The Jurassic Coast is the popular name for the Dorset and East Devon Coast World Heritage Site, England’s first natural site putting it on a par with the Great Barrier Reef and the Grand Canyon as one of the wonders of the natural world. It became a World Heritage Site due to its outstanding geology which represents 185 million years of earth history in just 95 miles. It displays not just Jurassic but also older Triassic and younger Cretaceous rocks too and this walk is actually over the Triassic around Branscombe and Cretaceous at Beer.
Fishing has been Beer’s main source of income over many years and the fleet can often be seen berthed on the pebble beach. Other trades such as lace-making, quarrying and smuggling have also been important to Beer at various times. Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was partly made of Beer lace, while the quarries to the west of the village date back to Roman times and have supplied stone for Exeter and Winchester Cathedrals and a range of other grand buildings such as Hampton Court, as well as many Devon churches. Smuggling was also formerly rife on this once remote coast and Beer was the home of perhaps Devon’s most famous smuggler, Jack Rattenbury.
The walk along the top of Hooken Cliffs is a superb one on a good day. Atmospheric wind-shaped stunted trees on the edge of the cliff complement the wide sea views stretching ahead to Berry Head on the far side of Tor Bay. If it is clear, the mouth of the Exe should be visible and, nearer, Straight Point and the very prominent Peak Hill with Sidmouth at its foot.
The valley of Branscombe, runs almost parallel to the coast. There is no central village but rather a scatter of hamlets strung up the valley. Some of them can be seen ahead. Towards the sea the valley bears round to end at the beach at Branscombe Mouth. Formerly quite isolated, Branscombe was another haunt for smugglers but also served as the point from which local chalk and lime, used as fertiliser, was shipped to other parts of the coast. Footpaths lead from Branscombe Mouth up the valley to Branscombe hamlets, including “Vicarage” and further up the valley “Street”, both with much acclaimed pubs.
The Undercliff was formed when one night in March 1790 ten acres of cliff land dropped 60-80m/200-250 feet vertically and slumped over 200m/220 yards seawards. The movement created rock columns and pinnacles still obvious today and the land was quickly colonised by nearly impenetrable vegetation. Inland there are impressive views of the cliff faces, rock strata and the scars of more recent falls. Some of the openings in the cliff face form the seaward end of the historic Beer quarries.
Beer Head, is the most westerly chalk outcrop in England. Associated with this chalk is flint, also the most westerly occurrence in England. In prehistoric times the flint made this an important area and during the Neolithic period Beer flints were in use throughout the South West. Possibly associated with this, traces of a prehistoric field system have been found on Beer Head. Today, flint remains in use for many buildings in the village.