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England's Changing Coastline


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As time goes on, England grows larger; its area to-day is many miles greater than when the Conqueror took it, and still more ample than when the Romans came. This increase is chiefly due to the reclamation of seaside marshes and the shores of estuaries; but, contradictory as it appears, there is also a gain of surface as the result of the increasing attacks of wave, rain, and frost upon our softer cliffs.

When a slice of cliff falls into the sea, its materials are sifted out by the tides, and laid down again at new points along the coastline. But the sea cannot lift what it has robbed much above its own level; and a mass of cliff forty or a hundred feet high occupies very much more than its original area, when it is spread out in mud-beds and shingle-flats. There is thus no fear of England suffering destruction by the sea that continually frets it.

The mischief done by erosion is of a different sort. What the sea takes away is land enriched and developed by centuries of culture and habitation- - fertile cornfields, sweet pasture, or historic towns and villages. It gives back either a tract of mud needing many years and much outlay of capital to re-develop its fertility, or else a naked waste of pebbles, like those at Dungeness and near Weybourne in Norfolk, which a thousand years will hardly make fruitful.

By far the greatest changes in our coastline have taken place in the south-eastern half of the country, between the Isle of Wight and Flamborough Head. In all this tract the soils are softer and less resistant than in most parts of the west and north. The shores are mostly flatter; and nature is still in the midst of one of her drastic processes of scene-shifting. It is a mere yesterday in geological time - barely a few thousand years - since the floor of the North Sea sank beneath its turbid waters, and England became an island. Our eastern coasts are still raw from that wound, and their delimitation is not yet finished.

Every fall of earthy cliff on the Norfolk and Suffolk coasts, or of chalky rock near Folkestone or Dover, is an attempt of the new shoreline to adapt itself to changed conditions. The same tract of coast which has suffered most loss has seen the greatest gains, because the shallow seas which fringe flat shores are most quickly silted up by the tides, and most easily reclaimed by means of embankments.

Between the chalk bluff of Flamborough Head and the mouth of the Humber the North Sea has been eating away the soft cliffs for many centuries. All Holderness is a vast bed of earth and gravel piled up by a great ice-sheet which ploughed its way from the Continent in the Ice Age. When the ice melted, it left its transported litter behind it, like the moraine of an Alpine glacier; and the waves are still ceaselessly eroding the huge "dump."

The chalk cliffs of the older coastline can still be traced, by borings through the softer material, along a line between Flamborough and the Humber, and towards this ancient limit the sea is relentlessly working back. The best-known of the coast towns which have perished was Ravenspurn-Shakespeare's Ravenspurg. In the thirteenth century it was a seaport of sufficient importance to return a member of Parliament; in the next century its population sent most of their goods for safety to Hull. The flood tides flowing daily from the north carry the waste of the low cliffs southward past Spurn Point, that guards the mouth of the Humber; and Spurn Point is a cape in motion, for as the Holderness coast recedes westward, the silty Spurn shifts too. As fast as the tides plane down its outer edge, in conformity with the wasting cliffs of Hornsea and Withernsea, its inner edge is replenished by the light soil washed into the Humber waters, and the Spurn keeps a place upon the map. Some day in the future the great port of Hull may be threatened with one of the same stern alternatives of being washed away by the sea, or landlocked and deserted by it, which have extinguished other seaports in the past.

The most complete instance of the annihilation of a historic English seaport by the sea is the destruction of Dunwich, in Suffolk. In Saxon times Dunwich was one of the most important towns in East Anglia. In the seventh century it was actually its capital, and the seat of its bishopric. Three centuries later, we hear of it as already attacked by the sea, and falling into decay; but it revived again in the thirteenth century, probably owing to one of those changes in the set of the tides among the sandbanks and shingle-beds which from time to time bring an unexpected reprieve. In the reign of the first Edward it was again a prosperous seaport, though the seat of the bishopric had long been moved to Norwich. Then, early in Edward the Third's time, the sea renewed its attacks, and from this time they were persistent. A great storm in 1347 's stated to have swallowed up four hundred houses. As streets sank under the sea, others were built further inland; but the sea still gnawed at the soft cliffs, and under mined the dwellings. Much of what remained was destroyed by another great tempest in 1570. The townsmen made an appeal to Elizabeth, but the shrewd queen seems to have realised that the town was doomed, and gave little help.

A dozen years ago, the sole representative of the six parish churches of ancient Dunwich was the tower of the Church of All Saints, which was built at the back of the town in the eighteenth century. Now it has followed its forerunners into the tide. Ancient Dunwich is utterly extinguished, and the present village is a peaceful farming hamlet that turns its back upon the sea.

At many other points on the East coast the sea's ravage has only been less great for want of anything as important to destroy. From the Humber mouth to near Skegness, half way down the Lincolnshire coast, the tide is steadily plucking at the shore, and drifting the waste material southward. Cromer and its neighbour villages in Norfolk are menaced by a side-stream of the tidal current, which sets westward into the Wash. Here, too, the waste on the cliffs has been great within living memory. The Suffolk coast has been ravaged on both sides of Dunwich-at Southwold, at Pakefield, at Kirkley there is a constant menace from storm and tide. The parish of Easton Bavents, just north of Southwold, is believed formerly to have been the most eastern point in England, until the sea planed it away. At this point erosion has been very rapid; the sea has advanced as much as ten yards a year. In the neighbouring parish of Covehithe the annual loss has been from five to six yards.

Farther south, at Aldeburgh, we have seen reproduced in our time the alternation of hope and fear which Dunwich experienced before its final overthrow. Thirty or forty years ago the sea-front at Aldeburgh was pitted with briny craters, while the hamlet of Slaughden at its southern end seemed doomed to early destruction. The sea changed its mood, and Aldeburgh was granted a long, and perhaps a permanent, respite; the scars of the invading tide have been obliterated, and Aldeburgh faces the winds and waves with a smiling face.

Parts of the Essex coast have lost ground in the same fight, but more serious and historic losses have taken place both in Kent and Sussex, where the opposing tidal currents swirl confusedly on either side of Dover Straits. The tall twin towers oi Reculver were preserved by Trinity House to serve as landmarks for navigation; they mark the site of the Roman fort called Regulbium, most of which has gone the way of Dunwich and Ravenspurn. The fort defended the Wantsum channel, then separating the Isle of Thanet from the mainland. The famous white cliffs of Dover are yielding annually to the sea's attacks, though here, as on other chalk and sandstone cliffs, the immediate causes of most landslips are rain percolating into the joints of the rock, and frost which expands it by freezing. The sea is ultimately responsible, by carving a steep face from which blocks easily fall.

All the way from Dover to the Arun river the sea has sported mischievously with the string of seaports which, in spite of their small size, have played a historic part. Sandwich once ranked high among the Cinque Ports, but now lies two miles inland; golfers range where the barks stood in from sea. Rye, Hastings, Pevensey, Seaford and Shoreham, as well as Lewes and Chichester farther inland-each has a like tale to tell, either of submersion or desertion by the tide.

It is the unique late of Winchelsea to have suffered destruction as a seaport from both causes. Old Winchelsea was destroyed by the sea, while its successor of which the exquisite remains crown their hill-top, was eclipsed by the sea's withdrawal across the site of what is now Romney Marsh.

Changes in the coastline have helped to found at least one great seaport in return for the many stifled or destroyed. In Roman times the site of Great Yarmouth was the open mouth of a wide estuary, up which the tides flowed daily far along the present valley of the Yare. A large tract of East Norfolk was at that time a marshy archipelago, of which the Broads district preserves the lingering traces. Broad sheets of tidal water spread far up the valleys of the Bure and Waveney, as well as the Yare, while north of the Yare's outfall, beyond the firm ground which forms the two hundreds called the Fleggs, another tidal channel cut inland to join the Bure near Horsey and Hickling. If we imagine a wider Breydon Water sweeping over the whole site of Yarmouth, we shall recapture its aspect at that time.

Little by little, the flood tides sweeping the waste of the cliffs southward began to drop their burden where the ebb of the Yare's mouth checked their passage down the coast. Slowly a spit of sand appeared above highwater mark, projecting southwards from the Fleggs. Gradually the mouth of the river was turned southwards, and the sandy spit lengthened and widened. Such a site at the mouth of three rivers had obvious advantages for settlement, once it was plain that the spit was to be permanent; and at some date after 1000 a.d. the great modern fishing-port of Yarmouth took its modest beginnings.

Loss and gain have gone on almost side by side along most of this coast. The Ness at Lowestoft took the place of Easton Bavents as England's most easterly point, after the sea piled up sand and shingle in front of the ancient cliff, much as the soil of Holderness was packed against the Yorkshire chalk cliff in the Ice Age. While the tides were still tearing at Aldeburgh, they dropped their load of shingle across the mouth of the Aide in a spit narrower than that of Yarmouth, but now stretching fully eleven miles to the outfall of the river at Orford.

Meanwhile the inland parts were drying up too. North of the Fleggs, a line of sandhills barred the mouth of the old inlet, and remains as an indispensable though precarious part of Norfolk's coast defences. Partly by embankments, but partly by the accumulation of silt from their turbid waters, the estuaries of the Yare and Bure and Waveney were shortened and narrowed, and marshland took the place of grey and brackish ooze. Once the brine was leached out of the soil, freshwater plants increased rapidly, and formed first mire and, later, sound dry soil out of their own decay. Thus the Broads are steadily removing themselves from the map by the abundance of their vegetation; to-day we see them far gone in a decline which began when the tides began to choke the mouths of the rivers along which they are strung, and with the shrinkage of the estuaries most of them ceased to be part of the coastline.

Wherever erosion is conspicuous, we have only to trace the course of the flood tides to find the compensating gain. The waste of the Yorkshire cliffs has been partially balanced by the reclamation of Sunk Island. While the projecting coast of North Lincolnshire is suffering loss, farther south, where the shoreline curves inward towards the Wash, the sea is constantly building up a new margin.

In the Wash itself, large acres of fertile ooze might be profitably reclaimed for agriculture, were not the cost of reclamation unfortunately out of all proportion to the value of farm land and its produce at the present time. Here the ancient port of King's Lynn has been almost strangled by the invading mudbanks, like Boston on the opposite shore. Before the embankment of the Wash and the reclamation of the Fens were carried out by the Romans and their successors, the pulse of the North Sea tides throbbed far inland up the Great Ouse and its tributary lagoons. As late as the Norman Conquest it is scarcely an exaggeration to describe Cambridge as a seaport. In Essex, and on the Kentish shore of what seamen call the "London river," the varied fortunes of the coast of Norfolk and Suffolk have been repeated. From Harwich to the mouth of the Colne, where the shore breasts the southward run of the tides, the soil of Essex is still being wasted, as that of Kent has been under the twin steeples of Reculver.

South of the Colne, all round the Essex coast where it bends inland towards the Thames estuary, and again on the opposite Kentish shore between Gravesend and the Medway, the sea has pitched down the soil of the eroded cliffs, and wide marshlands have been enclosed and made fertile. Canvey Island, and the Cooling marshes described by Charles Dickens in "Great Expectations," are typical areas of this kind. But since the blight of agricultural depression has led to the neglect of the embankments protecting some of the Essex marshlands, the sea has been gaining again. At Fingringhoe on the Colne, and again at Fambridge, on the Crouch, we can watch each flood tide pouring through a gap in the dykes over the farm land of forty years ago.

The western shores of England and Wales are mainly of harder soils, but they too have undergone fantastic changes. Rocky headlands are sliced away in wet seasons, or undermined by the loss of some protecting beach of boulders and shingle. The collapse of part of Bolt Tail, in South Devon, in the autumn of 1927, is one of the latest and most notable of such cliff-falls. In Cornwall, and again in South Wales, tracts of shore-line have been profoundly changed by the invasion of sand from the sea's depths, which has overwhelmed farms and hamlets.

On the flat and sandy Lancashire coast there is an, alternation of loss and gain like that in Norfolk or Essex. Formby Point, north of the Mersey mouth, has of late years receded rapidly; but elsewhere on this wide and windy shore the sea is withdrawing. The ports of the Cheshire Dee have been choked, like Lynn or Rye, by the encroaching mudbanks. Chester and Parkgate were each the starting point of passenger traffic to Ireland, but were successively eclipsed by Holyhead, in Anglesey, Wales.

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Pictures for England's Changing Coastline

Caves, Gullies and Boulder-Strewn beach mark the Ruthless attack of the Sea on Flamborough Head
Caves, Gullies and Boulder-Strewn beach mark the Ruthless attack of the Sea on Flamborough Head >>>>
The Tower of All Saints' Church, Dunwich, an ancient Capital that now lies beneath the Sea
The Tower of All Saints' Church, Dunwich, an ancient Capital that now lies beneath the Sea >>>>
First and Last of All Saints, Dunwich
First and Last of All Saints, Dunwich >>>>
First and Last of All Saints, Dunwich
First and Last of All Saints, Dunwich >>>>
The Crumbling Cliffs near Cromer: a resent Landslide
The Crumbling Cliffs near Cromer: a resent Landslide >>>>
Dover from Shakespeare Cliff, and Sandwich, whence the Sea retreated
Dover from Shakespeare Cliff, and Sandwich, whence the Sea retreated >>>>
Faversham and its Creek, and Rye from Leasam Hill
Faversham and its Creek, and Rye from Leasam Hill >>>>
The Foreland, Swanage, where the Sea has got behind the Land
The Foreland, Swanage, where the Sea has got behind the Land >>>>
A destroying subsidence at Blackgang, Isle of Wight
A destroying subsidence at Blackgang, Isle of Wight >>>>
Selsey Bill, Sussex, a place of change and submersion
Selsey Bill, Sussex, a place of change and submersion >>>>
Landslide Havoc at Pakenham, Suffolk: Porlock and the Bristol Channel
Landslide Havoc at Pakenham, Suffolk: Porlock and the Bristol Channel >>>>
Landslide Havoc at Pakenham, Suffolk: Porlock and the Bristol Channel
Landslide Havoc at Pakenham, Suffolk: Porlock and the Bristol Channel >>>>

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