The Burning Cliff

This account of the events which occurred between 1825 and 1827 at Holworth Cliff near Osmington, Dorset were first published in 1905 by Charles Harper in his book ‘The Dorset Coast’.

Holworth Cliff was a very notable place any time between 1825 and 1827, when it not only began to slide into the sea, but was the scene of a curious outbreak of subterranean fire, which somewhat exercised the minds of the more ignorant and superstitious of the neighbourhood, who began to remember and regret all manner of half-forgotten sins and to wonder how long it would be before Old Scratch claimed them, out of this visible mouth of hell.

But those who lived on or near the cliff were better informed. They had long been in the habit of using the inflammable stuff of which it is composed as firing, and were only concerned at the subsidences that began to carry the earth away. In March, 1825, the two acres of land on which the cottage and garden of one Baggs, a fisherman, were situated began to slide, and subsided forty feet. Baggs and his family very prudently removed before it had travelled so far, but it went down so gradually that little more than one crack appeared in the wall of the dwelling. Within another three years it had sunk close upon five hundred feet/but the cottage was still habitable, and the gooseberry and currant bushes of the garden were flourishing.

In the meanwhile the cliff was found to be on fire. In the autumn of 1826 vapour began to rise from the rifts and crannies of what a contemporary writer with a fine flow of language and a penchant for capital letters, calls ” a scene wasteful and wild as Chaos, where stillness reigns, and Great Nature dwells in awful solitude.” It was not at first very much of a conflagration, for the smoke is described as having been ” as much as is usually caused at the lighting of a common fire,” but it would, nevertheless, appear to have been rather awesome to that writer, for he goes on to describe how the smoke ” on a calm day has been seen to rise slowly and with peculiar grandeur, forming a majestic column at least 20 feet in height, producing a curious and imposing effect.” He evidently possessed the journalistic instinct for effective exaggeration. The italics are my own.

In plainer language, it was just such an effect as might have been produced by Baggs himself making a small bonfire to burn the rubbish in his garden: and such a thing would not have been considered grand or majestic.

This wonder brought many marvel-hunters to see it, and, probing and scratching about, to discover the source of the fire, they brought down an overhanging piece of cliff that for a time smothered, but did not extinguish it; for, when Baggs went to dig in his garden, on May 15th, 1827, he dug into a cavern of fire like a red-hot kiln. Then the cliff burst into a flame and so continued for some months, like a miniature Vesuvius, converting Weymouth Bay by day and night into a closer resemblance to the Bay of Naples than ever before contemplated by travellers. Old lithographic prints of the ” Burning Cliff” are still occasionally to be met with, and look sufficiently terrifying, but the fire presently subsided, and ever since that date Holworth Cliff has been innocent of sensation.

 

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