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Culture: Undercliff Walk

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View looking towards the marina

Doing the Undercliff Walk

East of the Marina is one of Brighton's most unusual and inspiring walks, along the bottom of the chalk cliffs that run from the Marina to the suburb of Saldean, a distance of about 4.5 km. The cliff is a part of a longer line of cliffs that reach along the coast to the port of Newhaven.

However, this is not a walk along a sandy or shingle beach but along what is known as a seawall. To do the Undercliff Walk is to walk along a battlement, but the enemy is not an army or even a navy, but the sea. The coastline, literally the line between the sea and the land, is ever changing. Left to nature the cliff face would recede as erosion by wave, wind and rain brings about rock falls, year on year, perhaps by as much as 0.5 metres per year. But on top of the cliff runs the busy A259 coast road, not so very far from the cliff's edge. And in the cliff at about the level of the seawall runs the main trunk intercepting sewer from Brighton to Portobello where it discharges into the sea via a long sea outfall. This sewer is about 7ft in diameter.

Some Kind of Fortress or Battlement

So in the 1930s it was decided that extensive measures were View looking east needed to halt the erosion of the cliff, and the seawall was built by Brighton Council as a job creation scheme during the economic recession of those times. It was from the beginning envisaged as a recreational and tourist attraction, and so it has remained.

The battle with the sea is never won, and although the cliff face is largely protected from wave action, the seawall takes a constant battering and is in need of ongoing renovation. The most recent work, particularly on the section between the Marina and Ovingdean, has made the seawall more fortress like than ever. Climate change and the threat of rising sea levels and hence the likelihood of more destructive storms have meant that even stronger defences are necessary.

This time round the council has also made more sustained arrangements for the protection of walkers from falling chalk and flints. (Oh yes! erosion cannot be stopped, only slowed down.) Depending on the width of the promenade at various points there are shingle beds at the side of the cliff or steels nets overehead to catch recalcitrant lumps of chalk and flints.

Should you were a Hard Hat?

Steel nets to catch falling chalk and flints

So who would want to walk along this concrete promenade with a 2 -3 feet thick parapet wall? Many do!

The concrete structure itself has its own beauty. At high tide with the waves lapping or crashing against the wall it seems your at sea walking the deck of a concrete ship. At low tide you can go down to the beach via one of the concrete staircases and explore the rock pools, or wonder at the strange chalk floor of the seashore - what is known as the wave cut table, that is, the chalk bedrock left as the cliff has receded.

On a sunny day the glare from the south-facing cliffs is intense and many will want to wear their sunglasses. The cliffs as you see them today are somewhat 'manicured'. When the seawall was built in the 30s, the cliff face was scraped to produce what was thought of as a self-weathering angle of about 72 degrees. Looking at the cliff face today it is obvious that a great deal of weathering has gone on in the intervening decades and in places great chalk A large lump of fallen chalkboulders are making their way to the front - so to speak. More commonly what you see is the chalk face of the cliff covered with hundreds and thousands of protruding flint nodules. The chalk erodes more rapidly than the flint, leaving the flints exposed until they too finally fall down the face of the cliff. If you do the walk on a day when the sea is calm and quiet, then it very likely that at some point in your journey you'll hear the soft twack of a flint or piece of chalk dislodging and hitting the deck, not far away from you.

The photograph to the right shows an unusually large lump of chalk that has fallen this past winter.

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