Walk - Hooken Cliffs

Walk information provided with help from Natural England. Map reproduced by permission of Ordnance Survey on behalf of HMSO. © Crown copyright and database right 2022. Ordnance Survey Licence number 100022021.

Route Description

  1. Starting in Beer at the seaward end of Fore Street, where it meets the South West Coast Path and Sea Hill, above Beer beach, take the road uphill past the pub (Common Lane, signed towards Beer Head Caravan Park). Carry on past The Meadows, to the right, climbing steeply to where the South West Coast Path leaves along the lane on your left.

A blackboard on the slipway gives details of the day's catch. Fishing has been an important trade in Beer for many centuries.

One man who started out in fishing at the end of the eighteenth century was 'The Rob Roy of the West', smuggler Jack Rattenbury. After several attempts at making an honest living as a fisherman's apprentice, Rattenbury was delighted at the adventure he was offered next as a privateer, making raids on French ships. He particularly revelled in the freedom his new career gave him on the open sea - until he was captured by the French and thrown into prison. He soon earned the confidence of his jailers, though, and managed to sneak away. He turned out to be a bit of a Houdini, and this was just the first of a series of dramatic escapes as he developed his highly successful smuggling career.

He proved to have a strong entrepreneurial streak, too, and not all his trade was illicit. He developed a lively business buying and selling boats, and he sometimes acted as a pilot, guiding visiting ships safely inland, earning as much as £100 a time if the weather was stormy. His sideline of smuggling French prisoners did not go so well and he was caught by the authorities; but again he talked his way out of the situation and he was let off when he convinced the magistrates that he thought the men were from Jersey. Another wholly honest enterprise was the pub he opened; but business was slack and he closed it and returned to smuggling.

Like the equally notorious Carters of Prussia Cove on the Lizard, (see the Prussia Cove Walk), Rattenbury's fame was spread largely by means of his extravagant autobiography, written when he finally settled down as a quiet citizen on a pension of a shilling a week from Lord Rolle.

Lord Rolle built the row of houses at the bottom of Common Lane in 1873 to house his estate workers. Note the extensive use of flint in the walls. Collections of Neolithic (Late Stone Age) tools and weapons made of local flint have been found throughout the area.

Another important trade in Beer was lace-making, and the famous Honiton lace is controversially claimed to have originated in Beer. At the end of the seventeenth century, Huguenot refugees fleeing France after a series of religious persecutions landed in Beer, bringing with them their skill of making pillow lace. In times of hardship, local ladies made lace to bring in a little money, and Queen Victoria’s wedding dress was partly made of Beer lace. Lace-making was taught in the local primary school until the 1970s.

  1. Turn left onto the Coast Path and follow it along Little Lane, heading to the left with it around the front of the caravan site. Carry on ahead along the footpath, climbing steadily above the white cliffs at Beer Head and following the Coast Path to the right beyond the headland.

One of the bedrocks here is Beer Freestone, a chalk limestone laid down between 140 and 65 million years ago, in the Cretaceous period. At that time the Atlantic and Mediterranean Oceans expanded to form a vast sea, with a high carbon dioxide content in the atmosphere and no ice caps, and this was an area of lush swamps where dinosaurs roamed. Currents flowing over the seabed removed the coarse fossils from the sediments being turned to rock, leaving a fine shelly limestone ideal for carving. Beer Stone turned a rich creamy white on exposure to the air, hardening sufficiently to last for centuries in the right conditions. The stone for 24 cathedrals was quarried here, including Exeter Cathedral and St Paul's Cathedral in London. Parts of Westminster Abbey were built of Beer Stone, as well as the Tower of London, Hampton Court and Windsor Castle. Quarried by hand, blocks weighing as much as four tons were transported overland by horse-drawn wagons and in some cases overseas in barges launched from Beer Beach.

Take the time to visit Beer Quarry Caves while you are in the area. This man-made complex of underground caverns is also a world-famous bat hibernaculum, and most of Britain's 17 different bat species hibernate here in the winter. In January 2012 a total of 220 bats were counted.

On the road between Beer and Branscombe is Bovey House, an Elizabethan manor said to have been used by Rattenbury and his gang as a safe store for their smuggled goods. The house was built on a site dating back two thousand years. In Roman times a garrison was stationed here to protect the quarries below, an important source of building stone even then. The Roman Great Road – the Fosse Way – ran from Seaton to Lincoln, and much of the stone quarried at Beer would have travelled along this road.

  1. When a path leaves on the right, fork left with the Coast Path to walk through the slumped undercliffs at Under Hooken.

The bedrock in the area was formed as layers of different sediments were laid down on the seabed. These include chalk, clay, greensand and a sandy limestone, as well as the Beer Stone. In March 1790 this proved catastrophic, when over the course of a couple of years a build-up of water from a blocked underground stream lubricated the junction between beds of clay and greensand, finally causing a massive block of chalk to break away and fall into the sea.

Although there were no witnesses, a report by Victorian geologist William Dawson summed up local accounts of the events: ‘ In the middle of the night, a tract of from seven to ten acres, ranging along the brow of a steep cliff immediately overhanging the sea, suddenly sank down from 200 to 260 feet, presenting a striking group of shattered pinnacles and columns of chalk entangled with the sunken fragments of the fields thus torn away from their native site; the remains of hedges still traversed these fragments, and a stile was seen undisturbed on the summit of one of the subsided columnar masses. The subsided mass pressed forward into the sea.'

  1. When the path splits, fork left to continue along the Coast Path as it drops through the Hooken Undercliff towards the beach. Stay with the Coast Path as it winds through the undercliffs and carries on between the holiday chalets.
  2. Reaching the field at the far end of the chalets, detour left to visit Branscombe Mouth, with its visitor centre and other facilities; but otherwise take the track bearing right through the field to the far left-hand corner.

Branscombe, too, was involved in Rattenbury's smuggling, and the local way of hiding the contraband was unique throughout Britain. Farmers would dig a sloping tunnel leading to the centre of a field, where they would hollow out a circular pit some 12 feet underground. The turf would then be replaced to conceal the entrance to the pit.

Emerging beside Great Seaside Farm, follow the track around to the right of it, continuing ahead along the lane. Turn left with the lane, climbing steeply into the woods, and at the top turn right through the trees. Coming out into an open field, bear right with the path through the field.

  1. Reaching the clifftop path (East Cliff), turn left, bearing right to follow it along the edge of Hooken Cliffs, above the undercliff.
  2. At the old coastguard station take the track heading away from it to the left and follow it through the field to the top of the caravan site. Reaching the road ahead (Common Hill), carry on down it, ignoring all side roads, to rejoin Common Lane. from here you can retrace your steps to the start of the walk.

Nearby refreshments

Selection of cafes and pubs in Beer and Branscombe.

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