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Treasures of Dorset – Chesil Beach

John Newth on ‘an elemental place’ in Dorset


Anyone looking at a map of south-west Dorset for the first time might wonder if they are suffering from double vision, for a thin line parallels the coast for eight miles from Portland to Abbotsbury. This is Chesil Beach, which continues for a further ten miles to West Bay. A shingle barrier over whose origins the geologists still enjoy arguing, it is perhaps the largest and most spectacular landform of its type in the world. It also has an atmosphere all its own: John Fowles called it ‘an elemental place, made of sea, shingle and sky’.
Chesil Beach protects the Fleet and the mainland, but any barrier can be breached. Chiswell on Portland has been flooded many times, but Chesil Beach failed most spectacularly during the Great Storm of November 1824. Settlements on the mainland were inundated, notably East Fleet, where five houses were swept away and the church ruined.
Famously, the action of the waves grades the material of Chesil Beach, from fist-sized pebbles at Chiswell to the finest shingle at West Bay. It was said that smugglers landing their contraband would know where they were by the size of the shingle. Like other seafarers they would have treated Chesil Beach with respect, for it is a lee shore during a sou’westerly gale, and the number of shipwrecks along its length attests to how treacherous a hazard it is. ◗

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