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
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?
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 boulders 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.