A Walk on the Beach

The unique geography and history behind On Chesil Beach's landscape

Written by Peter Bown

In bringing Ian McEwan's novel On Chesil Beach to the screen, the producers knew intuitively that the actual beach would have a starring role. "It's a unique place, and it's so central to the story that we knew we had to shoot there," explains producer Stephen Woolley. Directed by Dominic Cooke, On Chesil Beach explores how the wedding night of Edward Mayhew (Billy Howle) and Florence Ponting (Saoirse Ronan), which takes place in 1962 on that titled beach, redefines their lives, as well as the memories of the idyllic romance that preceded it. Once on Chesil Beach, both Ronan and Howle understood immediately the dramatic power of this natural spot. "It can be tempestuous, it can be serene. But even in its stillness there's something very disconcerting," notes Howle. "I think that encapsulates the human condition quite well."

McEwan, who walked the beach often while creating the novel, also glimpsed the symbolic resonance of the landscape. "This particular beach offered so many metaphorical possibilities," McEwan notes. "The fact that impersonal forces have created order; the fact that the last scene is played out on a tongue of shingle, so you're stranded on both sides; the sense that they sit down to dinner on an evening when they both hope to gain knowledge, which clearly relates to being on the edge of the known world... It was so rich, that I had to keep the volume down."

What makes the beach so unique is its peculiar geographical shape. Located on England's southern coast by the town of Weymouth, Chesil Beach forms a single strand of land that runs alongside the coast, connecting the mainland to the Isle of Portland. Geologically classified as a tombolo, a spit of land that connects an island to a landmass, the beach unexpectedly pulls away form the coast to become a world unto itself before arriving at the Isle of Portland. On one side is the English Channel and on the other are two small lagoons called West and East Fleet separating the spit from the coast.

Chesil Beach's pebbles

Many geologists theorize that its shape, along with its wide range of pebbles, are the result of centuries long erosion since the Ice Age. Chesil Beach and the adjacent shore that make up the Jurassic Coast were designated in 2001 a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the first in the United Kingdom that is wholly natural. The beach's name comes from the Old English "ceosel" or "cisel," meaning pebble. Rather than being a smooth, sandy beach, it is covered with pebbles of different sizes, colors, and shapes. Close to the Isle of Portland, the stones are as large as potatoes. As one travels northwest, the pebbles grow smaller and smoother. According to legend, smugglers who landed in the dead of night could tell where they were on the beach by the size of the stones.

For centuries, smugglers would drop their cargo on Chesil Beach, storing it in the calm waters of the Fleet lagoons to be retrieved at a later, more convenient time. In 1898, J. Meade Falkner published Moonfleet, a novel of smuggling and sea adventures that Fritz Lang adapted into a film in 1955. Falkner, who spent his childhood in nearby Weymouth, based the book's town of Moonfleet on East Fleet by Chesil Beach

Even more than smuggling, Chesil Beach became infamous for wrecking, the act of plundering goods from stranded ships. Because of the peculiar shape of the coastline, ships hoping to turn into the English Channel often found themselves forced by wind and waves back onto the spit, often with disastrous results. Since 1588, over 60 ships and many more lives have been lost on that stretch of land. And the nearby citizens often took it upon themselves to relieve the beached or destroyed ships of their cargo. A 1752 pamphlet pointed the finger at the locals, proclaiming all of them, "including even the vicar, are thieves, smugglers and plunderers of shipwrecks." 

By the end of the 19th century, looting gave way to looking, as the area became both a tourist destination and a source of artistic inspiration. With railroads connecting London to nearby Weymouth, visitors found their way to the famed beach, hiking its stony path and admiring its view. Painters often took to the Portland Heights to command an elevated perspective for their landscapes. By the 20th century, a number of artists celebrated the area's stark beauty. The painter John Piper, who discovered the area in the 1920s, commented, "Portland looks too extraordinary for words on the map, so does the adjoining Chesil beach." Elisabeth Vellacott captures the area's savage beauty in her primitive pen and ink wash Chesil Beach, 1952, as did Philip Leslie Moffat Ward with his 1950 Chesil Beach, Dorset, Winter.

Before Ian McEwan memorialized the area in his book, Thomas Hardy made it the backdrop for The Well-Beloved, which when finally published in 1897 became his final novel. Born and raised close by, Hardy often walked Chesil Beach and knew the area and its changing moods intimately. In his novel, Hardy describes the roar of the sea there as "a long-drawn rattling, as of bones between huge canine jaws. It came from the vast concave of Deadman's Bay, rising and falling against the pebble dyke." Locals so liked Hardy's fictional name "Deadman's Bay" that it started popping up to describe the area in later accounts. In recent times, the novelist John Fowles wrote of this area as well, describing it "an elemental place, made of sea, shingle and sky, its dominant sound always that of waves on moving stone: from the great surf and pounding."

Such natural beauty and quaint towns made the area of Dorset and Chesil Beach a perfect honeymoon destination. In the fifties and sixties, newlywed couples, not unlike Edward and Florence, might book a night in a local hotel there to celebrate their nuptials, taking along a tour book with which to explore the pebbled beach during the day. 

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