Part of the cliffs at Burton Bradstock beach between Lyme Regis and Weymouth collapsed at about 12.30 pm British Summertime (11.30 am GMT) on Tuesday 24 July 2012, burying a party of three tourists. Two of the three, described as a man in his 50s an his son were quickly freed by other tourists and evacuated from the beach by the RNLI, but the third, described as a woman aged 22 and the younger man's girlfriend, was still trapped when a second, larger, landslip occurred. In total about 400 tonnes of rocks and mud are said to have fallen over a 60 m section of the 50 m high cliffs, forming a pile of rubble over 10 m high.
Rescue workers assessing the landslip at Burton Bradstock beach. Bournemouth News & Picture Service.
Rescue workers consulted with geologists before searching the scene with sniffer dogs, heat seeking cameras and mechanical diggers. A woman's body was located at around 9.40 pm, according to Dorset Police. Dorset County Council have reportedly closed off a 25 km stretch of beaches and coastal paths to the west of Lyme Regis for urgent consultations with geologists.
The cliffs at Burton Bradstock are made of layers of sandstone and limestone. They can be extremely dangerous after periods of heavy rain, which tends to wash out the sandstone layers close to the cliff-face, leaving the limestone layers unsupported and prone to sudden collapses. The rocks are highly fossiliferous, and form part of the Jurassic Coast UNESCO World Heritage Site, making the area popular with both professional and amateur geologists and palaeontologists, as well as tourists from the nearby Freshwater Beach Holiday Park.
The University of Southampton offers the following advice to geologists 'The well-known exposures of fossiliferous limestone on the beach at Burton Cliff are, of course, the result of a cliff falls. Major falls are not frequent, but special care must be taken to watch for areas where loose material may fall. Much of the cliff is unstable and these cliffs are dangerous in several places. Keep away from the foot of the cliff here, as far as is feasible in terms of geological study, in case there is a fall of loose material. Members of parties should wear safety helmets, although these are of little use with regard to large rock falls. There is some risk of being cut off by the tide or swept into the sea in stormy weather conditions. Care must be taken when walking along the cliff top, which is retreating with cliff falls, and may overhang in places. Visitors and field leaders should make their own assessment of risk at the time and no responsibility is accepted.'.
The cliffs at Burton Bradstock. University of Southampton.
However little similar advice seems to be available for the general tourist, with scantily clad sunbathers often seen alongside geology students wearing conspicuous safety gear. Many geologists have long thought that better information on geological hazards should be available to tourists in Dorset and other coastal cliff areas. This incident comes less than three weeks after a couple were killed in their car by a landslip at Beaminster, also in Dorset.