Case Study Site 9 – Sidmouth, Devon

Case Study Site 9 – Sidmouth, Devon

1.         Location

The study site extends from the mouth of the River Sid at the eastern end of the Esplanade at Sidmouth, westwards, along the town frontage, to High Peak and beyond to the village of Otterton, a coastal length of approximately 3km. 

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

The development of the town of Sidmouth typifies that of many small seaside towns in south-west England.  There are numerous artistic views of Sidmouth and its adjacent coastlines as artists were attracted on account of its scenic location with the dramatic red sandstone cliffs rising steeply on both sides of the town (Figures 9.1-9.3).  Apart from the main town frontage, the coastline is unprotected and is susceptible to coastal erosion and landsliding processes. However, even the town itself has experienced a long history of coastal erosion and flood events.  Apart from the numerous listed buildings in close proximity to the seafront at Sidmouth, there are heritage assets at Connaught Gardens and Jacob’s Ladder immediately to the west of the town, and at High Peak and on the cliffs beyond Otterton, a site which was identified in the late eighteenth century. The multi-period site at High Peak includes remains of an Early Neolithic enclosure and the buried remains of an early fortified settlement dating back to the 5th – 6th centuries. The High Peak site is affected by coastal erosion and a significant proportion of the site has been lost over the centuries (Figures 9.15-9.19). 

Apart from the many engraved views and paintings of the town of Sidmouth, the contributions of the antiquarian and watercolour artist, Peter Orlando Hutchinson (Figures 9.8-9.11; 9.15-9.17; 9.20-9.23), which are recorded in his illustrated journals and sketch books (1871-1894), form a detailed and fascinating record of both coastal processes and heritage discoveries over that time (Devon History Society, 20121; Butler, 20102). 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

The Sidmouth frontage is composed largely of mudstones, siltstones and sandstones of the Triassic Period, with intermittent outcrops of the Gault Clay and Upper Greensand of the Cretaceous Period.  Although the town frontage is defended with a seawall, rock groynes and breakwaters, the undefended cliffs on either side are subjected to aggressive coastal erosion and weathering and resulting in cliff instability. Although coastal defences were upgraded in the late 1990s with the provision of offshore rock breakwaters and groynes, further proposals aimed at reducing the risks along the Sidmouth frontage for the future are currently being developed. 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

The whole of the Sidmouth Esplanade frontage and a large part of the town centre behind lies within the Conservation Area, which is protected by a substantial seawall.  However, concerns about coastal erosion and flooding, particularly in the context of sea level rise and climate change, have resulted in the development of new proposals to protect property and assets located in the town and on the adjacent cliffs.  Regency hotels and villas and later nineteenth century properties, as well as ornate cottages, are located close to the seafront, whilst to the south-west at High Peak the Dark Age defended settlement (MDV15124) is affected by cliff erosion.  Connaught Gardens at the western end of the Sidmouth frontage, which comprises a castellated clock tower with belfry built over old underground lime kilns, is another important asset located immediately adjacent to the coast. It occupies the site of the former ‘Cliff Cottage’ (later re-named ‘Seaview’).  At Otterton Point there is evidence of a possible site of a Roman Villa (MDV36156) and investigations suggest that part of the building may have been lost as a result of coastal erosion. 

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

Illustrated guidebooks (e.g. Butcher, 18203) and a wealth of artworks, particularly engravings of the town of Sidmouth, including the famous ‘Long Print’ (after 18144) by Hubert Cornish (Figures 4-7), and the numerous detailed watercolours by Hutchinson, provide a comprehensive record of the frontage.  Cornish’s ‘Long Print’ has been studied in detail (Creeke, 20144) and is interesting because, combined with Hutchinson’s watercolours, it shows the development of Sidmouth seafront prior to the existence of any coastal defences and later. In addition, many of the significant Regency and later buildings that exist today are finely drawn in Cornish’s print, set within the wider setting of the Sidmouth coastal frontage. 

Numerous other steel engravings and lithographs assist in providing a chronology of the development of the town and the changing coastline on either side.  More detailed specific sites are described and illustrated by Hutchinson in his very comprehensive diaries, which are in the collection of Devon Archives and Local Studies Service (Devon History Society, 20121).  The Sidmouth frontage, therefore, provides us with comprehensive written and illustrated accounts of the development of a prosperous, heritage rich, small coastal town through the nineteenth century in particular.  This includes the records of erosion and flood events and archaeological discoveries through the Hutchinson diaries. These artworks together with numerous photographs held by Sidmouth Museum collectively provide information on the rate and scale of coastal change and the impacts of past flood and erosion events on development and heritage. 

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

Views such as those available for Sidmouth show how many coastal towns were often developed on the back of the beach and also the extensive nature of such beaches prior to the construction of seawalls and esplanades, which often occupied much of the former beach area.  The views also show that, even after the construction of the seawall along the town frontage, severe storms have caused damage through both erosion and flood events.  Historical information of this kind can inform the planning of new coastal defences, taking account of the need to improve the standards of defence as a result of coastal and climatic change.  Along the undefended or less defended coastlines information on cliff retreat can be gained through making comparisons, for example, of cliff change since the late nineteenth century when compared with the present day.

The town benefits from the wealth of information in both written and illustrated form in Hutchinson’s diaries. The diaries provide an excellent example of how archaeological knowledge can be enhanced through such detailed accounts by local antiquarians. Sidmouth is, therefore, one of relatively few locations where heritage sites themselves are actually illustrated rather than just views showing the locality of buried heritage.

Figure 9.1: An aquatint engraving of the ‘Views from Salcombe Hill’ by Havell, 1814, provides an early prospect over the developing town from the west.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 9.2: ‘High Peak Hill from Sidmouth’ drawn on the spot by Peter Orlando Hutchinson on 16th June 1849.  Hutchinson’s fine watercolours, which are contained in his extensive diaries, are nearly always dated. 

Image reproduced with kind permission of Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.

Figure 9.3: A fine mid-nineteenth century lithograph shows Sidmouth and the rugged coastline extending westwards.  High Peak and the cliff tops beyond contain a rich buried archaeological heritage, which is being continuously eroded along this undefended coastline. 

Details from Hubert Cornish’s ‘Long Print of Sidmouth’. Aquatint engraving after 1815 (Images Courtesy of Woolley and Wallis Auctions).

Figure 9.4: This view looks east along the coast from the shore.  The seawall and Esplanade were yet to be constructed.  The building on the left is Prospect Place with the York Hotel beyond. 

Figure 9.5: A second eastward view shows Marine Place and Portland Place.  The entrances to the properties appear level with the back of the beach, which appears to be very extensive at the time.

Figure 9.6: This detail from the ‘Long Print’ looks to the west and shows the thatched ‘Fort Cottage’ with the signalling mast on Peak Hill.  The fishermen’s cottages on the shore to the left were destroyed in the Great Storm of 1824.

Figure 9.7: The westernmost section of the ‘Long Print’ looks along the coast towards Brandy Head and Otterton.  The unusual rock formed in the Day was known as ‘Chit Rock’. 

The ‘Long Print’ provides a fascinating, highly detailed, panorama of Sidmouth’s historic seafront.  The original watercolours from which the print was taken can be seen at Sidmouth Museum.

Coastal Erosion, Instability and Flooding at Sidmouth

Figure 9.8: A failure of the cliff near Peak Cottage, Peak Hill, Sidmouth, on 31st August 1847.  A watercolour painted on the spot by P. O. Hutchinson. 

Image reproduced with kind permission of Devon Archives and Local Studies Centre. 

Figure 9.9: Serious sea flooding affected Sidmouth on 3rd/4th December 1876.  The scene was captured in watercolour by P. O. Hutchinson and described in his diary.  

Image reproduced with kind permission of Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.

Figure 9.10: Sketch by P. O. Hutchinson showing repairing storm damage to the Esplanade near the bottom of Peak Hill, Sidmouth, in January 1873. 

Image reproduced with kind permission of Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.

Coastal Erosion, Instability and Flooding at Sidmouth

Figure 9.11: The west end of Sidmouth beach from an old print dated 1816.  Painted in watercolour by P. O. Hutchinson, the view shows the row of fishermen’s cottages that were washed away in the Great Storm of 23rd November 1824.

Figure 9.12: The exposed position of Sidmouth, facing the Atlantic’s south-westerly storm waves, has led to frequent flooding events.  Coastal defences have been improved since the 1990s and further upgrading is under consideration. 

Image reproduced with the kind permission of Sidmouth Museum.

Figures 9.13 and 9.14: show the devastation to the Esplanade after a severe storm. 

Images reproduced with the kind permission of Sidmouth Museum.

Depictions of Sidmouth’s Coastal Heritage by P. O. Hutchinson

Figures 9.15, 9.16 and 9.17: These three views by Hutchinson depict the remains of the old lime kilns near the Chit Rocks at Sidmouth.  The earliest view was painted on 4th December 1871 with a ladder providing access to the shore.  The view was painted in May 1888 and, by now, the base of the cliff has been protected. 

Figure 9.18: Jacob’s Ladder can be seen in this watercolour by Alfred Robert Quinton, c.1920. 

Image Courtesy of J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 9.19: The view today of Jacob’s Ladder.

Depictions of Sidmouth’s Coastal Heritage by P. O. Hutchinson

Figure 9.20: ‘High Peak from Peak Hill’ painted on the spot on 7th September 1849.

Figure 9.21: ‘View from the summit of High Peak Hill looking south-west towards Otterton Point and Bury Head’. The Signal Staff was erected in 1850 and was shattered by lightning. The conical mount was made by Ordnance Surveyors in 1857.

Figure 9.22: The earthworks on High Peak Hill looking towards Sidmouth.  Painted on 9th July 1851.

Figure 9.23: Opening a stone heap on Littlecombe Hill, Bury Camp on 8th September 1858. 

All images reproduced with the kind permission of Devon Archives and Local Studies Service.

7.         References

1.         Devon History Society, 2012. The Diaries of P.O Hutchinson’.

2.         Butler, J. ‘Peter Orlando Hutchinson - Diary of a Devon Antiquary – Illustrated Journals and Sketchbooks’. Halsgrove. ISBN: 978-0-9512704-9.

3.         Butcher, Rev. E., 1820. ‘The Beauties of Sidmouth’.

4.         Creeke, J., 2014. ‘Sidmouth’s Long Print – A Picture in Time’. Publ. for Sidmouth Museum by The Sid Vale Association. ISBN: 978-0-9512704-7-9.