Sunday, 5 April 2015

Alum Bay

On 31st March - a gusty and cold, but bright, day - we took the bus from Newport to Alum Bay, whose beach I haven't visited since around 1970. Out of season, the chairlift doesn't operate, and I was worried about the climb (what with cough, etc). I was very pleased to find no problems - altogether a pleasant visit to a location rich in geological and literary assocations.

Rather hazy view from West High Down, above, October 2009

Alum Bay is iconic geologically, and scenically, as the place where vertically-folded Tertiary strata (the famously coloured sands and clays) adjoin the chalk headland that tips the western end of the Isle of Wight, ending in The Needles. it's called Alum Bay because ...
Worsley's History of the Isle of Wight, published in 1781, says, "Alum Bay derives its name from the alum found there." Well, not really - there's no evidence that alum has ever been found there. Fact is, and whisper this quietly, Alum Bay is the geological pub with no beer -  a trade descriptions nightmare ... A licence was granted to a Flemish businessman in the 17th century to mine alum there, and it is known that he and his family moved to the Island but there is no evidence that he ever found any.
Yes - We All Know It's Called Alum Bay - But Why?, Alan Stroud, Beacon, April 2015
Alum Bay has long been a destination in Isle of Wight "aesthetic tourism" and features in many travelogues, such as the 1845 Pigot's Coloured Views ...

... and in George Mogridge's fictionalised Owen Gladden's Wanderings in the Isle of Wight, which devotes the whole of chapter XX to it.

The originally utilitarian use of the sands - they were quarried for glass - gave way in the 19th century to artistic uses. This took the form of a vogue for "marmotinto" (aka "marmortinto" - literally, "painted marble"): paintings made by gluing coloured sand to a board with gum arabic. As the Wikipedia article explains, its initial popularity took off in the late 1700s via the work of Benjamin Zobel (a friend of the artist George Morland), but the use of the vari-coloured sands from Alum Bay revived it in the 1800s Isle of Wight. This era also introduced the decorative glass knick-knacks filled with layers of different-coloured sands ...
The geology of Alum Bay must be very interesting; the cliff above it presents all the colours imaginable. The poor people in the neighbourhood get sands from it of a dozen different colours; and, running them into a phial, make each colour form a distinct ring, which has a very pretty effect: these phials, so filled, they sell for a shilling each.
- The Magazine of Natural History, 1833, page 30
... and this artform, if you can call it that, still persists.

I just about remember when you could dig for sand in the cliffs, and fill your own jar in situ, or if you wished from trays of ready-dried sand on a beach stall. Now, on grounds of safety and sustainability, this isn't allowed, and the whole process has moved to an indoor clifftop bazaar in the themed Needles Landmark Attraction. The beach below, however, is undeveloped except for a small jetty and the chairlift platform, and it can be pleasantly bleak off-season, with views that any late 18th century visitor would still class as "sublime" (scenic but a bit scary).

Authors of the 19th century also seemed very taken with the location. Here's a gallery, interspersed with some examples:

The cliffs of Alum Bay, which is on one side of this promontory, present a great variety of colours; the amber and red predominate, and, mixed with the sparry white of others, have a very fine effect. The whole range of the cliffs here is full of grandeur of form, and beauty of colouring.
- Duty, a novel (Margaret Roberts, 1815 - see page 112, Volume 2).

The boats shot again round the outermost rock—the Miranda was hid from view by the projecting point of the island—and the whole party were soon safely landed in Alum Bay. Some sauntered along the beach, picking up pebbles and sea weed, some went to examine the fine white sand so famed and so sought, for making china; whilst others ran a risk of getting cricks in their necks by staring up at the high and various coloured cliffs, as they passed on to the spring of fresh pure water, that welts out of the rocks, streaming across the narrow beach, and mingling with the sea, nearly at the point where the line of the bold chalky headland falls back on the darker ground almost at right angles, forming a sheltered nook.
- The Quiet Husband (Ellen Pickering, 1840)

“Now let me learn the charge; but speak low, if you please, lest my wife should hear,” continued Mortimer, speaking with a steady voice, though his face was of an ashy paleness.

“I charge you with the murder of the late Mr. De Lacy, by throwing him from the cliffs near Alum Bay, in the‘ Isle of Wight; and here is a warrant from Mr. Aylmer for your apprehension,” answered Morgan, softening his voice as requested.
- Cousin Hinton, Or, Friend Or Foe: A Novel (Ellen Pickering, 1846)

In Emma MacAllan's religious-didactic Stories descriptive of the Isle of Wight (1859), the story Sand Drawings concerns the middle-class Herbert family of "Whitethorn Lodge", somewhere in the western Isle of Wight, who visit Alum Bay and get into making sand paintings and sand bottles. They encourage local children to do likewise, and their collective industry funds the establishment of a juvenile library.

... the brother and sister crossed a narrow neck of land, and then descending by a circuitous footpath to the shore, soon found themselves within the enchanted realm of Alum Bay.

The scenery of this locality is among the most peculiar in the Isle of Wight. Caroline and Gerald were seated in a sandy cove, bounded by a semicircular range of cliffs of every imaginable hue: deep crimson and pale rosy-pink; blue, brown, and gray; orange and purple; green, white, and gold; the whole blazing beneath the burning glow of an autumnal sunset,—such was the foreground of the picture; while in the distance rose the misty forms of a still more magnificent and extended range, which, partially illumined by the reflected glory of the "Rainbow" chain, gleamed with a soft pearly lustre as peculiar as it was exquisite.

"They would make some use of these things in America, Carrie," observed Gerald, as he diligently employed himself in collecting a handful of small, detached lumps of sand; and then slowly crumbling them one by one, suffered the brilliant particles to fall in gay confusion upon the surface of a pocket-handkerchief, which he had spread upon his knees in readiness to receive them.

"And so do we make use of them in England," rejoined Caroline; "for these, in common with the other wondrous works of God, serve both to gladden our eyes and to rejoice our hearts: then who shall venture to affirm that they exist in vain?" 
- Sand Drawings, ibid.

While we were at this hotel," continued Mrs. Morelle, "we heard that there was a curious bay over beyond that great swelling hill that you see in the picture, where the cliffs were formed of layers of sand of all sorts of colors, and we thought we would go and see it. In fact, we had seen a great many sand pictures in the shop windows, in all the villages that we had come through on the way."

"Sand pictures!" repeated Leona.

"Yes," replied Mrs. Morelle. "That is very curious. The sands in the cliffs at Alum Bay are of such bright colors, and are so fine, that they make pictures of them."

"I don't see how they can possibly make pictures out of sand," said Leona.

"They do it in a very curious way," said Mrs. Morelle. "First they determine what the picture is to be. Then they wash over all the parts that are to be red, for example, with gum-water, and then sprinkle red sand alj over the paper. The sand sticks only where the gum-water was put on, say, for instance, where there was going to be a chimney, or somebody wearing a red gown. Then, when the red parts are dry, they wash over all the parts that are to be green with the gumwater, and sprinkle on green sand. And so on until all the colors are put on, and then the picture is done."

"What a funny way to make a picture !" said Leona. .

"It is indeed a very funny way," said Mrs. Morelle, "and very funny pictures they are that are made by it."

"Are the pictures pretty ?" asked Leona.

"I don't think they are very pretty as pictures, I must say," replied Mrs. Morelle. "They are curious rather than pretty. Still, they are much prettier pictures than you would think could be made out of sand. We thought that we should like to see the bay where the sands came from."

"And did you go ?" asked Leona.

"Yes," said Mrs. Morelle, "we ordered a carriage, and when it came we all got into it and rode over the Downs several miles. At last we came to another hotel on the Downs, near, the place where the path led down to the bay. We left our carriage at the hotel, and walked down. The upland was so high that we had to descend a long distance through the valley which led to the beach below. When we got down we found high cliffs all around us except where we came down, and instead of being formed of chalk, the cliffs were made of layers of sand of all colors. We took out some pieces of sand from the layers. They were pretty hard, but still we could crumble them in pieces between our fingers. We chose out some of the prettiest colors and wrapped up specimens in paper to bring home. I have got them now. They are put away somewhere among my things. Some day, I will see if I can find them, and show them to you."
- Grimkie, Jacob Abbott, 1860

Thread the gorge,
And, turning on the beach, while the low sea
Spread out in mirror'd gentleness, allows
A path along the curving edge, behold
Such dazzling glory of prismatic tints
Flung o'er the lofty crescent, as assures
The orient gardens where Aladdin pluck'd
Jewels for fruit no fable,—as if earth,
Provok'd to emulate the rainbow's gauds
In lasting mould, had snatch'd its floating hues
And fix'd them here; for never o'er the bay
Flew a celestial arch of brighter grace
Than the gay coast exhibits; here the cliff
Flaunts in a brighter yellow than the stream
Of Tiber wafted; then with softer shades
Declines to pearly white, which blushes soon
With pink as delicate as Autumn's rose
Wears on its scattering leaves; anon the shore
Recedes into a fane-like dell, where stain'd
With black, as if with sable tapestry hung,
Light pinnacles rise taper; further yet
Swells out in solemn mass a dusky veil
Of purple crimson,—while bright streaks of red
Start out in gleam-like tint, to tell of veins
Which the slow-winning sea, in distant times,
Shall bare to unborn gazers.
- Extract from LINES written at the Needles Hotel, Alum Bay, Isle of Wight, after a wekk spent at that place (Thomas Noon Talfourd, 1844).
Thomas Noon Talfourd was an author and judge whose chief notability was dying in 1854 after suffering an apoplectic fit while addressing the jury from the bench. This may have been the inspiration for the death of the judge Cecil Marlowe, protagonist of Maxwell Gray's novel The Last Sentence.

'Isn't it at Alum Bay that the sands are all of different colours?' asked Harry. 'Silverhair had a bottle filled with them; and don't you remember I spilt them one day for fun, to see if I could make them go back again into the bottle in the same pattern, but they wouldn't?'

'Of course not,' said his mother, laughing. 'Yes, there are coloured sands at Alum Bay; but they are on the rocks, and are not sands to walk upon. It will be too late to see the colours to-night; but if it's a fine day to-morrow, you will see them before we leave in the morning.'
- Millicent and her cousins (Augusta Parker, 1870, p169ff)

WS Gilbert's 1868 Bab Ballads has a nice pun on the name, calling the Arab title character of a comic poem "Brave Alum Bey".

In the title story of Maxwell Gray's last book, the anthology A Bit of Blue Stone (1923), Alum Bay is the scene where the protagonist Lancelot Hughes first meets his fiancée-to-be Violet Kendal, when she hurts her ankle on the beach.

Francis Edward Grainger (1857-1927), the author of potboiling novels, chose the name of the adjacent Headon Hill as his pseudonym (his The Spies of the Wight and Millions of Mischief are set in nearby Totland Bay). 

View down from Headon Hill, October 2009
- Ray

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