On Three Outcrops: Sandstone – on the broken red cliff
July 25, 2013 2 Comments
The house is perched.
“Ominously precarious” – an expression first encountered aged 13 in a heavily thumbed school exercise book. A phrase so rarely used, but most apt here. The remains of a house hanging, at the top of this recently slumped cliff.
Below, 300 feet of deep rich red Devonian sandstone, slewed upon the beach below, bleeding into the sea.
Until the sudden failure last year, this was the primest of Torquay’s real estate. The safe, solid seats and views of the town’s ruling fathers and daughters. But now worthless in conventional terms, the half-house now attracts illicit visitors, those wishing to add a frisson of peril to their cliff top picnic, scavengers and arsonists: a beacon for those who are drawn to peer over into the abyss.
But what catches my attention most is that red. That unfeasibly rich red of the soil I grew up with in these parts. That red that I saw swirling up from the beaten path as we strode across the field to visit the hilltop spot where I scattered my nan’s grey-white ashes last year. Those eddies caught in the low, strong rays of the last hours of daylight. That red, that sun, that familiar hilltop overlooking the bay, and its sister hills. Comfort, all.
Until I left here aged 18 I thought soil everywhere was this colour. And I thought rocks everywhere were this friable too, destructible by a petulant kick and in a perpetual state of disintegration. Where I grew up this apology-for-stone was everywhere, and looking at a geological map of the town for the first time today I now understand why. As I travel across the town I move between bands of underlying geology. My part of town was a Breccia belt of loosely composed compressed red earth and its conglomerate. All around me the houses and their garden walls were made of this readily to hand stuff. A suburb of red, dessicated blocks, just a few generations away from mud. It all felt very primitive, and approximate. The cliff collapse told me I’d got something right. This stuff is barely rock.
But this is not the only rock in Torquay. Moving across the town – so the map now tells me – the seven hills on which the town sits (or at least the town’s foundational myth rests) are mostly limestone, and now I see with freshly opened eyes: there are plenty of rough hewn grey stones lining gardens, holding back embankments and otherwise adapting local civilisation to the extreme up-down typology of this place. There is rock everywhere co-opted upon this surface. No bricks: just grey ones, red ones, smooth ones, rough ones. Rock, rock, rock. Torquay is born of its rock, its confluence of geological epochs and processes.
Even the name of the town is a nod to its rock – ‘Tor’ means hill. Thus my town: the quay by the hills, by the bay of the hills.
Yet strictly in Devon-speak, Tor is a reference to the granite outcrops of Dartmoor, 20 miles landward of this red edged coast. Looking west (peering awkwardly between the rays of the dying sun) I can see the silhouette of the moor’s sentinel Tors on the horizon. Perhaps as they sit there surveying the lowland scene beyond, they mock the fake coastal Tors, these imposters made of squashed mud, sand, pebbles and eons of tiny shell-fall.