Case Study Site 8 – Beer, Devon

Case Study Site 8 – Beer, Devon

1.         Location

The study site extends from east of the village of Beer southwards to Beer Head, and then westwards to the village of Branscombe, a coastal frontage of 4km. 

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

Beer was a location chosen by many artists on account of its picturesque scenery.  In particular, the cliff line was painted by the artist, Edward William Cooke RA (Munday, 19961).  Cooke’s portrayals of coastal cliff geology are some of the most detailed produced by any artist during the Victorian period.  Along the top of the cliff line at Beer there are prehistoric field systems abutting the cliff edge at South Down Common (MDV19842), whilst, at Branscombe to the west, Bury Camp (MDV10899) is located on the cliff top between High Peak, Sidmouth, and Beer Head.  This comprised a large defensible hilltop enclosure, which is believed to date from the first millennium BC and part of this important site has been lost through coastal erosion.

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

Beer is located in a valley within Cretaceous rocks comprising the Upper Greensand overlain by Chalk.  The top of the cliffline is capped with more recent plateau Gravel deposits.  The Chalk cliffs are well jointed and include horizontal bands of Flint, indicating the deposits within the Upper Chalk.  The sediment transport direction along this part of the coast is from west to east; there are no significant coastal defences along the Beer frontage. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The Beer frontage is an eroding coastline, and is subject to cliff instability and rock falls particularly during and after severe storms or prolonged periods of heavy rainfall.  Erosion of the near vertical Chalk cliffs at Beer Head, and instability to the west at Hooken Cliff towards Branscombe Mouth, present ongoing risks for heritage sites. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

West of Beer the Hooken Cliff landslip took place in 1790 and ongoing failures are evidenced by Chalk debris that can be seen at the base of the cliff.  Views such as ‘The Fishing Cove of Beer’ by Edward William Cooke RA, painted in 1858, are remarkable for their clarity, as well as the attention to geological detail. This oil painting by Cooke (Figure 8.1) provides the most extensive view of the coastline looking eastwards.  Cooke also painted a view from the opposite direction showing Beer Head in the distance in 1858 (Figure 8.3).  The watercolour by Arthur W. Perry, painted c.1900, provides a closer view of the headland (Figure 8.6).  The most recent view, a watercolour by Alfred Robert Quinton, was painted in the early twentieth century (Figure 8.7). What these artworks show is the remarkable similarity in terms of the form of the cliff line, the jointing in the cliff face, and the form, profile and nature of the beach.  These paintings were all produced by artists who were renowned for their topographical accuracy, and visual comparisons of this kind help to provide confidence in artworks amongst professionals interested in coastal management, in support of their understanding of coastal change along their particular frontage. 

Figure 8.1: ‘The Fishing Cove of Beer’ (1858) by Edward William Cooke RA shows the coastline in Pre-Raphaelite detail.  The eastern part of Cooke’s oil painting can be seen in the photograph as Figure 8.2. 

Image Courtesy of the late John Munday/Private Collection and © Ian West.

Figure 8.3: ‘Distant View of Beer Head and White Cliff at Low Water’ by E. W. Cooke RA, 1858. This dramatic headland is captured well by Cooke and shows the end of the red sandstone cliffs, which extend eastwards towards Seaton on the right.

Figure 8.4: This photograph shows the headland on the left of Cooke’s painting.  The cliff tops contain heritage sites which are being lost progressively as a result of coastal erosion. 

Figure 8.5: In this photograph the striking red and white strata, obvious in Cooke’s oil painting, can be seen in the centre.

Figure 8.6: ‘Beer, Devon’ by A. W. Perry, c.1900 showing the headland looking eastwards.

Image courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 8.7: A similar vantage point was chosen by Alfred Robert Quinton for his watercolour painted ten years later.  The depictions of the cliff geology are almost identical. 

Figure 8.8: This photograph from about 1900 confirms the accuracy of these artists’ works. 

Image © Ian West.

These artworks indicate, first, that the cliffs at Beer are subjected to extremely slow change as a result of coastal erosion, cliff face weathering and instability.  Second, the beach has remained relatively static over a period of some seventy years, even though there may have been fluctuations over the intervening period. Finally, they describe a slow but continuing risk to cliff top heritage sites, such as those at South Down Common and Branscombe, with increasing risks for the future as a result of an increased rate of erosion resulting from sea level rise and possible changes in the severity and frequency of storms.

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

The artworks that are available of the Beer frontage by artists such as Cooke, demonstrate how, alongside photographic evidence, art can provide detailed depictions of the state of the coastal frontage at various points in time with a high degree of accuracy.  This information can help inform both coastal risk management and understanding by heritage managers of the potential risk to cliff top sites, looking ahead over the next century.  What these images do not show are the heritage sites themselves. Generally such sites are best portrayed by aerial photography or Lidar. Where interested antiquarians lived in the vicinity (see Case study 9) the actual heritage sites may also be depicted.

7.         References

1.         Munday, J. 1996. ‘E.W. Cooke RA FRS FSA LS FZS FGS – A Man of His Time’. Antiques Collectors’ Club. ISBN: 1-85149-222-4