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Xmas marks the spot

Axmouth landslip, by Mrs Buckland

Geologist and science writer Nina Morgan* recounts how a rude awakening on Christmas Day put the fear of God into the local population – and revealed some great geology.

Christmas day 1839 was nothing if not memorable for inhabitants of the Devon town of Axmouth. At 1am on Christmas morning, a labourer named Critchard, returning from Christmas Eve festivities found that the path below the coastline cliff had begun to sink. At 4am he heard 'a wonderful crack'. That night massive fissures on the cliff tops gave way and huge blocks of land subsided towards the sea. The deafening crashing of falling rocks was accompanied by 'flashes of fire and a strong smell of sulphur', and witnesses reported hearing sounds like 'the rending of cloth'. In all around 50 acres of the coastline were severed from the mainland in a massive landslip.

As luck would have it, not one but two eminent geologists and men of God were practically on the spot: The Reverend William Daniel Conybeare, vicar of Axminster; and The Very Reverend Dr William Buckland, Reader in Mineralogy at Oxford University. (Buckland, a native of Axminster, along with his wife happened to be spending Christmas at nearby Lyme.) The two sprang into action to describe the scene in great detail, while Mrs Buckland made several drawings of the newly formed landscape.

Although Conybeare and Buckland were soon able to confirm that the landslip was the result of heavy rainfall the previous autumn reducing beds of loose sand lying below the surface to a semi-fluid quicksand, many popular theories were put forward as to the cause of this 'most extraordinary and terrific explosion of nature'. These ranged from earthquakes to volcanic eruptions, with a good dose of fire and brimstone thrown in. A pamphlet published in London, entitled A brief Account of the Earthquake, the solemn event which occurred near Axmouth, described the event as the fulfilment of a prophecy in the Book of Revelation.

But although the landslip caused damage on a truly Biblical scale, many local people soon found ways to profit from it. Farmers charged entrance fees to visit their 'fallen ground', where crops continued to grow. On one day 1000 tickets were sold. Some enterprising locals sold refreshments from their ruined houses, and a new piece of dance music, The Landslip Quadrille, was published. In August 1840, when farmers set out to harvest their displaced fields, a grand rustic fête attracted huge crowds of visitors.

Whether Buckland or Conybeare were among them is not recorded. But in any case, they had already received their reward. The opportunity to study such a spectacular example of geology in action must have seemed to them like the best Christmas present ever. Merry Christmas all!


Descriptions of the contemporary reactions to the landslip are taken from the paper, The coastal landslips of south-east Devon, by Muriel Arber, Proc. Geol. Assoc. Vol. 51, part 3, 1940, pp. 257-71, and The Life and Correspondence of William Buckland, D.D. F.R.S. by his daughter, Mrs Gordon, John Murray, London, 1894.

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* Nina Morgan is a geologist and science writer based near Oxford