It was November 2013, and for one woman sat on the shore near the seaside town of Dieppe in northern France, a relaxing day at the beach was about to turn into a harrowing near miss. She was minding her own business, sunbathing on a secluded stretch, when a thunderous natural event occurred. And one visiting photographer caught the whole episode on camera.
Dieppe isn’t exactly known for being a dangerous vacation destination. Still, that’s not to say it hasn’t seen some action and thrown up it’s share of interest in the past. For one, the Normandy coastal town is famed for having been a battleground in the Second World War. It is also the birthplace of the French former soccer star Emmanuel Petit. Oh, and it’s known to produce excellent scallops.
With the war having long since ended, then, this woman could hardly have been expecting to be in fear for her life during her visit to the area in late 2013. And so she set up to relax and catch some rays on the stretch of Les Petites-Dalles near the town. It certainly is a beautiful locale. So much so, in fact, that it was once painted by the famous Impressionist artist Claude Monet – though it’s well worth a visit for anyone.
This stretch of coast is also a rather curious one, though. The name Les Petites-Dalles translates as “the little slabs.” However, the word slabs as used here is a derivation of an old Saxon or Scandinavian term for “valleys.” And if the location was a valley, then it was a valley of potential doom that day.
Now just before the event which saw the hapless sunbather scrambling for her life, a British tourist had been taking a stroll along the beach. Hence, Maurice Thomas, 74, from the small town of Shoreham in West Sussex, England, was well placed to witness the life-or-death situation that was about to unfold. Moreover, Thomas had his camera to hand and was able to shoot photos of the astonishing incident from a distance.
Speaking to U.K. tabloid the Daily Mirror, Thomas later reported, “There was a sound, louder than a clap of thunder.” And the source of the noise was quickly apparent. The British tourist watched on as the unsuspecting female sunbather looked up to see practically the entire cliff face that she was lounging under collapse. She subsequently lay helplessly as a huge amount of rubble and debris fell onto her section of the beach.
It was later revealed that the cliff the sunbather had chosen to overlook her relaxation spot was notoriously unstable. Indeed, signs are actually posted all around the area warning that the cliff should be given a wide berth. The edifice in question is a 200-foot limestone formation – and much of it chose to come crashing down that day.
Thomas went on to say, “The sunbather was covered from head to toe in dust. Some lifeguards ran over to check that she was okay. Thankfully, apart from being shaken, she was fine.” The woman was probably also somewhat embarrassed. After all, she had literally ignored the danger signs, and she has since opted not to give her name in news reports.
To be fair, though, Thomas sounded kind of shaken up himself, recognizing as he did the fact that the massive rockfall could well have killed him, too. As he remarked, “I was very lucky because I normally walk under the cliffs, but I did not this time because the tide was too high and that would have involved scrambling over some rocks.”
The sunbather can, then, consider herself very lucky indeed to have been able to walk away unscathed from such a dramatic natural occurrence. Sad to say that there have been various limestone cliff collapses over the years that ended in far grislier fashion – with people who were not so fortunate.
On one wet and windy September day in 1996, in the small coastal settlement of Gracetown, near the city of Perth in Western Australia, a cliff collapse proved exceptionally deadly. In this case, a group of nine people – five adults and four children – tragically met their end when a limestone overhang below which they were sheltering collapsed.
Helen Thompson lost her husband that day. She told the Australian Broadcasting Corporation, “It was just a big thud… that was like an instantaneous alarm that something had gone wrong. We thought maybe something had happened on the road. The last thing you thought was a cliff collapse… The next thing the phone was ringing and we were hearing what had happened.”
Another local, Tony Morgan, lost his 12-year-old daughter, and the tragedy devastated his family. Morgan said, “My youngest son doesn’t like coming down here; it just gives him the creeps… It has affected thousands of people in the community, and for such a small community, too.” Despite the terrible event having happened more than two decades ago, the horror is still raw.
Sometimes, though, it isn’t the calamitous loss of human life that makes cliff collapses so sad. The collapse of Malta’s famous Azure Window limestone arch in March 2017 was met with dismay across the world from natural landscape enthusiasts. The rock formation was, after all, a highly recognizable tourist destination on the Maltese island of Gozo. It was even featured in the television blockbuster Game of Thrones before it was destroyed.
So what is it about coastal limestone cliffs that seemingly makes them so prone to collapse? Well, in most cases, it is down to their location and chemical corrosion. When even slightly acidic sea water meets alkaline limestone, there is a reaction that breaks the rock down. And the problem is then exacerbated by strong waves beating against the given cliff face.
Recently, the limestone Dorset coastline in England has been badly affected by this kind of erosion. Chiefly, this has been due to months of wet weather swiftly followed by more arid conditions. Such factors have left the cliffs in a poor and unstable state. This in turn led to a massive collapse at St. Oswald’s Bay – near the quaintly named Durdle Door limestone arch – in 2013.
Thankfully, in most cases of limestone erosion, rockfall is a more gradual process than the sudden, severe events like that which occurred at St. Oswald’s Bay. This was a dramatic and dangerous scene where tons of rock and debris fell into the sea. At the time, a coastguard spokesman said, “It is huge – a massive fall has taken out part of the cliff. It is rather extraordinary.”
Meanwhile, Dr. Simon Boxall, an oceanography lecturer at the University of Southampton, told the BBC, “It is a relief this didn’t happen during a busy weekend. There would have been very little warning anything was going to happen. It’s very difficult to predict where and when these landslips are going to happen.”
However, following the collapse, officials were shocked to see that sightseers were still walking on the cliffs – despite the warnings issued to stay away. Incredulous, the Maritime and Coastguard Agency wrote on its Twitter feed, “What do you think they are doing on the edge of a collapsed cliff? There’s a reason we give advice.”
It seems that these people were acting in a similar manner to the heedless French sunbather in northern France. She ignored the warning signs around the cliffs at Les Petites-Dalles in order to get a good relaxation spot. The result was definitely not relaxing, though, and she came perilously close to paying for her negligence with her life.