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Demonstrations of natural power have tragic results

By Western Morning News  |  Posted: December 18, 2012

  • After relentless rainfall, fossil hunters scour the beach along the Jurassic Coast in West Dorset . Picture: Richard Austin

  • Chunks of the sheer cliffs at Sidmouth tumbled down onto the beach in July this year

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A series of dramatic landslides have hit the Westcountry over the past year, including a terrifying slip from Hell's Mouth in Cornwall that was captured on video then posted on the internet.

Rockfalls along the Devon and Dorset's Jurassic coast can be a godsend for fossil hunters, who flock to the scene before the dust has even settled looking to see what treasures from the ancient past have been unearthed.

But for those caught up in such spectacular demonstrations of natural power it can be costly and even tragic.

In July, a man and a woman from Taunton were killed after having been buried in their car at a tunnel in Beaminster, Dorset. Just weeks later in the county, a 22-year-old woman on holiday with her family was found dead under hundreds of tonnes of rubble at Burton Bradstock.

Geologist Dr Robin Shail, who lectures at Exeter University, said cliff falls were an "emotional" issue, for obvious reasons.

He added: "We tend to have an idea of permanence about the landscape but it is evolving all the time – cliffs are formed by land falling down.

Dr Shail said the fragile rocks of the Jurassic coast as well as the harder granite cliffs further west in Devon and Cornwall were all susceptible to the same fracturing effects, from rain and wave erosion.

"In really high-risk areas such as Lyme Regis you can have a system of bore holes and strain meters," he added.

"Where you have such instrumentation you can predict landslides but it is an expensive monitoring process.

"It is always a good idea to give cliff faces a wide berth and if you see stuff on the beach that is always a good indicator of potential danger."

In East Devon, a dozen properties are at risk of falling over an eroding cliff edge, which is losing land at up to 4m (13ft) a year.

The ongoing problem at Pennington Point, Sidmouth, is also caused by a combination of rainfall and wave action.

A recent meeting was held between East Devon District Council, Devon County Council and the Environment Agency to discuss short-term and longer-term options.

One plan was literally washed away, when tonnes of aggregate dredged from the River Sid and intended to be used to shore up the foot of the cliff was swept away by a tidal surge last week.

Work on new surveys in the New Year begin today.

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  • Sowester  |  December 18 2012, 11:02AM

    "caused by a combination of rainfall and wave action" + bad decisions and inaction by all the authorities involved. It is widely believed in Sidmouth that the expensive investigation leading to the building of the rock breakwaters off Clifton was flawed, and led to the increased scouring that causes the accelerated undermining process at Pennington Point, putting the Eastern Town in jeopardy. Enough money has been wasted on endless investigations and talking shops since then to have paid for a solution years ago. The original Victorian groynes should have been restored instead. They at least knew what they were doing. Badly done all concerned!

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