If you stand on West Cliff and look down, it's five hundred feet to the narrow shingle beach. On a clear day, you can see Portland Bill in the east and Start Point to the south-west, a span of sixty miles. Car ferries from Torquay to the Channel Islands chug across in the middle distance, while inland to the west, the twin peaks of Haytor can be seen, rising from Dartmoor.
You are standing on the most westerly chalk outcrops in England, but the dominant colour is red, caused by iron oxide. Beer Head, two miles to the east, is almost all chalk and is white like the cliffs of Dover, but at Branscombe the chalk is being replaced by clay and flints, greensand, and mudstone, coming in from the west. Geologically, we are standing at a point of transition.
The effect of different layers in the soil can be seen in the shape of the valleys, or combes, and the way they're cultivated. The flat hilltops, at an average 400-500 feet above sea level, are made of a layer of clay mixed with flints, full of stones and fossils. It's the floor of an ancient seabed that's been pushed up over millions of years. It used to be covered with a thick layer of chalk and limestone, the same creamy white stone that's made nearby Beer quarry famous, but in Branscombe most of that's been worn away except for a few pockets, leaving this debris of clay-with-flints. Water percolates through it quite easily, so it doesn't itself get washed away, neither does it allow streams to form. Rainfall goes down to the next layer and emerges from under the clay top in the combe sides as springs in ravines or goyles. Its the power of water generated by these multiple streams that has carved the deep, steep-sided combes so typical of this part of Devon.
As the rain filters through the top layer, it leaches away nutrients, so the soil doesn't grow much without artificial fertilizer. It was traditionally wasteland where villagers could run their sheep and geese and wasn't used for cultivation until quite recently. The flints and stones also make ploughing hard. Farmers say that a day on the tops will wear a plough as much as an entire season in the combe bottoms.
The next layer of the cake is Greensand, which can be seen in outcrops of pale buff-coloured rock. It's also poor in nutrients, but will support trees and is most often used now for coniferous plantations.
The third layer is officially called Keuper Marl, but it's better known locally as mudstone, a far more accurate name as anyone who has tried to walk through it after a downpour will know. It is full of all the nutrients washed down from above and eventually breaks down into the rich, productive soil which fills the bottoms. Red mudstone in its natural state may be the rambler's curse, but it's not without its uses. According to local author Sheila Bird, workers at the Beer quarry found it could be moulded into shape and then baked hard in nearby lime kilns forming a waterproof hard-hat in which a candle could be set - ideal for the dark and dripping quarry caves. She tells the story of a local carter who found an even more unusual way of employing the marl's excellent baking qualities. He was an expert shot with the long whip, and as he lumbered by the squire's duckpond, there would be a single "crack!" and he would have a fat duck in the cart, with its neck neatly broken. The next stop was a marl-pit, where the bird would be encased in wet mudstone, then the lime-kiln, always alight, where it would be left to bake slowly in its own juices. By the time this canny carter returned, his lunch of roast duck would be ready. However, so the story goes, he did the trick once too often and was caught by the gamekeeper, tried for poaching, and transported to Australia for the term of his natural life.
The high cliffs that form Branscombe's southern boundary are continually being eroded, or to use the old local word ruzed away, and this stretch of coast has seen some spectacular landslips. One of them occurred on a March night in 1790, when nearly 10 acres of land at Hooken Cliff, between Branscombe and Beer suddenly dropped 250 feet vertically, breaking up into columns and pinnacles. The movement forced up a temporary reef offshore, and it's reported that local fishermen who had laid their crab-pots 10 feet underwater the previous evening, returned in the morning to find them 15 feet up in the air.
The Underhooken, as the area's now called, has become a haven for wildlife and the south-west coastal footpath splits here, offering an interesting alternative route from the cliff-top path to Beer.