Following on from finding a true Hollow Tree House we recently made a trip to Auchmithie beach, which just so happens to be the home of several caves and even a ‘secret’ passage or two.
How do they compare to the ones we read about in Blyton’s books? Let’s find out.
About Auchmithie beach
Auchmithie is a little village on the Angus coast, a short distance from Arbroath. There’s a glorious cliff-top walk you can take from the north end of Arbroath right into Auchmithie and along the way there are lots of interesting rock formations to see (including blow holes ala The Rubadub Mystery) and a couple of little beaches.
It’s definitely not somewhere I’d be comfortable taking a three-year-old though, far too many sheer drops! Plus he’d never walk the four miles along and four back. So, we drove up to Auchmithie and squeezed into the last car parking space in the tiny car park (previously I’ve taken the train to Arbroath and then the bus up to Auchmithie, a slightly more Blyton-worthy way of travelling, but not by much).
It was a warm but extremely foggy day at the beach, at times we couldn’t see the top of the cliffs from the beach or one end of the beach from the other which only added to the adventure. It was a bit like Mystery Moor – only we never got lost thankfully. (Some of the photos in the blog are from a previous trip, which was on a clear day.)
Anyway, the beach is accessed by a long track that winds down the hill, at the moment it’s very torn up due to water running down it. Several cottages back onto the gully – looking rather precarious in places as they really are perched on the sides.
At the bottom of the track are a couple of old sheds, and some old boats – a couple half-rotted away. Just to the left is the old (1889) harbour which is no longer in use. The walls have fallen in in several places but you can still walk along one side and scramble across some of the rest.
The beach itself is a stony one – covered in very round stones of varying sizes which form several ‘shelves’ (there’s probably a scientific word for this, but I don’t know what it is!). The cliffs around it are said to be 120 feet high and are red sandstone so they are full of cracks and crevices and loose bits which have fallen down. Sandstone is very soft so you can see so many places the tide has worn it away a little at a time – hence the many caves.
There are also lots of rocky ridges running out to sea, forming channels and gaps where softer rock has worn away.
Auchmithie reportedly has a history of smugglers using the caves. Due to the cliff erosion I doubt many of the caves there today would have been there even fifty years ago. The video at the end of this post was taken a year before my visit at the start of the month and in that time the archway shown at the end of the beach (3 minutes 15 on the video) has fallen in.
Still, if you go and explore the beach it doesn’t take too much imagination to turn it into a smugglers’ haunt in your mind, particularly as you walk through the ‘secret’ passages in the rock…
What did Blyton have to say about caves?
I described some of her caves in Blyton’s homeliest secret homes but only one is a beach-cave, the one on Kirrin Island which the Five found in Five Run Away Together.
As I wrote in that post it has:
a soft sandy floor, a rocky ledge which makes a good shelf for their cans and things and a hole in the roof which is part skylight, part chimney and part doorway.
I can safely say that this is not the sort of cave we found at Auchmithie. What we found were dark, damp spaces with uneven rocky floors from where the cliffs above had fallen in to create the caves!
Other books that feature sea-side caves include Five Go Down to the Sea, The Secret of Spiggy Holes, Smuggler Ben and The Island of Adventure.
None of these are turned into homes by the children – rather they are pretty inhospitable places at least at the seaward end.
The children put their three candles together and looked round the small, low-roofed, seaweedy cave. It smelt very dank and musty.
– The Island of Adventure
“It’s cold and dark in there.” She was right. It was. The sunshine could not get inside the deep caves, and they felt damp and mysterious.
– The Secret of Spiggy Holes
Auchmithie had a mix of higher and lower-roofed caves, though none of them were particularly seaweed-y. They were definitely a bit dark and dank, though.
Something Blyton’s caves often had in common is how dangerous they are – the ones at Spiggy Holes, Craggy Tops and Tremannon are mostly filled by the sea at each high tide.
Quite terrified now, the boys floundered into the cave, the waves running round their ankles. Jo-Jo came splashing behind them. Ah—he had got those boys now! Wait till he had done with them! They wouldn’t leave their beds again at night!
He stood outside by the entrance, waiting for the boys to come out. He had no idea there was a secret passage there. He stood, panting heavily, the rope-end in his hand. A big wave covered his knees. Jo-Jo muttered something. The tide was coming in rapidly. If those boys didn’t come out immediately they would be trapped there for the night.
Another wave ran up, almost as high as the black man’s waist. It was such a powerful wave that Jo-Jo at once left the cave entrance and tried to make his way back across the beach. He could not risk being dashed to pieces against the cliff by the incoming tide.
– The Island of Adventure
The children explored the beach, which was a most exciting one, but rather dangerous. The tide came right up to the cliffs when it was in, and filled most of the caves.
“We shall have to be careful not to get caught in any of these caves when the tide is coming in,” said Jack. “It would be very difficult to get out.”
Miss Dimity warned them too, and told them many stories of people who had explored the caves, forgetting about the tide, and who had had to be rescued by boats when they found that they could not get out of the caves.
One day there was a very high tide indeed. The waves splashed against the cliffs and all the caves were full of water. There was nothing to do down on the beach, because, for one thing, there was no beach, and for another Dimmy said it was dangerous to go down the cliff-path when the tides were high because the spray made the path slippery, and they might easily slip down and fall into the high water.
– The Secret of Spiggy Holes
‘This is exciting,’ said George, ‘Caves, and more caves, and yet more caves! And cove after cove, all as lovely as the one before. I suppose when the tide’s in, all these coves are shoulder-high in water.’
‘My word, yes,’ said Julian, who was keeping a very sharp eye indeed on the tide. ‘And a good many of these caves would be flooded too. No wonder Mrs Penruthlan warned us so solemnly about the tides here! I wouldn’t want to try and climb up these cliffs if we were caught!’
– Five Go Down to the Sea
Something else they all have in common is a secret way out (or in!). The cave on Kirrin Island has a hole in the roof, while all the rest have secret passages.
The cave in The Island of Adventure has a passage that leads through the rock to the cellars of Craggy Tops, and also some interior caves though not much is said about them.
It really was fun exploring the caves on the shore. Some of them ran very far back into the cliff. Others had queer holes in their roofs, that led to upper caves. Philip said that in olden times men had used the caves for hiding in, or for storing smuggled goods. But there was nothing to be seen in them now except seaweed and empty shells.
– The Island of Adventure
The Spiggy Holes cave leads to at least one other inner cave which still contains evidence of smuggling – old crates and so on – then carries on to the Old House. The one in Five Go Down to the Sea leads up to an old ruin on the cliff, passing an inner cave along the way. There’s also the wrecker’s way which leads from Tremannon Farm to the beach but it’s not clear if any caves are involved.
The caves in Smuggler Ben, at first appear to be perfectly normal but they, too, lead inland to deeper smugglers’ caves.
The three children began to hunt carefully along the rocky cliff. They ran into narrow caves and out again. They came to a big cave, went into that and came out again. It seemed nothing but a large cave, narrowing at the back.
How does Auchmithie compare?
To be honest, the Auchmithie caves are most like the description of the caves in Smuggler Ben! A load of small caves that go nowhere – but of course we didn’t do a great deal of exploring. Who knows what secret tunnels were lurking behind some of the rocks? We had a torch but it was Brodie’s and I think in need of a new battery so it barely illuminated anything. Plus being in caves where you could literally see all the places the roof had already fallen in meant we weren’t keen to spend too much time in the caves!
A few were a bit more interesting, though. The first we saw was tiny, a few feet in any direction, but just along from that we spotted a narrow opening… we couldn’t get too close as the tide was in at that point but as it went out and we got a close look it looked like it went quite far in.
It turned out to be a ‘secret’ passage. It went right through the rock several meters and came out in another bay! As the tide retreated further you could just walk around the outside of the rocky outcrop but that’s just no fun!
In that bay were another couple of caves, at first it looked like two separate ones but if you went in you could walk from one into the other. Not exactly a secret passage, but close.
Above, the first photo is the cave on the left. The second is looking into that cave from the one on the right, the last two are the deeper portion of the right cave.
As above the secret passage definitely had at least a few feet of water in it at high tide, but the rest of the caves seemed out of reach of the tide. Several had an abundance of grass and weeds growing in them. I suspect this is because the caves aren’t made from the tide constantly wearing away the rock, they’re formed by the cliffs falling in – though probably aided by winter storms.
Here’s a video where someone goes through that secret tunnel and into the joined caves, it’ll probably give you a better understanding of the layouts.