaties, when profits on contraband goods were large and smugglers many and cunning, the experienced crew found plainly marked milestones in every pebble even in the darkest nights, and could tell within a very little at what distance from the island a run had been effected.

The independent position of the beach is by far its most striking feature, continuing, long after its novelty has ceased to astonish, to suggest the inquiry, How came this pebble isthmus cutting the blue bay in half, and leaving Portland perhaps the most problematic island in the world? For we suppose that, judged by the standard of Goldsmith or Johnson, the term is misapplied. If an island, to be truly worthy of its name, must necessarily be completely surrounded by water, then is Portland a peninsula; if, however, it is sufficient for the attainment of insular dignity that a patch of cliff, some seven miles long by three miles wide, should be detached from the mainland by an intervening space of five miles of blue water bridged only by a thin streak of beach, then do we set both geographer and lexicographer at nought, and dub their technical peninsula a practical island.

The interest of this little philological difficulty does not last us long in the immediate presence of the “previous question,” How did these pebbles get where we see them? Did they rise one fine day bodily from the bed of the sea, and form the bar by some sudden cataclysmic effort? Then, too, setting aside this problem for a moment, we face another equally puzzling question. Where did they come from? We have been many a time over every inch of the white cliffs of Portland; we have seen them from above, from below, and from the water; we have examined the published geological sections of the island, yet nowhere within its boundaries have we been able to discover a single stratum from which the stones about us could have been derived. They are for the most part chalk flints, with an admixture of darker-coloured pebbles from some older formation than the island sufficient to give the reddish tinge to the bank. Let us fare forth for a long imaginary ramble with two or three representatives of the general contents of the beach in our pockets, and try to track them to their original source. Recrossing the ferry-bridge we find the mainland to be a continuation of the oolitic strata of Portland, and following the coast line we pass Langton, Abbotsbury, Burton, and Bridport, with the same or allied formations beneath our feet. On to Lyme Regis, with its famous liassic strata fruitful in fossil monsters, but barren of either of the objects of our search. Already we have travelled twenty-five miles from our starting-point, and have not found so much as a single flintstone.

At last, between Lyme and Axmouth, we come upon chalk and green sand extending almost to Sidmouth, and yielding flints in abundance. We have reached the great storehouse of this material from which the Chesil pebbles have been derived; and this is the nearest possible point from which the greater part of the bank can have come. But the reddish-brown pebbles, where are they? Not much farther ahead. Leaving Sidmouth, we enter the new red sandstone, and moving still westward we shortly reach the pretty little village of Budleigh Salterton. Our march is done, and we halt upon a beach of which every pebble is more or less a counterpart of the specimen we brought along with us. The sandstone crumbling year by year, attacked by gales and washed by water, drops on the shore an inexhaustible supply of these red-brown stones whose travels begin only in the fall from the parent rock, and end upon the strange isthmus thirty miles away. Matter, like man, plays many a part before it leaves the world’s stage. The flint and the sandstone pebble are dug up again for modern uses by that inexorable utilitarian Nature, after a measureless period of repose which has succeeded their last appearance. Both have helped at least once before to line the shores of a primeval ocean with red beaches such as those of to-day, for both come to their work rounded and waterworn, marked unmistakeably with the badge of their previous employment æons ago.

Fishing by Moonlight off the Chesil Bank.

Now, if the diligent reader will take a map of England and glance at the towns we have named, he will see that we tax his powers of faith somewhat largely when we bid him believe that every pebble which rolls beneath the feet of Portland fishers has crossed the West Bay, performed a journey varying in distance from thirty to forty miles, and been finally arrested where we now stand. Such, nevertheless, is the fact, and the south-westerly gales which blow upon these coasts throughout almost the entire year, are the immediate agents in the work: these, sometimes slowly, sometimes rapidly, as calmer or rougher times prevail, clear out ton after ton of pebbles from the localities mentioned, and roll them along the shore; the exodus of stones going on until some obstacle crossing the path of the prevailing wind arrests their progress:—this obstacle is found in the Chesil Bank.

But how (formidable a barrier as it now is) did it first become so? Why, when once started, did the pebbles stop, thus suddenly arrested in mid-ocean? The reason is very simple, although not obvious. From Portland to the mainland there runs at a few feet above the low-tide level a bank of stiff clay covered up deep in pebbles now and hidden from all observation less searching than that of the boring-bar; by this the travelling stones were first checked and accumulation begun. Through how many circling years the winds and waves have been about their task we know not, yet it is not probable that this action is a very slow and lingering one; the sea, which can patiently gnaw century after century at some refractory rock which falls at length, can prove itself a quick worker on occasion. At times there come fierce gales with their attendant heavy ground-swells. As the quick waves strike the beach the hollow roar of rolling pebbles marks each receding column of water; masses of shingle are scoured away while the hurricane lasts: one night of this fierce work will carry back into deep water from two to three and four millions of tons of stone, yet these, on the return of calmer weather, will all be thrown in again in the course of very few days. We have chosen a bright summer day for our visit, a day when the West Bay is lazily flinging in its five or six waves per minute; when white-sailed yachts and tall ships slide between us and the horizon; when the gulls are wheeling peacefully about their nests among the cliffs, and all Nature suns herself and rests. The mention of ground-swells, however, reminds us of times when storm instead of sunshine has tempted us with its grandeur, and we have crouched here behind the fishermen’s semicircular rough stone curtains erected for protection, holding fast on while the hard rain and blinding spray struck the face, striving to see, through the mist-darkened shadows of a November afternoon, the mad sea wrestling with the cruel wind. At times like these the Chesil Bank is not a place of the pleasantest associations; the long ridge of stone breasting the channel rollers becomes with every storm a strong protection or a deadly danger to the seaman’s life, just as it happens upon which side of it his ship lies. A terrible place for stranded vessels is this red beach when the south-wester is fairly loosed; at such times the waves which fall in here are terrific,—one breaker alone falling full upon a vessel of large size, which had driven on the bank, has been known completely to destroy and break it to pieces. Terrible as such a lee-shore is, however, some very remarkable escapes have happened here. The 23rd of November, 1824, for instance, was made memorable on all this coast by a night of severe storm. On that night a small sloop bound for Portsmouth found herself unable to “fetch” Portland Bill, and lay at the mercy of the gale, with the certainty of stranding upon the beach before her. With death imminent, which no human effort seemed able to avert, the captain tried one last desperate venture for life. Abandoning the vain attempt to make an offing, he put the vessel’s head straight for the bank. Thus with sail upon her, the howling wind driving her at speed towards the shore, the dark November night around her, she held on a steady course. During the few minutes which elapsed before she struck, the hard tense silence of suspense reigned from stem to stern; there was nothing more to do now but wait with the grim quiet courage of sailors the coming blow. One chance for life remained, and only one. A lucky wave might lift the craft with way upon her high above the deadly hammer of the breaking seas; so it proved: just when the black shore showed close through the night, one huge roller took the little vessel, aided by her momentum, rapidly onward and upward almost to the very crest of the beach. How the grip of that painful silence loosened, and what a thankful cheer rang out against the gale as with comparatively little damage the good ship Ebenezer settled down, with her keel deep in the pebbles, out of the reach of anything more dangerous than the spray flung at her from the disappointed surges!

But we have digressed considerably, while as yet we have not exhausted the interests of the bank itself.

It seems odd here—as indeed it does on any beach—to find that an inversion of what we should naturally consider to be the order in sizes of the shingle from low-water line upwards takes place. The biggest pebbles are always highest up, lining the high-water mark. Now, having already shown that the pebbles are brought to shore by the action of the water, the inference seems clear that this element would be so far like most other bearers of burdens that it would take the first opportunity of dropping the heaviest portion of its load. We should expect then to find the large stones at low-water and the gravel at high-water line; this is precisely what does not take place, for we all know that it is towards the sea we must walk to come upon the finest portion of a beach. Here this is strikingly apparent; the shingle diminishing very regularly in size as we descend the slope.

We account for the paradox thus: when an advancing wave throws down upon the shore its load of pebbles and retires, it is evident that the discharged freight will lie more or less closely packed just in proportion to the size of the stones which compose it; that sand or gravel, for example, will form a comparatively flat floor over which the following wave will roll the larger pebbles, until the smallest among these have packed into one another with sufficient approach to a level surface to permit the water to pass over them without any great tendency to move them further forwards. The largest sizes, however, can never lie so closely together but that enough of their surface will remain exposed to allow of their propulsion by a wave of very ordinary force; hence their travels will not end till the sea, like a successful Sisyphus, has lodged them at high-water line.

This law, which is in force on all beaches, has a perfectly gigantic exemplification at Portland; for not only is it here true of the slope comprised between tide-marks, but its action is extended throughout the whole length of the beach. It has previously been mentioned that both the general dimensions of the bank as well as the individual sizes of the shingle diminish from the island to the Eype Rocks: it seems natural to suppose that the gravel to the westward has been derived from the large stones east, presuming these to have been driven from east to west, and ground smaller and smaller with every mile of their progress. But the winds to whose efforts the existence of the bank is due, blow, as has been shown, from the opposite quarter to that which would be required for this result, and the rule just stated furnishes the true explanation of the difficulty. Large stones and small are brought together to the beach, and whether between tide-marks or along the whole length of the isthmus, it is the rolling of the larger pebbles upon the smaller in the manner shown, which in the course of ages has produced the perfect sorting that we see.

The black boats which dot the bank at intervals throughout its whole visible extent attracted the attention on our arrival; huge and unwieldy as they look at close approach, they are picturesque enough, even in the deserted condition in which they have stood all the morning with their bows looking toward the West Bay. Everything on board is neat and snug, with no sign of present use or movement about them. A stranger’s innocent ignorance might be pardoned for supposing that they were beached and done with for some time to come; that work was over, and no fish in the offing. A crowd of men and lads, however, of the true fisherman type, come running along the beach, and form groups around each boat in our neighbourhood. Something is evidently in the wind. It may be worth our while to get near a crew, and rest upon the clean pebbles while we watch them. How listlessly the men loll about in various attitudes of repose. A few oldsters—lookers-on like ourselves—sit apart in knots calmly chatting, while the lads, true to their instincts, are skylarking about the beach. Each of these groups in their way forms a strong contrast with the keen-eyed look-out, who stands alone high up upon the shingle, with quick eyes fixed seaward. For a quarter, or perhaps half an hour, the whole keep thus, when, at a signal from the watcher unmarked by us, every figure starts into action; the young ones run for a few moments rapidly towards the boat, but the older hands almost immediately resume their lounging postures. We turn to a neighbour to ask the reason for this sudden change, who points to the adjacent boat, which we see has been beforehand with our friends, and is already on the water. “First come, first serve,” is the rule upon the beach; and hence the returning inaction. No long time passes, however, before all are alive again; another signal from above, and the two stout lads, already in the boat, seize the bow-oars. Some six men fall in line on either side with hands upon the gunwale. A shout! a bend of the muscular backs, and she glides grating rapidly over the pebbles, the men running at her sides till her bows touch the water; on the instant the bow-oars are dipped and her head kept seaward, while, with her momentum still upon her, the launchers have flashed knee-deep through the waves, and with one quick spring together are over the side, clasping each an oar. The steersman shouts, “Give way!” the blades dip, and, settling down steadily to their work, the crew soon leave the shore behind them.

The afternoon closes while we sit waiting the return of the boat; at length she nears us, borne on the summit of an advancing wave; the rowers back her towards the beach, a rope is flung ashore, and now pull together men, and jump eager boys from her sides, waist deep in the water to help her onward; lay the oars crosswise upon the pebbles; once more together with a will, and your craft is high and dry.

And now for the fish. Bobbing up and down with every ripple, a semicircle of cork-floats tells us the position of the net; the busy crew haul upon the lines, and every minute the dancing curve lessens in diameter. Women have come upon the scene, and creels are countless. Flash! A single white belly glistens in the moonlight; the corks come closer and closer; fish after fish shows his glittering sides above the water, and in a minute more the red pebbles gleam with their living load; thousands upon thousands of jumping and writhing mackarel are lying on the bank, while men and women rush, creel in hand, upon them. Picking and sorting, though profitable, is poor work in a picturesque point of view, and we leave our fishermen busy at their closing labours; not, however, without a tribute to the courage, endurance, and skill these men have often shown in other work than their immediate calling. When the dark times of sea life come, when the moonlit water of this placid evening has become the deadly foe with which to struggle for the dear life, then has many a shipwrecked sailor had cause to thank God for the bold and hardy life and training which have helped to make the beach fishermen ever ready to brave danger, or, if need be, to face death when the need arises.

We have said nothing of, nor will our space allow us to do more than briefly glance at, the water on the inner side of the bank. This, after passing Ferrybridge, changes from an open bay to a creek, having the beach and mainland for its respective shores. At Abbotsbury the creek widens into a seeming lake of large size. Here there is a swannery and duck decoy, while the water is the resort of wild fowl innumerable. Over the wide flat shores of the mainland the rudely built swans’-nests lie thickly scattered: these are deserted now, but a stray egg here and there tells of addledom and blighted parents’ hopes, while hard by the brood of brown cygnets, essaying a first swim, speaks of successful sittings. At the right season too, if fond of wild fowl, we might find pleasure in watching the water black with coots, terns, and duck, or follow behind the sheltering curtains of the decoy the knowing tactics of the little dog who is so valuable an ally to the seductive tame birds. To all these things together, with the bank of whose chief points of interest we have endeavoured to give some general idea, we bid farewell, trusting that our tramp over the pebbles has not tired our reader’s mental legs. In these days of Alpine clubs and muscular science, it may seem presumptuous to speak of physical fatigue in connection with any explorations short of a hitherto unattempted glacier; still, to those having scanter summer holidays at command than the happy fellows who can spend their six weeks among the Upper Alps, we can strongly recommend for geological and zoological interest, for picturesque beauty of a very singular and unusual order, as well as for a right down hard day’s march, a run upon the Chesil Bank.

Daniel Pidgeon.