The Saxon Shore

IMG_4145It’s been raining like crazy for weeks now.  We’re getting close to forty days and forty nights.  I’m expecting the Ark to swing into view any time now with Mrs. Noah peeking out the window to check whether its time to hang the washing out.

IMG_4147The Rother Valley has been quite severely flooded at times, as has the Medway.  One of my friends has had to move out of their house after the water came in.  That was Christmas Eve. Not great timing. But at least they seem to have been bailed out by the insurers and have landed in a better pad than they’d hoped for while their own dries out.

IMG_4050But the flooding reminded me of something I find fascinating, the changing Sussex coast.  We tend to think that the coast as fairly static but seven hundred years ago the sea came miles inland of where it is now.

Why this was we’re not sure.  Sea levels are probably higher now than in mediaeval and Roman times, but it’s possible that as the glaciers receded that the British Isles rocked – with Scotland rising as the glaciers disappeared and the South falling.  If that sounds incredible it’s worth bearing in mind that geologists trying to model tectonic plate collisions have had good results pushing solids into a layered ‘cake’ of putty and honey.  Under the great weights of the continents the subterranean transition zone acts almost as a semi liquid.  So imagine a brick rocking in a sea of golden syrup.

SE flood 4mAnyway, I digress slightly.  What we do know is that the sea reached up almost as far as Bodiam and that Smallhythe, just outside Tenterden, and now around 10 miles from the sea, was a port.  In Roman times barges used to head upstream to Etchingham to take on loads of iron from the Weald.

The coast was changed irrevocably in the great storm of February 1287, a storm that diverted the course of the Rother from New Romney to Rye, destroyed Old Winchelsea and collapsed the cliff at Hastings, and with it half of Hastings Castle and blocking the entrance to the harbour.  Later that year another great storm, St Lucia’s storm flooded the Netherlands and Northern Germany killing some 60-80,000 people.

Sussex coast flood 4mIn the years that followed Romney Marshes were ‘inned’, reclaimed from the sea.

So to see the Rother Valley under water once more was a little akin to travelling back in time (albeit without being able to place a bet on England to win the 1966 world cup and thus be rich on one’s return).

Rother valley flood 4mOne quirk of the realisation that much of today’s coast was underwater is that it brings into question some of the theories surrounding the Battle of Hastings.  You see, despite their being an abbey built on ‘the site’ there’s no archaeological evidence of a battle having taken place at all on the official location, Senlac Hill.

William is supposed to have landed at Pevensey, but if the higher sea levels were replicated across the Sussex coast, that landing site, Normans Bay, would have been flooded.

pevensey bayMoreover it would call into question the idea that the Normans took the route suggested in the recent Time Team special – up from Hastings and that the battle was fought on the ridge where the current Battle to Hastings road runs.

If Pevensey was the nearest place of note to the landing spot it suggests that the Normans may have landed on the East side of a then flooded Pevensey Bay.  We may have been looking for a battle in all the wrong places for years.

It would seem quite possible, if indeed the nearest landmark to where the Normans landed was the refurbished Roman fortification at Anderitum or Pevensey and managed to get to the area around Battle that they would have approached from the West, perhaps via Ninfield.

OK, lots of people like to speculate about this sort of thing, but our changing coast might provide a few clues.

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One Response to The Saxon Shore

  1. Andy. says:

    How fascinating. Last summer I stood in the centre of Rye explaining to my wife that the land she could see to the east was once underwater. I found it hard to believe myself. We had the same conversation at beautiful Winchelsea, having a purchased a bottle of Sussex wine from the deli.
    But I had no idea about Bodiam and Smallhythe! That seems even more amazing.
    It is surprising that there are still so many questions about the hows and whys of this shaping of the coast.
    So, what do we now call the battle of Hastings!!

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