Natural geological wonders of Britain's coast
The long and convoluted coastline of the British Isles is well known for its stunning beaches and seaside towns, but it is also home to any number of dramatic natural geological wonders. These amazing rock formations throw a variety of bizarre shapes; from towering sea stacks and improbable rock arches to huge caves and precipitous cliffs.
Despite many of these rocky forms looking like they have been touched by the hand of God, or at least man, they have all been carved and weathered by the elements over the milenia. Whilst these forces are often thought of as destructive here we see nature at its most creative.
Join us as we explore Britain's most impressive coastal cliffs, arches, stacks and caves.
Stair Hole, Dorset
Dorset's Jurassic Coast is home to a wealth of geological wonders. One of the lesser known, but most interesting is the tiny cove of Stair Hole. Situated just around the corner from the better known Lulworth Cove the little hidden bay is almost separated from the sea by limestone cliffs which have eroded into numerous arches.
At the either end of Stair Hole the cliffs rise up revealing a contorted form of zig-zagging folds in the rocks.
Green Bridge of Wales, Pembrokeshire
This iconic rock arch has been carved from the Carboniferous limestone by the wind and waves of this exposed section of the Pembroke coast. The Green Bridge gets its name from the lush greenery that thrives on top of the limestone arch, contrasting beautifully with the deep blue waters of the surrounding sea.
At over 80 feet tall the Green Bridge is a fairly imposing sight, and unsurprisingly, popular with climbers.
Bow Fiddle Rock, Moray Firth
Located in the northeast Scottish town of Portknockie, this geologic wonder is named after its unique form, which is the result of millions of years of erosion by the relentless force of the North Sea. The arch, resembling the end of a fiddle's bow, juts out of the water and is a popular attraction for tourists, photographers, and nature enthusiasts.
The 50 feet tall Bow Fiddle Rock is composed of layers of sandstone and quartzite, and its appearance changes dramatically with the shifting light and the changing tides. Home to a variety of seabirds, the location is a picturesque and captivating destination for birdwatching. It is also a favorite spot for rock climbers, although access can be challenging due to the ebb and flow of the tide.
Giant's Causeway, County Antrim
Probably one of the best known names on this list, Northern Ireland's Giant's Causeway is the centrepiece of the UNESCO Causeway Coast heritage site. It consists of around 40 thousand hexagonal basalt columns formed by volcanic activity around 50-60 million years ago. These columns interlock like giant stepping stones, creating a striking and symmetrical landscape that has captured the imagination of visitors for centuries.
Legend has it that the causeway was built by the Irish giant Finn McCool as a bridge to confront his Scottish rival, Benandonner. Whatever the origins of this geological marvel there is no denying the beauty of the the rugged coastal scenery and views of the North Atlantic Ocean surrounding it.
Durdle Door, Dorset
Another gem of Dorset's Jurassic coast, the iconic Durdle Door lies just a short walk from Stair Hole. This natural limestone rock arch rises nearly 100 feet out of the clear blue waters of the English Channel below.
The name "Durdle" comes from the Old English word for 'drill'. Geologists believe the arch was only formed a relatively recent 10,000 years ago when the sea broke through the soft stone. It is also believed that the ongoing process of erosion will one day cause the arch to collapse. However, this probably won't happen for several hundred years so there's no rush!
Blackchurch Rock, North Devon
Set on what is one of the remotest stretches of coast in the Southwest is Mouthmill Beach. This rocky cove is tucked away in a valley among the inhospitable cliffs of the treacherous Hartland coast. This is definitely more of a spot for explorers than those looking for a relaxing afternoon on the beach.
There is a little stream running through the beach and the remains of an old lime kiln, but this is not what catches the visitors attention. Rising out of the rocky substrate is the impressive triangular form of Blackchurch Rock.
The rock formation is formed from a mix of shale and sandstone that has become separated from the adjacent cliffs. Wave action over the millennia has carved two 'windows' into the rock. The result is part sea stack and part rock arch - a "starch"!
On the east coast, not far from the UK's most northerly mainland settlement, John o' Groats, is a particularly impressive stretch of cliffs. Rising nearly 200 feet out of the North Sea these sheer cliffs have been carved into some otherworldly shapes by the harsh elements.
Duncansby Stacks consist of a series of impressive, jagged sea stacks lashed by the often stormy Scottish sea. These cliffs and stacks are home to a multitude of seabirds, and these help to give some idea of scale as they soar between the tall rocks.
Rumour has it that in the 1950s Duncansby Stacks were actually earmarked as a test site for an atomic weapon. Insane as this sounds the story goes that it was only called off because the weather and the outstanding natural beauty of this area was not a factor!?
Bedruthan Steps, Cornwall
On the Cornish coast between Newquay and Padstow we find another giant-themed geological oddity. The set of huge sea stacks staggered across a sandy beach are said to be named after the mythological giant "Bedruthan" and "Steps" for the stair-like rock formations.
It turns out that there wasn't really any such legend and that the story of Bedruthan was made up to capitalise on the Victorian tourism boom - no doubt by the canny owner of a nearby guest house! What is beyond question is the natural beauty of this stretch of coast which is also home to a very fine sandy beach.
So iconic are the stacks at Bedruthan that they have each been given names; from north to south they are Queen Bess, Samaritan Island, Redcove Island, Pendarves Island, and Carnewas Island.
Fingal's Cave, Isle of Staffa, Inner Hebrides
Yet another giant-related landmark, with this one linking in with the first. If you remember, the Giant's Causeway was built by Fionn mac Cumhaill, a.k.a. Finn McCool / a.k.a. Fingal, as a bridge to Scotland so he could fight rival giant, Benandonner. Well, where do you think that bridge ended?!
Given that both sites are formed of the same hexagonal basalt columns it seems fairly reasonable to assume the same origin for both. This much is certainly true and geologists believe both were created by an ancient lava flow some 60 million years ago.
Fingal's Cave, as it is now known, is a unique sea cave located on the Isle of Staffa in the Inner Hebrides. The cave's peculiar geological formations and its captivating acoustics have made it a popular tourist attraction and a source of inspiration for artists and writers since Victorian times. Musicians from Felix Mendelssohn to Pink Floyd have also been influenced by this wonderous cave.
Marsden Bay, Tyne and Wear
The sandy beach at Marsden Bay is one of the finest in the South Shields area of North East England. Set at the foot of tall, craggy cliffs the beach is somewhat dominated by the towering bulk of Marsden Rock.
This 100 feet tall lump of periclase and Magnesian Limestone has gone through a number of changes in (geologically) recent times. Back in the 1800s the rock was significantly bigger, however various collapses reduced the size noticeably.
Up until 1996 Marsden Rock formed a huge arch but sadly the winter storms of that year caused the top of the arch to collapse. This left two stacks the smaller of which was deemed unstable and demolished the following year.
What is left of Marsden Rock today is still impressive, and there are further stacks along the beach. The cliffs here contain a number of caves and "grottos", something that didn't go unnoticed by local smugglers. It is said that in the 18th and 19th centuries they would hide their contraband in these.
The bay is also said to be haunted by the ghost of John the Jibber, a sailor who was drowned in a shipwreck in 1823.
Much of South East England's coastline is made up of strikingly white chalk cliffs. Perhaps the most iconic of all these is Beachy Head near Eastbourne.
Reaching a precipitous 531 feet above the English Channel this is the highest chalk sea cliff in Britain. From the peak visitors can take in views of the south east coast towards Dungeness in the east, and to the Isle of Wight in the west.
Every year nearly a million people visit the stunning cliffs of Beachy Head and the iconic location has been used in many big name films such as Harry Potter, James Bond, Pearl Harbour and Robin Hood-Prince of Thieves. However the spot also has a darker, more tragic side as i tis known for a high number of suicides , making it one of the world's most notorious suicide spots.
Old Man of Hoy, Orkney Islands
Perched majestically on the rugged Orkney coastline, the Old Man of Hoy stands as a testament to the power of nature and human determination. This most iconic of sea stack has captured the imaginations of climbers and the general public alike.
The 449 feet tall pillar of red sandstone is one of the tallest stacks in the UK yet is only several hundred years old. Separated from the adjacent headland by the erosive forces of the wind and sea it is likely the Old Man may collapse into the sea in the not too distant future.
What put the Old Man of Hoy on the map was the BBC "Great Climb" documentary in 1967 which featured legendary British climber Sir Chris Bonington successfully ascending the rock for the first time.
The Old Man is home to a variety of seabirds, including fulmars, gannets, and puffins. It is also a popular nesting site for peregrine falcons.
Pulpit Rock, Dorset
Pulpit Rock is a little different to the rest of the rock formations on this list in that it is not entirely natural in its form. Situated at Portland Bill on the southern tip of the Isle of Portland what we see now dates back to the late 1870s.
From the 18th century Portland Bill was heavily quarried for its valuable white limestone. This stone was used in buildings such as St Paul's Cathedral and Tower Bridge to name just a couple.
Up until the late 19th century Pulpit Rock was actually a rock arch connected to the mainland. However, as the rock level on the Bill was lowered the arch was cut away leaving a stack. At some later point a large slab of rock was leaned against the rock, creating what some said was a resemblance to an open bible leaning on a pulpit.
Today Pulpit Rock is a popular visitor attraction and photographer's favourite. It is also a popular spot for "tombstoning", despite the dangers. Pulpit Rock is also a popular point for anglers with a British record Ballan wrasse caught here in 1998.
Drinking Dinosaur, Flamborough Head, East Yorkshire
Just around the corner from Flamborough Head in Yorkshire is one of the UK's quirkiest rock formations. Officially known as Green Stacks Pinnacle this chalk sea stack and rock arch has a somewhat more descriptive nickname.
Known by many as the "Drinking Dinosaur" it shouldn't take to much explaining why. The bulk of the pinnacle forms the dinosaur's body with the tail going landwards and the arch and adjoined stack forming the neck and head.
Whilst it might be tempting to take a closer look access is difficult and the beach is often home to breeding seals. It is also popular spot for birdwatching, with a variety of seabirds, including puffins, guillemots, and razorbills.
Further, slightly more conventionally-shaped, sea stacks can be seen along the coast between North Landing and Flamborough Head and at Selwicks Bay.
Am Buachaille, Sandwood Bay
Am Buachaille is the second in a trinity of dramatic sea stacks on the Scottish coast which have captivated both sightseers and rock climbers over the years. Rising vertically over 200 feet from the often angry sea below, this is a place to inspire awe.
For would be climbers there are two challenges; getting to the climb and completing the climb. Located just along the coast from Sandwood Bay, Am Buachaille is separated from the headland of Rubh' a Bhuachaille by around 100 feet of water which must be crossed. Once at the base of the stack there are four routes to the top with even the easiest rated as Hard Very Severe (HVS).
The name Am Buachaille translates as "the shepherd" from Scottish Gaelic. It is thought that the name comes from the fact that the stack resembles a figure standing on the shore, watching over the sheep.
Old Harry Rocks, Dorset
Back to Dorset's Jurassic Coast for yet another iconic and distinctive landmark. This strikingly white series of chalk sea stacks lies at the southern end of Studland Bay. Formed over millions of years the columns of rock were once part of a chain of hills which ran all the way to the Isle of Wight.
The erosion of the hills has left behind a collection of interesting rock formations, including Old Harry himself, a tall, slender stack that is the most famous of the group. Other notable features include Old Harry's Wife, a smaller stack that collapsed in 1896, and the Needle Eye, a natural archway.
There are two theories as to where Old Harry Rocks got their name. 'Old Harry' is a name for the Devil and it is said he once slept on the rocks. The other is that they were named after a notorious local pirate, Harry Paye who would hide his loots here.
Old Man of Stoer, Sutherland
The third and final in our trilogy of Scottish sea stacks - the Old Man of Stoer.
At just 200 feet tall the Torridonian sandstone stack is the shortest in our selection. However, what it may lack in height it makes up for in location. The seas in this area are notorious and have claimed a number of vessels including a fishing boat that went down right here in 1953.
As with our other stacks the Old Man of Stoer is a popular climb for experienced climbers. There are a number of different routes up the rock, ranging from the moderate to difficult. The climb requires abseiling down the landward face of the stack to reach the base, and then a "Tyrolean traverse" across a narrow sea channel.
Nanjizal - "Song of the Sea", Cornwall
Tucked away at the southern end of one of Cornwall's best known "secret beaches" is Nanjizal's "Song of the Sea". A tall narrow cave running through the granite headland between the beach and the Atlantic Ocean on the other side.
Within the cave a lagoon forms which is large enough to swim in. On the right tide and light the clear turquoise water will be illuminated by the gold of the setting sun through the narrow opening.
Nanjizal is definitely a place of moods and being located less than a mile from Land's End means it faces the full might of the Atlantic. Some days the waves gently lap the rocky interior of the cave, and this is where the "Song of the Sea" name comes from. However on stormy days the waves will crash and roar through the gap
Kilt Rock, Isle of Skye
Kilt Rock on the Isle of Skye gets its name from the basalt columns that rise vertically from the sandstone bedrock below. The hexagonal columns give a corrugated effect that apparently reminded someone of the pleats in a kilt. It seems that the name was dreamt up some time ago as they are also known by the Gaelic name of Creag an Fheilidh, which also means Kilt Rock.
The cliffs are nearly 300 feet tall at their highest point from where visitors can admire the stunning vista from a viewing platform. The platform also offers views to the Mealt Falls, a waterfall that cascades down the adjacent cliff face.
In addition to its natural beauty, Kilt Rock is also a popular spot for rock climbing. The basalt columns provide a variety of climbing routes for climbers of all skill levels.
The Needles, Isle of Wight
Last but not least is by far the most famous landmark on the Isle of Wight, the Needles. These three jagged teeth of white chalk, bookmarked by the red and white stripes of the Needles Lighthouse, mark the most westerly point of the island.
Looking at this 100 feet tall rock formation it isn't particularly obvious why they were so named. The explanation is that up until 1764 there were four 'needles' with the fourth being more of a pointy pillar shape. This collapsed during a storm leaving what we see today.
If any of you were thinking these chalk rocks looked familiar after reading this list then you're not wrong. The Needles are the remains of the same chain of hills which formed Old Harry Rocks and now lie beneath Studland Bay.