Saturday, 4 May 2013

Vanishing Coast

The coastline as we know it today along the lowlands of Essex is thought to have extended much further east, out to the open sea. I see evidence of this in many areas such as the fort of Othona, half of which has been lost to the sea since the Romans built it in around 1st century AD. But there are more obvious signs of this progressive "land grab" inside the dozen or so East Coast rivers, and in particular the wider shallower estuaries such as the River Stour and Blackwater where the low water line we see today was in fact at one point in time the high water mark. To say exactly how long ago would be conjecture so one can only guess but more than two thousand years ago would be likely. In more recent times we have suffered damaging floods - the tragic floods of 1953, 60 years ago, were remembered just a few months ago. Our answer to this progressive erosion of our low coasts was the building of high seawalls by the Dutch which today flank the lowlands of Essex all the way up to Suffolk where we find the trees sit high and gently come down to the sea. For most people perhaps, the seawall is a minor detail but wherever I go I am intrigued if there is an absence of a seawall and whether this is due to being on higher ground or steep, sloping ground and, in some cases, cliffs because for me the high seawall has played such a large part of my interaction with the sea. As a child for instance our caravan sat directly next to the sea, literally fifty feet away, but from the lounge we could not see it as like everyone else around we sat below sea level and were guarded over by the seawall. But jump across the Borrow Dyke, where eels wriggled and adders hissed, and scramble up the wall and the wide sea-vista hit you like a refreshingly salty slap in the face. What magic that was and how vividly I still remember that same feeling .  Even today I still get the same lift when approaching the sea. Each time my head pops up over the seawall at my sailing club, for it sits tantalisingly below it, so I get it there as well - which is great!

Therefore, although we have become accustomed to high seawalls in this corner of England they play an important role in providing respite from the serious threat of flood that is still ever present. Another signal of erosion are the many ancient Saxon fish traps that I come across that have slowly dissolved further away from the shoreline, mainly salt marsh, that once buffered the coast as a natural defense and has been completely washed away with just a few tell-tale fingers of mud pointing up for air. This brings us back to the idea of the original high water level inside rivers which would have meant they were far narrower than they are now and also gives some weight to one old legend that is: "from Mersea Island it was once possible to walk across to Sales Point, Bradwell at low tide". It also adds weight to a local ghost tale, that of a galloping horse charging across the mouth of the Blackwater, from Mersea Island, to then gallop down the Dengie coast on the seawall.
This image was taken at low water. It shows an eroded coast quite graphically and how the River Blackwater was once a lot narrower than it is today

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