Loss of Towns and Villages to the Sea
Coastal policy discussion around adaptation to climate change frequently invokes the “holy trinity”: protect, accommodate, retreat. Such discussion provokes property owners at potential risk of coastal erosion/shoreline recession and/or inundation from sea-level rise. Fear of higher or no insurance cover or even capacity to secure a mortgage can lead to personal and commercial distress and agitation. This can result in demands for more certainty as to how planning instruments and management practices will mitigate apparent risk to such assets. We are seeing such behaviour around the Australian coast at a number of locations.
In NSW the Coastal Management Act 2016 showed an understanding that certain coastal areas will be vulnerable to a range of hazards that will adversely impact on both private and public land. Objective 3 (f) refers to the need “to mitigate current and future risks from coastal hazards, taking into account the effects of climate change”. More explicitly objective 3 (g) states the need “to recognise that the local and regional scale effects of coastal processes, and the inherently ambulatory and dynamic nature of the shoreline, MAY RESULT IN LOSS OF COASTAL LAND TO THE SEA (including estuaries and other arms of the sea), and to manage coastal use and development accordingly”. I have capitalized the phrase “may result in loss of coastal land to the sea” not just because it may happen, but that it has directly or indirectly happened here and overseas in the past. I am not aware of other legislation which so clearly identifies in law that there are risks in occupying land adversely impacted by coastal processes and potentially exacerbated by effects of climate change, that may be “lost to the sea”.
In 1974 a series of storms struck the NSW coast leading to the abandonment of a little village called Sheltering Palms near Brunswick Heads on the far north coast. This area was studied in detail in the 1978 Byron-Bay-Hastings Point Erosion Study (PWD Report 78026 by A. Gordon, D. Lord and M. Nolan). They showed how the breakwaters at the mouth of the Brunswick River disrupted the littoral sand transport system. Prior to the breakwater construction the erosion rate at Sheltering Palms was 0.5m/yr. and following construction, 2.6m/yr. In their words: “Hence the impact at Sheltering Palms was dramatic” (p.41). By late 1977, 17 houses were abandoned and purchased under the NSW Coastal Lands Protection Scheme, at a price much cheaper than today’s values!
I recently came across a book by Matthew Green entitled “Shadowlands: a Journey through Lost Britain” (Faber, 2022). He brilliantly describes the circumstances around which certain places where people worked and lived have vanished. Four of the eight chapters on “lost” villages and towns relate to the sea. One deals with an abandoned island. The other three were more directly impacted by coastal processes. In all cases he is able to portray how the remains of disappeared places wherever they are found are deeply affecting. Moreover, he sees these towns and villages as “just the tip of the fast-melting iceberg” given estimates from the UK Environment Agency that 800 homes will fall into the sea in next 20 years increasing to thousands over time at risk from coastal erosion and land sliding.
The abandoned island is St Kilda off the west coast of Scotland. It is quite remote, its occupants dependent for survival on a somewhat primitive agrarian life with few opportunities to trade. Access from the sea made it very difficult to establish a secure mode of entry. Occupation terminated in 1930 when the last families left the island. Many had never left the island in their entire lives, but progressively reduced numbers made it difficult to sustain livelihoods. Some migrated to Melbourne in the mid-19th century establishing a rather well-known coastal suburb and AFL team called St Kilda.
I have visited two locations described in the book swallowed in part by the sea: Skara Brae and Dunwich. The chapter on each highlights how much human endeavour was invested over extended time periods in establishing and maintaining a settlement exposed to dynamic shoreline change. Skara Brae is located in Orkneys on the island known as Mainland. Here coastal erosion has exposed a late Neolithic settlement. It is estimated to have endured from 3100 BC until around 2500 BC. In 1928, an Australian located at the University of Edinburgh undertook a study of recently exhumed structures along an eroded dunefield. Professor Vere Gordon Childe was described as a visionary, eccentric classical scholar who spoke 17 languages. He saw an opportunity to unlock the mystery of what kind of society our prehistoric ancestors lived in. Many have built on his initial site descriptions. What they have found is extraordinary use of the tabular sandstone blocks to form durable houses in a settlement that extended seawards of the present beach. Some were covered with dune sand and then partially uncovered as the shore eroded. Anyone visiting the site today is full of wonder as to how these people thrived for so long at such a remote place before it was mysteriously abandoned, perhaps as a result of a cooling late Holocene climate.
Dunwich is on the East Anglian coast of England in the county of Suffolk. It was a major port town/city. Loss to the sea was recorded back in the Doomsday Survey of 1086. Maps from the 15th century to the present day show around 400 m of land has been consumed by the sea. A visit to Dunwich Museum is a trip through the ravages of coastal erosion with an inspection of a recreated map of a town/city beneath the sea along with the artifacts recovered by divers (see book by Jean and Stuart Bacon, Dunwich Suffolk, 1988, Segment Publications). One can stand on the eroding bluff and look seawards and dream of what once was out there: houses, churches, monasteries, dock facilities (Henry VIII navy) and walls with fortified gates—all gone. Graveyards exposed on cliff faces have also come and gone. In the words of Green it is “The city that fell off a cliff” now with few remnants left on land that is still eroding.
Coastal erosion accompanying extreme storm events is not the only factor in the decline of some towns in England. There is also the effect of littoral transport of shingle across the mouths of rivers used for shipping. Keeping open the mouth of the River Blythe at Dunwich was a battle and this was also the case at Winchelsea on the Sussex coast. Old Winchelsea is a medieval port town wiped out by storms. As it became apparent that defense was not practical the decision was made to retreat uphill forming New Winchelsea. Here a fortified town designed by Edward 1 was built, one of the so-called Cinque Ports. It was dependent on ships accessing the sea through the entrance of the Brede Estuary. Green describes the impact of the accumulation of shingle moving eastward to block the harbour: “The very water that had drowned Old Winchelsea now, in its absence, parched New Winchelsea, slowly reducing it to a ‘port of stranded pride’” (p.115). Deprived of a functioning port its population declined; the loss was so great that in 1415 the civic authorities decided to “shrink the town” effectively turning it into a little village.
“Shadowlands” speaks to us of the past but points to the future. In the words of its author: “The threat from climate change is more like an invisible, odourless gas, a menace far from people’s minds until it manifests with brutal devastation, like the first storm that sent Dunwich on its inexorable path of decline in 1288”. The past may not divine the future with any degree of certainty but “it is not hard to see the shadowlands of Britain as a cautionary tale” (p.299).
Words by Prof Bruce Thom. Please respect the author’s thoughts and reference appropriately: (c) ACS, 2023. For correspondence about this blog post please email email@example.com