The Undercliff, Isle of Wight, UK
Created | Updated Mar 7, 2016
Some thousands of years ago with a roar and a crunch or may be more slowly and less dramatically than that, six miles of these chalky cliffs eight-hundred feet high, subsided into the Channel. But these six miles did not quite sink into the sea. What with streams and falling earth and nature, these fallen cliffs became a luxuriant land of their own. Today they are known as the Undercliff.
- John Betjeman, 1952
The Undercliff is Europe's largest inhabited landslip, located between the Landslip and Luccombe in the east to Blackgang and the Back of the Wight in the west. It is an isolated, narrow band of land that is a mile-and-a-half wide stretching seven miles along the southernmost point of the Isle of Wight. This band of land is above the lower cliff, which divides the Undercliff from the seashore between 20-100 feet below, and the steep inner cliff, which rises up to another 300 feet above.
Here the wild and beautiful, uneven landscape meets warm, temperate, sheltered weather. The rising, falling, uneven panorama has attracted artists, poets, property developers and those suffering from diseases, who believed that the area's mild microclimate could cure any bronchial illness.
Yet just because the climate is mild and the plants growing in the beautiful Botanical Gardens exotic, visitors should not be fooled into thinking that the area is tame. The air may be in your favour, but the land and sea can be merciless when they choose to destroy the unwary.
The area of the Undercliff is dominated by the Island's 'Blue Slipper' gault clay, while the inner cliff is mainly upper greensand1 with some chalk. Unfortunately the Blue Slipper clay, though perfectly fine when kept absolutely dry, is incredibly unstable when damp. Being right next to the sea, it tends to get a bit wet. The result of which explains how the Landslip got its name; whole parts of the inner cliff gush into the sea, with particularly heavy falls recorded in 1799, when a hundred acres moved and created a 40-feet chasm. Similar falls occurred in 1810 (30 acres), 1818 (50, leaving the whole area inaccessible), 1847 and 1928. In the 1928 fall, over 250,000 tons of rock fell at Blackgang Chine, closing forever the old coast road. Over a thousand tons fell in 1935, and more in 1978, 2001 and 2014. In 1853 a large overhanging rock was destroyed to prevent potential catastrophe. Fortunately the more devastatingly unstable areas are confined to the Undercliff's east and west borders, rather than the town of Ventnor and village of Bonchurch.
As those who live in the Undercliff often say:
We live near the sea and live nearer every day.
A Brief History
If the mind of any person can remain tranquil on the first view of this wonderful country, or if he can gaze with indifference on the sublime scene above and below him, I do not envy the cool phlegm of his constitution, but I should advise him to confine his future airings to the level of dusty roads that surround our metropolis.
- Henry Wyndham, 1793
Prehistoric burials and Roman remains have been found in the Undercliff, including numerous coins and pottery. Unfortunately the land on which the Roman coins were found became very much of the aquatic persuasion2 in 1840, making further archaeological exploration impossible. In Anglo-Saxon times the area around Bonchurch was associated with Saint Boniface, whose name is given not only to the Island's highest hill, Saint Boniface Down at 787 feet above sea level, but also Pulpit Rock, from which he is supposed to have preached, and Saint Boniface Well. Bonchurch itself is supposedly named after a church built by Saint Boniface, of which no trace remains, as it may well have been wood. The old church is Norman, dating from 1070.
During the Second World War, Ventnor RADAR Station was the only RADAR station to be destroyed by the Luftwaffe.
For the local inhabitants, life revolved around the fishing year. To paraphrase, to every fish there is a season and a time for every porpoise under the sea. February was the start of the prawn season, crab and lobsters in April, mackerel in the summer, bass and cod in winter. These would not only be kept locally but also sold in the Mainland ports of Portsmouth or Southampton. When fish were not available, the illicit trade in tobacco, tea, brandy, gin and wine from France kept fishermen who knew the waters around the Wight busy. The punishment for being caught was often a minimum of five years' service in the Royal Navy. Yet the area could be perilous, with hidden reefs beneath the sea and no safe harbour to shelter from the wind. On one occasion 14 ships sank off the Undercliff in the same storm. John Wheeler, a longshoreman from Blackgang, kept a log between 1757 and 1808 which records over 100 shipwrecks in the area.
In 1545 Bonchurch was invaded by the French in the same skirmish that led to the loss of the Mary Rose. On 18 July the vast French fleet that outnumbered the English Navy Royal approached Portsmouth, where Henry VIII watched from Southsea Castle. Outnumbered, the English maintained a perfect defence in harbour and refused to leave the safety of Portsmouth to fight the French. The French hoped to lure the English ships out of port where they could be destroyed, and so invaded the Isle of Wight. One force was sent to Bonchurch, where after a violent skirmish the French gained the upper hand, routing the defenders. One rather overweight defender, Captain Fischer, realising he was unable to run away in time is reported to have called out, 'A horse! A horse! £100 for a horse!', but according to 17th Century historian John Oglander, 'None could be had even for a kingdom'. Fischer ended up slaughtered where he stood, but potentially inspiring Shakespeare. Despite their success the French forces at Bonchurch were called away to reinforce the main French position on the East Wight near Yaverland, which had been defeated by the local militia.
In 1818 a Revenue Station opened in the Undercliff, followed by a Watch House in 1855 in an attempt to counteract smuggling.
Unlike the land above the Undercliff, the Undercliff itself was not cultivated for farming until the early 19th Century, when a short-lived proliferation in farms took place before the farms were transformed into housing. Instead the Undercliff swarmed with partridges, pheasants, curlews, plovers, gulls and other game and wildfowl popularly hunted. There was, however, a corn mill above the picturesque Ventnor Cascade waterfall.
In 1807 a chalybeate spring3 was discovered between Niton and Blackgang, and a water-taking dispensary and grotto was established, complete with the nearby Sandrock Hotel in 1818. This became the Royal Sandrock Hotel following an approving visit from a young Victoria. Rich in iron, it was believed to be beneficial for those with dyspepsia and scrofulous diseases. Combining a mild climate with a potential cure-for-all, the Undercliff was set to be developed into a major Victorian tourist destination.
Hans Stanley, Governor of the Isle of Wight in 1774, was one of the first to build a rustic cottage in the Undercliff but this was demolished to make way for John Hamborough's Steephill Castle, built 1833-5. This was a crenellated Gothic mansion with fairytale towers and turrets and 1,100 acre grounds full of fountains and exotic plants. Although Hamborough went blind before it was completed, he demolished many houses and the local pub on the grounds that the original village would 'ruin the view'. Hamborough often entertained royalty, including Queen Victoria, Prince Albert, Queen Adelaide, Emperor Napoleon III and his wife Empress Eugenie and Empress Elizabeth of Austria4. Sadly Hamborough's son died in tragic circumstances in 1887, popularised in the press as the 'Ardlamont Mystery'. In 1903 American tobacco magnate John Morgan Richards, father of local author Pearl Craigie, bought the castle. He planned to build a funicular railway to a 200-feet observation tower but this, and his terrible scheme to build a tunnel under the Solent to join the Mainland to the Isle of Wight, never came to pass. Steephill Castle was demolished in 1963.
Also in the area was Sir Richard Worsley's villa Sea Cottage, the gardens of which he adorned with three temples, vineyards and Battery Bay, where he kept six bronze cannons captured from the French and said to have been cast from the bells of Nantes Cathedral. In 1805 Charles Pelham, later Lord Yarborough, inherited this house. A fond advocate of the cat-o-nine-tails, he was the first Commodore of the Royal Yacht Squadron. His son lived next door in a cottage called Lisle Combe, where Alfred Noyes later lived. Other land Yarborough inherited was later sold to Admiral Lord Jellicoe, who commanded the Royal Navy at the Battle of Jutland during the Great War.
Among the more interesting early residents was Thomas Hadon and his wife, who bought Old Park in 1820. Both decided to develop their home, but as they had completely opposite tastes they continuously demolished what the other had ordered built and replaced it with alterations and restructure according to their own predilections. They soon ended up bankrupt, despite being involved in smuggling liquor. This was much to the relief of their more aristocratic neighbours who objected to the area being a continuous building site.
A later resident of Old Park was the German industrial chemist, millionaire William Spindler. He planned to build a vast model village and harbour in the area at Binnel Bay, but just making the promenade to Ventnor and beginning work on the never-completed harbour all but bankrupted him. He did, however, manage to plant lots of trees around the Undercliff to stabilise the area slightly. He is commemorated in his native Berlin where Spindlersfield is named after him. Residents also included the Twinings tea family, who still live in Woolverton House in St Lawrence.
Because it was wild and isolated, the Undercliffe became a fashionable area for the gentry to live. After the initial period in which a few large villas dominated the area, as these plots became available, purchasers subdivided the land and crammed more and more houses into the area at great profit. The Victorians especially flocked to the area purely because it was untamed, unspoilt and natural, and then promptly began to develop everything in sight with little foresight to the consequences. For instance, they were delighted by the natural appearance of the beach, but dismayed by the difficulty experienced in getting to Ventnor. They decided that to improve the town, a pier to bring visitors direct to Ventnor by steamship would be required. This would cut travel from Portsmouth from over four hours to travel via Ryde and by land to an hour and a half. Unfortunately there was a little natural promontory sheltering the town from the easterly winds in the way of where they wanted the pier to go, so at vast expense this was blasted out of existence in the early 1860s. It was then that it was realised that it had been a natural breakwater preventing the shingle next to the shore from being swept out to sea. The shingle soon left, the shore was regularly battered by eight foot waves exposing the blue slipper clay, causing tremendous damage to the area through erosion and subsidence until the promontory was rebuilt.
By the 1840s a realisation had begun to sink in that the unchecked building of vast numbers of villas with rather poor foundations and especially no real drainage on top of extremely unstable, slippery, clay soil was probably not the best idea. Of course the high clay content had been noticed before, but interest had been limited to whether it would be possible to use in brick making to further aid the construction of houses, though the local sandstone proved a much more reliable building material. In 1840 an Act of Parliament was sought for 'Paving, lighting, watching, cleansing and otherwise improving the town of Ventnor'.
An 1882 guidebook described Ventnor as A chosen spot for the invalid, a refuge from the attacks of the English destroyer, or, at least, a soother of the English disease – consumption. By the 1890s the town was dominated by stone villas up to four stories high adorned with verandas and balconies. The town became well known as a solarium that caught the winter sun. The Royal Victoria Baths was opened on the beach, though this would later be washed away by the sea. Cabinet, Turkish, Vapour and Medicated Baths were available for rich invalids, and after their bath they could be pushed back up the hill to their residence in one of the bath chairs for hire. Similarly, large numbers of bathing machines5 dominated the beach. Some of these still remain today, as beach huts.
Local residents found employment as domestics and shopkeepers as well as in the sandstone quarries and as builders. As Ventnor is not at all flat, visitors should be aware that any road named 'Shute' is going to be particularly steep.
The first settlement encountered along the Undercliff from the east is the hamlet of Luccombe. An isolated, heavily wooded area, Luccombe Chine was a much-favoured haunt of smugglers. Before the area was developed it consisted of a chapel, a farm and a few fishermen's cottages – although the cottages submerged in the 1910 landslip. Following this powerful demonstration of the fate of any buildings constructed in this general vicinity, 19 new houses were built in 1920 with serious proposals to build an entire garden village to follow. Surprisingly, at time of writing some of those 19 houses do actually still exist.
Bonchurch is named after Saint Boniface (c675-754), the 8th Century Saxon monk, Bishop and Patron Saint of Germany. He is said to have spent time on the Isle of Wight preaching sermons here, before crossing to the continent, inventing the Christmas tree and ending up martyred. As Saint Boniface is known to have studied in Winchester, this is not impossible or unlikely, although no evidence other than local legend exists to support this.
A cave in the cliff known as 'Old Jack' was particularly popular with smugglers, with up to 500 barrels of brandy capable of being hidden inside. One popular approach to Bonchurch on foot involves passing the Devil's Chimney. This is a section of cliff that was split in two during a landslip, resulting in a very narrow gap between sheer rock that visitors can descend through some stairs.
Charles Dickens is known to have written chapters 12 to 18 of his favourite novel, David Copperfield, here in 1849. Poet Algernon Swinburne was born at Bonchurch and is buried there. Andrew Carnegie, the second richest man in the world at that time, spent his honeymoon at Bonchurch in 1887.
The village lake was once part of a garden owned by Henry de Vere Stacpoole, author of The Blue Lagoon (1909) and the poem anthology In Bonchurch's Garden (1937). He donated Bonchurch Pond and a bird sanctuary to the village in memory of his late wife, Margaret de Vere Stacpoole.
Well, Well, Well
Saint Boniface Well, locally nicknamed St Bonny's Well, is located on Saint Boniface Down. As a pure water spring emerging three quarters of the way up the highest hill on the Island, it was considered to have magical powers, chief amongst which was the ability to grant wishes. Tradition states that if you could climb to the well without looking back on Saint Boniface Day (5 June), bringing with you some flowers with which to dress the well, a wish would be granted.
Ventnor! Not a sign of a town, but most of Ventnor is a park. The shopping streets are tucked away in a hollow. There are more steps than there are roads, for the town climbs up-hill for 400 feet from the sea, and for 400 feet above the top of the town rises the wooded height of Saint Boniface Down. Most towns are horizontal. Ventnor is perpendicular. It is all trees and steps and zig-zag roads and everywhere there are beautiful gardens, public and private.
- John Betjeman
Nestled in the Undercliff is the town of Ventnor. In the 1820s it was a small fishing hamlet which had a population below 400 and the only inn in England called the Crab & Lobster. With the publication in 1829 of The Influence of Climate in the Prevention and Cure of Chronic Diseases by Sir James Clark, Queen Victoria's physician, which described Ventnor as the perfect convalescent retreat 'fair to excel all other winter residences in this country', by the 1930s Ventnor was transformed into a fashionable health resort.
A town sprung up on what was nicknamed the English Madeira, full of houses on different levels of the hill in a mix of architectural styles typically described by numerous Victorian guidebooks, most of which contained the compulsive phrase 'Strawberry Hill Gothic, Seaside Swiss and Carpenter's Palazzo'6. For instance:
In the tiny fishing hamlet soon sprang up hotels and boarding houses, shops and a church. Invalids came here for a winter retreat, as well as a summer visit. Speculation was stimulated. And now 'the plague of building' lighted on it, and it spread until every possible sport was planted with some staring building, or row of buildings. The variety of odd forms is remarkable. We have hotels, churches, shops, cottages and villas in every conceivable style and every outrageous shape... Strawberry Hill Gothic, Seaside Swiss and Carpenter's Palazzo.
Sir John Betjeman later wrote in First and Last Loves (1952) that Little Osbornes' were built on every available piece of cliff, ledge and cranny, each overlooking the sea with a garden of palms, myrtles and hydrangeas.
By 1851 the local population was 3,578 and 76,000 people visited each year. Among the residents of Ventnor include Karl Marx (1881, 1882-3) and Winston Churchill (1880). Edward Elgar came to Ventnor for his honeymoon with his wife, Alice, in May 1889. Unfortunately Alice's parents disowned her as they did not approve of the match. Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi stayed there in 1890.
Royal National Hospital
In the 19th Century, tuberculosis (TB), a killer disease originally called 'consumption', was believed to account for a fifth of all adult deaths in England. One sufferer, Dr Arthur Hill, went to Ventnor to convalesce. He became so convinced of the beneficial effects of the Undercliff that he wrote to the Lancet in 1867 advocating building a hospital in Ventnor.
In 1869 the first block for 12 patients was built for the Ventnor Hospital for Consumption, later called the Royal National Hospital for Consumption. Built on 'the cottage principle', when finished the hospital stretched a quarter-mile long. It was a three-floor terrace with balconies and verandas. Each patient had a separate room on the first or second floor; this was before the disease's infectious nature was realised. The ground floor was reserved for sitting rooms and all the blocks were connected by underground tunnels. Other, smaller sanatoria sprung up in the Undercliff, some of which were run by London County Council as convalescence homes for women, others by charities and others for profit. Yet in the 1920s the fashion for staying in a sanatorium over winter had declined, and most closed their doors. The Royal National Hospital was demolished in 1964 when medicinal advances in antibiotics made it obsolete. It is now the site of the famous Ventnor Botanical Gardens, home to exotic and Mediterranean plants.
In 1936 the Winter Gardens, a theatre/restaurant, was built. The first major development of the 21st Century is a new fair-weather harbour. Unfortunately the developers forgot that the sea at Ventnor is not mankind's ally, and consequently the harbour has a habit of emptying at low tide. This means it is used far more by seaweed than yachts.
Lord Yarborough was not impressed with the idea of railways. When the Isle of Wight Railway line from Ryde was built to Shanklin with plans to extend to Ventnor, he refused to allow it to cross his land. Instead of following the coast through Luccombe and Bonchurch, an inland detour via Wroxall and through a 1,312-yard tunnel was required before it reached Ventnor in 1866. A second line operated by the Isle of Wight Central Railway from Newport to Ventnor West station via Merston and St Lawrence opened in 1900, the last of over 55 miles of railway on the Island.
Tragically this was not to last. Although fortunately Dr Beeching's plan to reduce the length of railway lines on the Island to only 1¼ miles7 did not come to pass, Ventnor West closed in 1952 and Ventnor in 1966. Betjeman in particular mourned their loss, having praised the line to Ventnor in his 1952 factual book First and Last Loves and stating that there should be observation cars on the route to fully appreciate its beauty.
Of course, every fashionable Victorian seaside resort needed at least one pier. In 1861 the Ventnor Pier and Harbour Company formed to build two on the Ventnor seafront, 700 feet apart, and an eastern esplanade. The Western Pier was to be the principal, and would extend 300 feet south, and then extend a further 100 feet south-east. The Eastern Pier would extend 300 feet south-west, and it was intended to create a safe harbour between them. In 1862 the Ventnor Pier and Harbour Act was passed by Parliament, and work began in early 1863. By June the Western Pier was 260 feet long, and despite not being complete it was decided to allow steamers to use it. On 1 July the PS Chancellor travelled to Ventnor. Against the captain's judgement, but at the insistence of a company director who was aboard at the time, she berthed at the pier whilst the tide was falling. The sea bottom pierced her hull and she flooded, which was rather inconvenient.
By March 1864 the Western Pier had not only been finished but was longer than had originally been planned to prevent this sort of thing from reoccurring. Sadly, in October 1864 a serious succession of storms and gales bombarded Ventnor, damaging the promenade as well as all-but destroying the Eastern Pier and damaging the Western Pier. By January 1867 storms had destroyed much of the remains of the two piers.
In 1870 a group of local businessmen formed the Ventnor Pier and Esplanade Company. They planned to build a 700 feet pier on the old Western Pier's site, and 640 feet of embankment and esplanade along the sea front. Work began on its construction in December 1871 and it was opened to the public on 5 August, 1872. The landing stage was opened on 15 September, 1881. Sadly on 27 November, 1881, a very violent storm struck Ventnor. It removed 40 feet of the pier shank and destroyed the new landing stage. The pier, which had taken ten years to complete and had only been open for ten weeks, was destroyed.
The remains of the Esplanade Pier was bought for £2,600 by the Ventnor Local Board, who planned to rebuild it. Parliament approved its rebuilding in July 1884 by passing the Ventnor Local Board Act. Construction began in late 1885 and the 650 feet long project was finished in July 1887. The pier head was in the shape of a horse-shoe, locally joked that that was 'for luck'. It was officially opened in October 1887. At the outbreak of the Second World War it was sectioned and 100 feet removed to prevent its use as a landing stage by enemy ships. By the end of the war it was suffering from years of neglect, and by 1948 it was condemned. Work began on a new pier in July 1950, and now 683 feet long, it was known as the New Royal Ventnor Pier after its opening in 1955.
The pier was considered the most modern in Britain as it had been rebuilt using welded steel, yet by 1967 the landing stage was again in need of repairs, this time likely to cost £41,000. Much of the landing stage was demolished as steamer traffic had reduced in the 1960s. More of the landing stage was demolished in 1975, and in 1981 it was closed pending repairs. In 1985 a fire broke out, destroying much of the shore half. There was a proposal that for £460,000 it could be rebuilt as a promenade pier and a design was approved, but the pier's lessee demanded compensation from the council. By the time the issue of compensation had been settled there was not enough money left to rebuild. Sadly, in 1993 the pier was demolished.
St Lawrence is a village in the Undercliff east of Ventnor. There are two churches, the Church of St Lawrence (1878) with pre-Raphaelite stained glass by William Morris showing St Luke the Physician, originally in the chapel of the Royal National Hospital. The Old Church of St Lawrence was built before 1200 and before an extension was built in 1842, was England's smallest church, being only 25 feet × 11 feet. Alfred Noyes (1880-1958) lived there. Craigie Lodge was the home of Pearl Craigie, quite a famous novelist in her lifetime but now largely forgotten.
A village split in two - the part called Lower Niton, also called Niton Undercliff, close to the sea, with most of Niton further inland, connected by Barrack Shute. Edward Edwards, a free municipal library pioneer, died in Niton and is buried there. At the Island's southernmost point, St Catherine's Down, stands St Catherine's Lighthouse. With a 15-million candle-power light, it is visible up to 30 nautical miles (55km) in clear weather, and is the third most powerful light in the British Isles.
Where the Undercliff meets the Back of the Wight. Little of the original hamlet survives, with most having long fallen into the sea in one of Europe's most severely hit areas of coastal erosion. However, it is the site of Blackgang Chine, a theme park opened in 1843 when Alexander Dabell charged visitors to see the natural landscape and the skeleton of an 80-ton whale.
Places to Visit
- Nansen Hill nature reserve
- Rew Down nature reserve
- St Catherine's Lighthouse
- Blackgang Chine
Britain's oldest Theme Park
- Isle of Arts Festival
- Ventnor Botanic Gardens
22-acre sub-tropical paradise
- Ventnor Park
Victorian Park, 2014 Park of the Year for South & South East England
- Ventnor Fringe Festival