Jurassic journey

As a child I spent my summer holidays in East Devon on the farm where my grandparents lived. I remember being fascinated by the red soil, the red cows and the red pebbles at Budleigh Salterton. This beach lies near the western end of the Jurassic Coast and at the mouth of the River Otter. Over fifty years ago I visited this place with my Grandma. Yesterday morning I stood here once more, studying the sculpted red cliffs behind the beach.

At intervals, whitish bulges run vertically down from the cliff top. These are the fossilised roots of trees which had existed 235 million years ago when Britain was part of a huge land mass much nearer the equator. These trees had sent roots down into the red sandy desert searching for water. Minerals that dissolved in the water grew in crystals round the roots encasing them. As time went by the streams moved and the plants died leaving the nodules encasing their roots. The fossilised remains tell this ancient story.

It was hard work walking on the beach over large round pebbles varying in colour from pale pink to dark red, some with vivid splotches and others veined with lines of quartz. There were small black ones with white stripes and pink marbled ones mottled with brown. These pebbles come from a layer in the cliff called the Budleigh Salterton Pebble Bed. They are unique and were deposited by a river 250 million years ago before being buried. Erosion has caused them to be dislodged from the cliff, forming the beach. They are made of a very hard rock called quartzite.

On the shoreline were flanges of strange white jelly glistening among the pebbles. I think they must have been torn-off tentacles of the barrel jellyfish that have been sighted recently off the coast. There was little other debris apart from cuttle fish and the occasional crab shell.

Behind the beach and the brightly coloured beach huts were banks of coastal wild flowers and the exotic Hottentot fig. The tufted tops of wild carrot, pink lacy thrift, pale convolvulus, woody tree mallows and valerian all flourished here with a buzzing throng of insects visiting the flower heads.

In the distance the marshy mouth of the Otter formed a plateau backed by a row of trees that looked like a scene off an old railway poster, the reds and greens of this unique landscape giving the place a slightly surreal feeling. Somewhere inland, beavers were making this river their home.

At the end of the day I was at Chiswell on Portland, towards the eastern end of the Jurassic Coast, watching the sun go down off Chesil. A beachcomber, limbs weathered like driftwood foraged on the shore grappling with a tangled mass of orange, blue and green rope. He eventually walked away leaving these dreadlocks from the sea sprawled on the pebbles like a punk-style mermaid.


  1. Hi scillyshrew. I so enjoy your wanderings, your fascinating and vivid recording of detail, thankyou. You appear to be made of similar ‘stuff’ as me, having grown up on the chalky Ringstead Bay cliff tops. If you haven’t been to Whitenothe and Smugglers path and slithered and slipped here yet then I would advise this walk, – with care and a harness! Not only is this to thank you for such special insights, but to ask you a question if you wouldn’t mind. What camera do you use? I have in mind a new purchase, and would like some advice. I would like to take closeup and personals of my garden and its wildlife content, silly shrews being one of them

    Best wishes for wanderings Ruth Whitty Technician/Instructor/Tutor for Horticulture Kingston Maurward College Dorchester DT2 8BL

    01305215183 Ruth.whitty@kmc.ac.uk [cid:image001.png@01D0B405.62CEF1B0]

    1. Hi Ruth – thank you for your kind comments. Yes, I’ve lived in Dorset just about all my life and my family on my father’s side were farm labourers in Dorset. I definitely have chalk in my bones! However, I haven’t tried the walk you suggest, but will try to do so in the summer. I mostly use my old Canon Ixus for the photos but if I want a better result I use a Canon Powershot 12. Both cameras have fixed lenses and a zoom, but the Powershot has a more powerful zoom. If you want to take distant shots you’d be better with a camera that takes separate lenses so you can put on a telephoto. I’m mostly concentrating on the South Dorset Ridgeway at the moment, writing poems and starting some drawings and linocuts as well as writing prose, but I’m busy running creative writing and art workshops so time is tight! Anyway, nice to hear from you. Let me know how you get on.

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