Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Following Hiram Otter







I am currently staying in small fisherman’s cottage in the town of Fortuneswell that sits just where Portland Island in Dorset is joined to the end of Chesil Beach, an 18 mile long and fifty foot high bank of shingle with a tidal lagoon behind and the full force of the Atlantic in front. I’m here with my best friend from school days for a week’s retreat from the world: reading, walking, writing etc…

This end of Chesil Beach is called Chesil Cove and here the Island rises into a four mile long escarpment of Portland Stone with a beach of rocks and boulders below and 200ft cliffs above. In the 1880s a man called Hiram Otter, more or less singlehandedly built a path along the bottom of these cliffs to Hallelujah Bay, so named for the Biblical texts he carved there in the rocks. Although the Bay is mentioned on all the tourist signs around Chesil Cove, it wasn’t clear where it was and even locals, when asked, seemed rather unsure. So today we followed Hiram Otter’s path, which is untended, and broken, often involving something between scrambling and rock-climbing, at points it is overgrown with ivy and bramble and in other places you have to duck down onto the boulders of the beach or scrabble up almost onto the base of the cliffs.

The little text we had found about Hallelujah Bay suggested that the path led there and we reasoned that when the path stopped we should have arrived and hence, we should start looking for the work of Mr. Otter’s chisels. Alas, the path is difficult to make out in places, it wasn’t entirely clear to us whether it ended or was simply subsumed under a yet another landslide. It did, however, become clear that there was no way that any of the Biblical texts were likely to have survived.

The unexpected pleasure, however, was fossils the like of which I have never seen: two foot ammonites protruding from the huge, tumbled rocks of a landslide or whole sections of seabed lying exposed where the layers of the earth have split open as they have slipped down from the cliffs above. Not only was this exciting in a Boys’ Own Paper kind of way but it was a nice link to home where I have left R at home this week reading Sarah Water’s latest novel about two Victorian women in Lyme Regis who made a name for themselves as fossil hunters [corrected by R in the comments!]. So the fossil pic is for you babe…

2 comments:

bisto boy said...

very nice of you to think of me whilst you've been out and about. A slight correction however, I'm reading 'Remarkable Creatures' by Tracy Chevalier and it is set during the reigns of George IV & George V. It's a remarkable story based on the historical figure of Mary Anning, a renowned Fossil hunter.

bisto boy said...

George III & IV even!!!

 
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