“Well, yes,” he replied. “But it’s a bit precarious. I wouldn’t go alone. There’s no mobile phone coverage if you twist your ankle or fall down a crevasse.”
It was 2000, and Guy and I were embarking on an idiosyncratic tour of England, without much advance planning, careering madly around the country. Guy’d had a feeling that Lyme Regis in west Dorset was an appealing little town, so that’s where we’d arrived after crossing several counties in our rented Peugeot.
Details, England’s Jurassic Coast
It turned out that Lyme Regis is just one town on a remarkable coast that runs from Swanage in Dorset to Exmouth in Devon. You could think of it as the English Riviera, or as a necklace strung with jewels of scenery: Golden Cap, Lulworth Cove, Durdle Door, Chesil Beach. People come here for the beaches, the clifftop walks, the little seaside towns and the many-million-year-old fossils that you can pick up on the shore.
In 2001, this 90-mile stretch was designated the Jurassic Coast, a UNESCO World Heritage Site, like the Grand Canyon and the Pyramids and the Great Barrier Reef. The sailing events of the 2012 Olympics will take place off this coast (July 29 to Aug. 11) in the waters of Weymouth Bay.
But back then we knew the area only as a beautiful coastline, three hours from London. And we soon learned that the Undercliff was one of its more amazing features, seven miles of subtropical landscape dense with luscious vegetation. From the cliffline, several hundred feet down to the sea, continual landslips have created a jumble of slopes and ravines, an unusual and almost inaccessible habitat for plants and birds.
There was no obvious route into the Undercliff. We found our way along a path marked by four pine trees, then a meadow, then an earthen avenue that led into the forest but soon turned into the precarious path our friend had warned us of. It was a black thread tightroping along the tops of narrow ridges between deep crevasses. Down to the right we saw a small pond completely carpeted in brilliant green duckweed. Then, far down to the left, a larger bright-green pool; I half expected a crocodile to rise from its depths. The whole terrain was a jumble of ridges and gullies.
We were seldom aware of the sea, a few hundred feet below through the trees, until we came to a low-slung branch with a glorious view through a gap. We sat on it to eat our sandwiches. We met few humans, but there was abundant other life: gulls, thrushes, crows, the intimate twittering of other birds nearby yet invisible. Under the canopy of oaks and ashes was dense vegetation — ivy, wild garlic, horsetail, nettles, dock, fiddlehead ferns.
We left for Cornwall two days later, but Lyme stayed sharply with me. Back at home in South Carolina, we deliberated — but not much — and I soon quit my job and sold my house. Six months later, we were back in Lyme with three cats and a container full of furniture. In June we got married in Honiton, a nearby town known for its lacemaking.