Seaford's Sea Defences

At Splash Point you may have noticed the large concrete and steel terminal groyne erected in the 1980s (now with rather smart seating) as part of the  towns sea defences, which also involved a massive beach replenishment scheme, undertaken by Southern Water, who at that time had responsibility for such matters. The scheme has been and is still the subject of debate between older locals, newer residents and visitors alike. Southern Water, in 1986 produced a rather stilted film about the need for this particular sea defence structure and the engineering challenges involved. The film is on show at the Seaford Museum when the museum is open. A DVD can also be purchased there. In addition there is a group of Youtube videos tracking the actual construction on line: Seaford Bay Reconstruction- Part 1 Part 2 and Part 3. 

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The current terminal groyne today and in 1986 (r)   and  (l) under construction 

The Esplanade from Splash Point to the Buckle forms the first part if the Exercise Path and features along the way are featured on this website.  You may think that you are walking on firm ground but actually the ground beneath your feet is basically a shingle spit albeit fronted and topped by a lot of concrete. This spit is the result of longshore drift that formed the seaward barrier of the River Ouse that once entered the sea at various points east of the existing river mouth and harbour at Newhaven. Seaford once had a harbour of its own, bordered by Steyne Road. Shingle spits are notoriously fickle and had it not been for the reinforcements much of the lower lying areas from Tidemills, through to the Salts and the fields behind the Martello Tower would now be underwater.

The idea of a hard barrier dates back to the days of  Tyler Smith and Thomas Crook and probably before that. What was need to stabilize the shifting was a sea wall, at least that was the view of the Seaford Corporation, the local authority at that time. Later Robert Lambe became Seaford, principal developer and acquired most of Blatchington Parish which included much of the coast from the Buckle to the Salts. Lambe saw the seawall as essential precursor for the development of Seaford and work began at Splash Pint westwards during the 1880s and 1890s. The 1889 Newhaven & Seaford Sea Defences Act made coastal landowners responsible financially for the cost of such works, but Robert Lambe having borrowed extensively to acquire his extensive landholdings tried to avoid any responsibility. .

The  works proved to be inadequate, because the long breakwater at Newhaven prevented long shore drift of shingle on to Seaford's beach. The underlying chalk on which the sea wall stood was scoured away, falling 4 metres between 1900 and 1986 leaviing the wall unsupported. The wall was repeatedly undermined and breached by the sea before 1986 construction of the terminal groyne and beach replenishment scheme. In fact the scheme was only just completed prior to the perhaps the worst storm for a century or more that occured over south east England in Ocober1987 and is credited from saving the town from mass flooding and possible loss of life as a result. The Great Storm of 1987 effected a very large area of the UK and France with hurricane force winds.  

A research article in  "CoastView-Seaford" written in 1986 refers to 20 great floods that have occurred since 1703 inundating lowlying areas including the High Street and reaching the Church steps. In 1865, a coastal gun defence battery housed in a small fortress was badly damaged by flood. It was repaired only to be again rendered useless in 1871; finally in 1875 it had to be dismantled. Pursall FitzGerald, built the almshouses, which are still to be found in Croft Lane,  reported that in 1874 and 1875, the sea flooded the lower rooms, causing an outraged FitzGerald to accuse the town council of being partly responsible as it allowed the local building suppliers to dig up the beach for sand and gravel for building purposes. Prior that flood an attempt in 1830 to blow up the cliff face to create a barrier of chalk, which of course was a complete failure as the chalk was soon washed away.  More recently several storms have taken their toll of the promenade; in 1954 a 22 yard breach occured in the seawall, causing a large cavity under the coast road, 10 feet wide and 12 feet deep. A fortnight earlier a similar break happened near the Buckle inn. The cost of the damage was around £500,000. During a gale in 1970, a storm drain manhole cover was lifted and washed 50 yards up Blatchington Hill; while in Claremont Road and Marine Parade there was a road subsidence. The last major flood occurred on January 2, 1984. when in the late evening, Dane Close and Steyne Court had the ground floors under water. For a time several residents found themselves trapped in the upper rooms and in a nearby car park the water completely submerged the vehicles.   

Here are some photographs taken over many years before the 1986 replenishment scheme, showing how the beach as altered and the damage that occured as a result of storms. The first two photographs show Splash Point, looking east, complete with the Hotel complete with the wide road to the right of the redbrick wall, which today is on the cliff edge. The second photograph, slightly later in date (1920s) shows the old wooden groynes prior to the construction of the previous sewage outfall to the east of the existing terminal groyne. The third photograph, also taken prior to the construction of the outfall groyne shows the beach continuing under Seaford head without the need to clamber over barriers or descending rickety ladders. 

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The photograph below shows a general view of Seaford Head taken in the 1880s(?) showing how the House on the Cliff, prior to its days as a hotel, and with a significant amount of land to the seaward side.  The photograph of the car drenched by waves was taken in 1935, long before the Buckle by-pass was built in the 1970s. The coast road was the main A259 bus route from Seaford to Newhaven and in bad weather all traffic was diverted around Grand Avenue, now much altered with part of the oriignal road now a twitten between modern houses.

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The next photograph shows damage to the sea wall in 1946 taken from a magazine article, which talks about a storms  in January 1946 which the sea walls took a pounding, as can be seen in the photograph, but caused additional hazards as sea mines were washed ashore, one opposite the Salts Recreation Ground, while another was seen drifting away beyond Seaford Head. Three more mines were washed ashore at Peacehaven and exploded by anti mines squad, the noise of which was heard in Seaford. The left hand photograph show the collapsed sea wall opposite the end of the Dane Road.  



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The following series of photographs show the sort of damage that has occured in the 1950s and 1960s to what is now called Bonningstedt Promenade, the first photograph taken before the storms demolished the entire beach front at this point.


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Pat Berry of Seaford Museum wrote: The powers that be have sought solutions to the problem of taming the waves that threaten erosion of our cliffs and beaches. Records show that for centuries stormy seas have battered the area; consequently, a few buildings only stood near the sea, the rest huddling very wisely along and behind Steyne Road, the old Harbourside. When the railway reached Seaford in 1864, with the likelihood of visitors wishing to benefit from the sea air and bathing, the authorities realised it was time to improve the amenities, and a short sea-wall was built the following year. It lasted only a decade, being swept away in the great storm of November 14, 1875. (The population at that time was less than 1,500). Within four months of the storm, plans were being made for a replacement wall, but finances seem to have been a problem and it was not until May 1881 that Messrs Lee (surveyor) and Seed (builder) began the work which resulted in November of the same year in a concrete wall from approximately opposite Dane Road. At some stage wooden groynes down the beach, and the first stone groyne at Splash Point were built. (Two years after the storm, Captain (later Major-General) J C Ardagh RE, best known locally for his work at Newhaven Fort, had made a detailed report in which he concluded that Seaford's sufferings had been increased by building breakwaters at Newhaven and both deepening and widening the harbour there). Continual damage caused to these early defences by rough seas brought about the establishment by Act of Parliament in 1898 of the Newhaven and Seaford Sea Defence Commissioners, who took matters in hand and ordered the building of new wooden groynes: these were cut back during the First World War, probably to save on maintenance.

I note that by 1900 there were 58 of these between the cliff and Tide Mills. At that time, the consultant surveyor to the local authority was Mr Boyd Archibald Miller who, at his retirement ceremony in 1928, gave a brilliant survey of the great advances made in sea defence, drainage and other public works during his time in office. In the early years, ingenious contraptions were devised, like the trolley seen here in use during work on the long groyne. In the Second World War, with fears of invasion, much of the beach was inaccessible so that little maintenance work could he done. After clearance of barbed wire, mines and other obstacles when peace returned, there was much to do. In 1950 a sudden drop of 15 feet in beach levels at Splash Point was noticed and urgent repair work put in hand. This involved the use of a 35-ton pile-driver (crane with hammer) which was deemed too heavy to work from the cliff edge above, so a temporary gantry was erected to support it.
The brick wail just visible on the cliff-top marked the southern boundary of the old Splash Point Hotel; the hotel was demolished because of cliff erosion, but the wall survives. A number of sea defence ideas have been tried in the last half-century, one of the most successful being the 1961 positioning at the foot of the east cliff of what seemed like a senseless jumble of concrete tripod units. Over 40 years they have interlocked and today form a sturdy protective 'revetment' deflecting the waves from the cliff base. Just some of the strange devices that in the past have helped save us from the sea.


However effective,such defences make parts of the beach inaccessible for recreational use and the debate continues today but perhaps a bit of insight as to the failures of hard defences and groynes in the past might inform the debate.

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