West Sussex Settlements Lost to the Sea

West Sussex Settlements Lost to the Sea      John Mills                                                            14 March 2014

We must really start with coastal change over deep time. For instance the site of the hominid activity hunting deer and rhinoceros at Boxgrove a quarter of a million years ago was on a beach at the foot of a sea cliff, but is now several miles inland. This was pre Ice Age, and the sea was retreating, but the cliffs are now eroded and the beach covered in gravel. The coast is a dynamic place with some places reclaimed, as at Lancing, whilst others have eroded away, as dramatically shown recently at Birling Gap. In addition, there is a great tendency for spits of land to form at river mouths due to long-shore drift, where material is carried along and deposited in an easterly direction by tidal currents setting eastward up the channel, and this has buried some settlements, as well as washing away others. The marshes behind these spits have often been reclaimed as farmland, often only to be lost again in subsequent storms. Consequently “Lost” is a term that must be broadly taken when applying to settlements.

Human traders have used the coast for thousands of years, and settlements founded at convenient places, usually at river mouths, but with the dynamism of the coast, any settlement may not necessarily be “lost”, but simply have had to move in response to that dynamism. In 1622 there were rumours of old walls under the sea off Shoreham, supposed timber walls or groins were exposed at low tide in Wales after a storm, and four miles off Lancing columns of masonry were reported. In these cases the masonry turned out to be natural, and the timber proved to be a drowned paleo-forest, and also natural, but without doubt, some buildings have been drowned.

The first step is to try to work out where the coastline was at any point in time. At Southampton the 9100 BC paleo-Arun river channel is discernable as a deep trough in the muds which also show the now submerged land surfaces of river terraces and coastal plains. Submarine excavation has shown that Mesolithic flints and hazel woodland existed twelve miles out 9,000 years ago, and in Chichester harbour in the Neolithic period there is evidence of shellfish consumption, and burnt flints, indicating cooking or possible sweat-house activities, also now submerged. Paleo human activity is also shown at Fishbourne creek, and at Butlins near Bognor, when the shingle was swept off the beach exposing a woodland floor with Neolithic oak wood charcoal, all proving settlement activities. Generally the 1777 and 2007 coastlines were about the same, but the South of England is still falling, and Scotland is still rising as the earth’s crust recovers over time from the last Ice Age, and there are minor alterations all the time.

At Fishbourne the site was occupied 50 years before the Roman occupation, and geophysical surveys have suggested that the sea may have risen up to 12 feet since the palace there was built.

Since the early medieval period Pagham has silted up and there is only a fragment of a settlement left, but a new port, Newhaven near Wardour in West Sussex was founded in its place by the Bishop of Chichester, which also contained a landing place owned by the Archbishop of Canterbury. In 1334 there was an episode of smuggling, when contraband was seized by Chichester and impounded, but recaptured to be taken back to France, and subsequently returned to be landed safely at the Canterbury wharf outside the Bishop of Chichester’s jurisdiction. By the late 1300’s Wardour had also silted up, a spit of land having been driven across the harbour entrance. In the 19th century Pagham was reclaimed and opened, but by 1910 had been breached and closed again.

Climping similarly includes three lost settlements recorded as “drowned”. There are lots of records of flooding, but also of huge areas of land reclaimed from the sea or marsh, only to be washed away again. Chesterton disappears in the 13th Century. Clearly human activity has been a cyclical struggle.

Cudlow had port officials and two havens in the 1430’s, which sent ships to Rouen, as did Seaford and old Pevensey, Cudlow was washed out, Seaford silted up, and Pevensey is now two miles inland, surrounded by reclaimed land. Pende, on the Adur near Lancing is not mentioned in Domesday, and was probably reclaimed. It had port officials in the 14th Century, but was washed out in the coastal storms of 1390-1400 and has now disappeared completely, though a Pende Hill exists inland.

In the 14th Century there was a lot of coastal trading, with New Shoreham being the busiest port in Sussex, and Bulverhythe quite big also. Shoreham suffered in the same storms, and by 1404 was reported as “destroyed by the sea”. At least half of the new planned Norman town is now gone, with the first Priory destroyed and moved to be rebuilt at a new site inland. The population of 1400 was 2,500 souls, reduced to 200 by 1435, but it recovered again in the 16th and 17th centuries. Bulverhythe’s harbour is now all farmland behind the railway embankment.

Selsey Saxon Abbey is shown with a tower in a painting, and there are tall tales of bells heard tolling out at sea during storms, but one must stick to evidence. Most Saxon buildings were of timber construction, and no trace of an abbey have been found, but a Saxon strap end was found in 1911 excavations at Selsey Norman Castle, which may have been built over a now demolished Saxon structure. Similarly it is thought that St Thomas a Becket church, Pagham there was a late 10th Century Anglo Saxon church of which there is now no trace, but it could have been the fragment of Saxon building in what is now St Andrew’s meadows 100 yards from Pagham church, or it could have been beneath Pagham harbour. Documentary evidence as well as buildings have been lost.

We heard of a 1789 poem by a Charlotte Smith bears witness to the exposure of graves due to the tearing away of a graveyard by the sea. Certainly in 1606 between Shoreham and Chichester the sea was much further out, and much has been lost. At Kingston in West Sussex in the early 17th century the chapel was without seats or even a roof, and the Curate wanted to demolish it to help repair nearby cottages. By the mid 1660’s it was entirely gone.

A 1988 storm exposed a well off the coast, a bucket was found, and at Atherington the bottoms of three wells dating to the 1600’s were found, but beware of projections of roads to locate settlements under the sea, they seldom prove to be right.

In 1947 Brambur salt mounds were investigated and found to be of several phases dating back to the 14th Century, but Brambur Bridge was drowned in silt from the valley farming and inroads from the sea, and the saltings went out of use. There were similar salt workings on the Ouse surviving, but need to be re-investigated.

A lively question and answer session was concluded by Robin Reffell giving the societies thanks for this detailed and wide ranging talk, which was endorsed by enthusiastic applause.

John Warren