Under this alarming heading, "The Disappearance of England," the Gaulois
recently published an article by M. Guy Dorval on the erosion of the English
coasts. The writer refers to the predictions of certain British men of science that
England will one day disappear altogether beneath the waves, and imagines that we
British folk are seized by a popular panic. Our neighbours are trembling for the fate
of the entente cordiale, which would speedily vanish with vanishing England; but
they have been assured by some of their savants that the rate of erosion is only one
kilometre in a thousand years, and that the danger of total extinction is somewhat
remote. Professor Stanislas Meunier, however, declares that our "panic" is based on
scientific facts. He tells us that the cliffs of Brighton are now one kilometre farther
away from the French coast than in the days of Queen Elizabeth, and that those of
Kent are six kilometres farther away than in the Roman period. He compares our
island to a large piece of sugar in water, but we may rest assured that before we
disappear beneath the waves the period which must elapse would be greater than
the longest civilizations known in history. So we may hope to be able to sing "Rule
Britannia" for many a long year.
Coast erosion is, however, a serious problem, and has caused the destruction of
many a fair town and noble forest that now lie beneath the seas, and the crumbling
cliffs on our eastern shore threaten to destroy many a village church and smiling
pasture. Fishermen tell you that when storms rage and the waves swell they have
heard the bells chiming in the towers long covered by the seas, and nigh the
picturesque village of Bosham we were told of a stretch of sea that was called the
Park. This as late as the days of Henry VIII was a favourite royal hunting forest,
wherein stags and fawns and does disported themselves; now fish are the only prey
that can be slain therein.
The Royal Commission on coast erosion relieves our minds somewhat by assuring
us that although the sea gains upon the land in many places, the land gains upon the
sea in others, and that the loss and gain are more or less balanced. As a matter of
area this is true. Most of the land that has been rescued from the pitiless sea is
below high-water mark, and is protected by artificial banks. This work of
reclaiming land can, of course, only be accomplished in sheltered places, for
example, in the great flat bordering the Wash, which flat is formed by the deposit
of the rivers of the Fenland, and the seaward face of this region is gradually being
pushed forward by the careful processes of enclosure. You can see the various old
sea walls which have been constructed from Roman times onward. Some accretions
of land have occurred where the sea piles up masses of shingle, unless foolish
people cart away the shingle in such quantities that the waves again assert
themselves. Sometimes sand silts up as at Southport in Lancashire, where there is
the second longest pier in England, a mile in length, from the end of which it is said
that on a clear day with a powerful telescope you may perchance see the sea, that a
distinguished traveller accustomed to the deserts of Sahara once found it, and that
the name Southport is altogether a misnomer, as it is in the north and there is no
port at all.
But however much as an Englishman I might rejoice that the actual area of "our
tight little island," which after all is not very tight, should not be diminishing, it
would be a poor consolation to me, if I possessed land and houses on the coast of
Norfolk which were fast slipping into the sea, to know that in the Fenland
industrious farmers were adding to their acres. And day by day, year by year, this
destruction is going on, and the gradual melting away of land. The attack is not
always persistent. It is intermittent. Sometimes the progress of the sea seems to be
stayed, and then a violent storm arises and falling cliffs and submerged houses
proclaim the sway of the relentless waves. We find that the greatest loss has
occurred on the east and southern coasts of our island. Great damage has been
wrought all along the Yorkshire sea-board from Bridlington to Kilnsea, and the
following districts have been the greatest sufferers: between Cromer and
Happisburgh, Norfolk; between Pakefield and Southwold, Suffolk; Hampton and
Herne Bay, and then St. Margaret's Bay, near Dover; the coast of Sussex, east of
Brighton, and the Isle of Wight; the region of Bournemouth and Poole; Lyme Bay,
Dorset, and Bridgwater Bay, Somerset.
All along the coast from Yarmouth to Eastbourne, with a few exceptional parts, we
find that the sea is gaining on the land by leaps and bounds. It is a coast that is most
favourably constructed for coast erosion. There are no hard or firm rocks, no cliffs
high enough to give rise to a respectable landslip; the soil is composed of loose
sand and gravels, loams and clays, nothing to resist the assaults of atmospheric
action from above or the sea below. At Covehithe, on the Suffolk coast, there has
been the greatest loss of land. In 1887 sixty feet was claimed by the sea, and in ten
years (1878-87) the loss was at the rate of over eighteen feet a year. In 1895
another heavy loss occurred between Southwold and Covehithe and a new cove
formed. Easton Bavent has entirely disappeared, and so have the once prosperous
villages of Covehithe, Burgh-next-Walton, and Newton-by-Corton, and the same
fate seems to be awaiting Pakefield, Southwold, and other coast-lying towns.
Easton Bavent once had such a flourishing fishery that it paid an annual rent of
3110 herrings; and millions of herrings must have been caught by the fishermen of
disappeared Dunwich, which we shall visit presently, as they paid annually "fish-
fare" to the clergy of the town 15,377 herrings, besides 70,000 to the royal treasury.
The summer visitors to the pleasant watering-place Felixstowe, named after St.
Felix, who converted the East Anglians to Christianity and was their first bishop,
that being the place where the monks of the priory of St. Felix in Walton held their
annual fair, seldom reflect that the old Saxon burgh was carried away as long ago
as 1100 A.D. Hence Earl Bigot was compelled to retire inland and erect his famous
castle at Walton. But the sea respected not the proud walls of the baron's
stronghold; the strong masonry that girt the keep lies beneath the waves; a heap of
stones, called by the rustics Stone Works, alone marks the site of this once
powerful castle. Two centuries later the baron's marsh was destroyed by the sea,
and eighty acres of land was lost, much to the regret of the monks, who were thus
deprived of the rent and tithe corn.
The old chroniclers record many dread visitations of the relentless foe. Thus in
1237 we read: "The sea burst with high tides and tempests of winds, marsh
countries near the sea were flooded, herds and flocks perished, and no small
number of men were lost and drowned. The sea rose continually for two days and
one night." Again in 1251: "On Christmas night there was a great thunder and
lightning in Suffolk; the sea caused heavy floods." In much later times Defoe
records: "Aldeburgh has two streets, each near a mile long, but its breadth, which
was more considerable formerly, is not proportionable, and the sea has of late years
swallowed up one whole street." It has still standing close to the shore its quaint
picturesque town hall, erected in the fifteenth century. Southwold is now practically
an island, bounded on the east by the sea, on the south-west by the Blyth River, on
the north-west by Buss Creek. It is only joined to the mainland by a narrow neck of
shingle that divides Buss Creek from the sea. I think that I should prefer to hold
property in a more secure region. You invest your savings in stock, and dividends
decrease and your capital grows smaller, but you usually have something left. But
when your land and houses vanish entirely beneath the waves, the chapter is ended
and you have no further remedy except to sue Father Neptune, who has rather a
wide beat and may be difficult to find when he is wanted to be served with a
But the Suffolk coast does not show all loss. In the north much land has been
gained in the region of Beccles, which was at one time close to the sea, and one of
the finest spreads of shingle in England extends from Aideburgh to Bawdry. This
shingle has silted up many a Suffolk port, but it has proved a very effectual barrier
against the inroads of the sea. Norden's map of the coast made in 16012 shows this
wonderful mass of shingle, which has greatly increased since Norden's day. It has
been growing in a southerly direction, until the Aide River had until recently an
estuary ten miles in length. But in 1907 the sea asserted itself, and "burst through
the stony barrier, making a passage for the exit of the river one mile further north,
and leaving a vast stretch of shingle and two deserted river-channels as a protection
to the Marshes of Hollesley from further inroads of the sea."3 Formerly the River
Alde flowed direct to the sea just south of the town of Aldeburgh. Perhaps some
day it may be able to again force a passage near its ancient course or by Havergate
Island. This alteration in the course of rivers is very remarkable, and may be
observed at Christ Church, Hants.
It is pathetic to think of the historic churches, beautiful villages, and smiling
pastures that have been swept away by the relentless sea. There are no less than
twelve towns and villages in Yorkshire that have been thus buried, and five in
Suffolk. Ravensburgh, in the former county, was once a flourishing seaport. Here
landed Henry IV in 1399, and Edward IV in 1471. It returned two members to
Parliament. An old picture of the place shows the church, a large cross, and houses;
but it has vanished with the neighbouring villages of Redmare, Tharlethorp,
Frismarch, and Potterfleet, and "left not a wrack behind." Leland mentions it in
1538, after which time its place in history and on the map knows it no more. The
ancient church of Kilnsea lost half its fabric in 1826, and the rest followed in 1831.
Alborough Church and the Castle of Grimston have entirely vanished. Mapleton
Church was formerly two miles from the sea; it is now on a cliff with the sea at its
feet, awaiting the final attack of the all-devouring enemy. Nearly a century ago
Owthorne Church and churchyard were overwhelmed, and the shore was strewn
with ruins and shattered coffins. On the Tyneside the destruction has been
remarkable and rapid. In the district of Saltworks there was a house built standing
on the cliff, but it was never finished, and fell a prey to the waves. At Percy Square
an inn and two cottages have been destroyed. The edge of the cliff in 1827 was
eighty feet seaward, and the banks of Percy Square receded a hundred and eighty
feet between the years 1827 and 1892. Altogether four acres have disappeared. An
old Roman building, locally known as "Gingling Geordie's Hole," and large masses
of the Castle Cliff fell into the sea in the 'eighties. The remains of the once
flourishing town of Seaton, on the Durham coast, can be discovered amid the sands
at low tide. The modern village has sunk inland, and cannot now boast of an
ancient chapel dedicated to St. Thomas of Canterbury, which has been devoured by
the waves.
Skegness, on the Lincolnshire coast, was a large and important town; it boasted of a
castle with strong fortifications and a church with a lofty spire; it now lies deep
beneath the devouring sea, which no guarding walls could conquer. Far out at sea,
beneath the waves, lies old Cromer Church, and when storms rage its bells are said
to chime. The churchyard wherein was written the pathetic ballad "The Garden of
Sleep" is gradually disappearing, and "the graves of the fair women that sleep by
the cliffs by the sea" have been outraged, and their bodies scattered and devoured
by the pitiless waves.
One of the greatest prizes of the sea is the ancient city of Dunwich, which dates
back to the Roman era. The Domesday Survey shows that it was then a
considerable town having 236 burgesses. It was girt with strong walls; it possessed
an episcopal palace, the seat of the East Anglian bishopric; it had (so Stow asserts)
fifty-two churches, a monastery, brazen gates, a town hall, hospitals, and the
dignity of possessing a mint. Stow tells of its departed glories, its royal and
episcopal palaces, the sumptuous mansion of the mayor, its numerous churches and
its windmills, its harbour crowded with shipping, which sent forth forty vessels for
the king's service in the thirteenth century. Though Dunwich was an important
place, Stow's description of it is rather exaggerated. It could never have had more
than ten churches and monasteries. Its "brazen gates" are mythical, though it had its
Lepers' Gate, South Gate, and others. It was once a thriving city of wealthy
merchants and industrious fishermen. King John granted to it a charter. It suffered
from the attacks of armed men as well as from the ravages of the sea. Earl Bigot
and the revolting barons besieged it in the reign of Edward I. Its decay was gradual.
In 1342, in the parish of St. Nicholas, out of three hundred houses only eighteen
remained. Only seven out of a hundred houses were standing in the parish of St.
Martin. St. Peter's parish was devastated and depopulated. It had a small round
church, like that at Cambridge, called the Temple, once the property of the Knights
Templars, richly endowed with costly gifts. This was a place of sanctuary, as were
the other churches in the city. With the destruction of the houses came also the
decay of the port which no ships could enter. Its rival, Southwold, attracted the
vessels of strangers. The markets and fairs were deserted. Silence and ruin reigned
over the doomed town, and the ruined church of All Saints is all that remains of its
former glories, save what the storms sometimes toss along the beach for the study
and edification of antiquaries.
As we proceed down the coast we find that the sea is still gaining on the land. The
old church at Walton-on-the-Naze was swept away, and is replaced by a new one.
A flourishing town existed at Reculver, which dates back to the Romans. It was a
prosperous place, and had a noble church, which in the sixteenth century was a mile
from the sea. Steadily have the waves advanced, until a century ago the church fell
into the sea, save two towers which have been preserved by means of elaborate sea-
walls as a landmark for sailors.
The fickle sea has deserted some towns and destroyed their prosperity; it has
receded all along the coast from Folkestone to the Sussex border, and left some of
the famous Cinque Ports, some of which we shall visit again, Lymne, Romney,
Hythe, Richborough, Stonor, Sandwich, and Sarre high and dry, with little or no
access to the sea. Winchelsea has had a strange career. The old town lies beneath
the waves, but a new Winchelsea arose, once a flourishing port, but now deserted
and forlorn with the sea a mile away. Rye, too, has been forsaken. It was once an
island; now the little Rother stream conveys small vessels to the sea, which looks
very far away.
We cannot follow all the victories of the sea. We might examine the inroads made
by the waves at Selsea. There stood the first cathedral of the district before
Chichester was founded. The building is now beneath the sea, and since Saxon
times half of the Selsea Bill has vanished. The village of Selsea rested securely in
the centre of the peninsula, but only half a mile now separates it from the sea. Some
land has been gained near this projecting headland by an industrious farmer. His
farm surrounded a large cove with a narrow mouth through which the sea poured. If
he could only dam up that entrance, he thought he could rescue the bed of the cove
and add to his acres. He bought an old ship and sank it by the entrance and
proceeded to drain. But a tiresome storm arose and drove the ship right across the
cove, and the sea poured in again. By no means discouraged, he dammed up the
entrance more effectually, got rid of the water, increased his farm by many acres,
and the old ship makes an admirable cow-shed.
Disused Mooring-Post on bank of the Rother, Rye
The Isle of Wight in remote geological periods was part of the mainland. The Scilly
Isles were once joined with Cornwall, and were not severed until the fourteenth
century, when by a mighty storm and flood, 140 churches and villages were
destroyed and overwhelmed, and 190 square miles of land carried away. Much land
has been lost in the Wirral district of Cheshire. Great forests have been
overwhelmed, as the skulls and bones of deer and horse and fresh-water shell-fish
have been frequently discovered at low tide. Fifty years ago a distance of half a
mile separated Leasowes Castle from the sea; now its walls are washed by the
waves. The Pennystone, off the Lancashire coast by Blackpool, tells of a
submerged village and manor, about which cluster romantic legends.
Such is the sad record of the sea's destruction, for which the industrious
reclamation of land, the compensations wrought by the accumulation of shingle and
sand dunes and the silting of estuaries can scarcely compensate us. How does the
sea work this? There are certain rock-boring animals, such as the Pholas, which
help to decay the rocks. Each mollusc cuts a series of augur-holes from two to four
inches deep, and so assists in destroying the bulwarks of England. Atmospheric
action, the disintegration of soft rocks by frost and by the attack of the sea below,
all tend in the same direction. But the foolish action of man in removing shingle,
the natural protection of our coasts, is also very mischievous. There is an instance
of this in the Hall Sands and Bee Sands, Devon. A company a few years ago
obtained authority to dredge both from the foreshore and sea-bed. The
Commissioners of Woods and Forests and the Board of Trade granted this
permission, the latter receiving a royalty of 50 and the former 150. This occurred
in 1896. Soon afterwards a heavy gale arose and caused an immense amount of
damage, the result entirely of this dredging. The company had to pay heavily, and
the royalties were returned to them. This is only one instance out of many which
might be quoted. We are an illogical nation, and our regulations and authorities are
weirdly confused. It appears that the foreshore is under the control of the Board of
Trade, and then a narrow strip of land is ruled over by the Commissioners of
Woods and Forests. Of course these bodies do not agree; different policies are
pursued by each, and the coast suffers. Large sums are sometimes spent in coast-
defence works. At Spurn no less than 37,433 has been spent out of Parliamentary
grants, besides 14,227 out of the Mercantile Marine Fund. Corporations or county
authorities, finding their coasts being worn away, resolve to protect it. They obtain
a grant in aid from Parliament, spend vast sums, and often find their work entirely
thrown away, or proving itself most disastrous to their neighbours. If you protect
one part of the coast you destroy another. Such is the rule of the sea. If you try to
beat it back at one point it will revenge itself on another. If only you can cause
shingle to accumulate before your threatened town or homestead, you know you
can make the place safe and secure from the waves. But if you stop this flow of
shingle you may protect your own homes, but you deprive your neighbours of this
safeguard against the ravages of the sea. It was so at Deal. The good folks of Deal
placed groynes in order to stop the flow of shingle and protect the town. They did
their duty well; they stopped the shingle and made a good bulwark against the sea.
With what result? In a few years' time they caused the destruction of Sandown,
which had been deprived of its natural protection. Mr. W. Whitaker, F.R.S., who
has walked along the whole coast from Norfolk to Cornwall, besides visiting other
parts of our English shore, and whose contributions to the Report of the Royal
Commission on Coast Erosion are so valuable, remembers when a boy the Castle of
Sandown, which dated from the time of Henry VIII. It was then in a sound
condition and was inhabited. Now it is destroyed, and the batteries farther north
have gone too. The same thing is going on at Dover. The Admiralty Pier causes the
accumulation of shingle on its west side, and prevents it from following its natural
course in a north-easterly direction. Hence the base of the cliffs on the other side of
the pier and harbour is left bare and unprotected; this aids erosion, and not
unfrequently do we hear of the fall of the chalk cliffs.
Isolated schemes for the prevention of coast erosion are of little avail. They can do
no good, and only increase the waste and destruction of land in neighbouring
shores. Stringent laws should be passed to prevent the taking away of shingle from
protecting beaches, and to prohibit the ploughing of land near the edge of cliffs,
which greatly assists atmospheric destructive action from above. The State has
recently threatened the abandonment of the coastguard service. This would be a
disastrous policy. Though the primary object of coastguards, the prevention of
smuggling, has almost passed away, the old sailors who act as guardians of our
coast-line render valuable services to the country. They are most useful in looking
after the foreshore. They save many lives from wrecked vessels, and keep watch
and ward to guard our shores, and give timely notice of the advance of a hostile
fleet, or of that ever-present foe which, though it affords some protection for our
island home from armed invasion, does not fail to exact a heavy tithe from the land
it guards, and has destroyed so many once flourishing towns and villages by its
ceaseless attack.