I recently demonstrated my tendency to tell the most action-packed and adrenalin-fuelled stories when I blogged about an old rock. Unwilling to give readers time to regain their breath from such a rip-roaring and riveting read I decided to up the ante and go full nuclear. This post isn’t about a rock. It’s about a whole pile of rocks. Strap in people. Things are about to go loco.
Around 10,000 years ago the sea level along England’s south coast was twenty metres lower than today. As a consequence, the Isle of Wight was still connected to the mainland via a chalk ridge. The area was a dry wooded valley forming the lower part of a river system. Remains of Stone Age villages and even an ancient log boat indicate the region supported a thriving human community.
By around 8,000 years ago the waning Ice Age resulted in the sea level increasing by ten metres. The encroaching sea soon eroded through the soft, chalky, rock flooding the area, creating the Isle of Wight. Not long after this dramatic change, the Spit began to grow.
The Spit is a long shingle bank built naturally by the action of the sea. The stones are transported by water currents from the village of Milford and Hordle cliff and deposited on the bank. Over thousands of years this action has built the formidable natural barrier that exists today. The Spit not only shelters the coast from the worst excesses of the sea. It has also allowed an ecologically important marshland to develop behind it.
The Spit is hugely important to the area. Without it the village of Milford would flood. The northwest coast of the Isle of Wight would suffer increased erosion, and the salt marsh’s fragile ecosystem would also be destroyed.
When I crunched my way away the top of the energy-sapping barrier it was a serene summer’s day [would the photos contradict this? Was it not grey?]. There was a light breeze drifting into shore. The waves lapped lazily against the pebbled beach. It was calming and charming. It was also a world away from the conditions during one notorious night in 1989.
England’s southern coast can be idyllic during the summer months. But the winter months, by contrast, can often be ferocious. The fierce Atlantic storms that routinely batter the coastline can cause chaos for the region’s inhabitants. And so it was on one memorable night in the winter of 1989 when a storm hit this part of the coast. You might assume that the Spit, being a massive pile of stones, would be a difficult thing to shift, but you’d be very wrong.
The storm was so ferocious that the Spit was pushed back 80 metres. The height of the beach was reduced by three metres, and 800 metres of beach was flattened. In total, the storm shifted around 200,000 tonnes of shingle. And all this occurred during a single night. If nothing else, it serves as a potent reminder of the ocean’s immense power.
Ordinarily, shingle beaches serve as perfect natural defences. The sea’s force is absorbed by the movement of all the individual stones. This means that even the fiercest storms can normally be tamed. That is, so long as the Spit remains.
The various seawalls and groynes built during the 19th century have interrupted the process of shingle replenishment. It’s this that left the Spit so vulnerable to the effects of the storm. Surprisingly, even today the issue hasn’t been resolved. The Spit is currently being maintained by routine additions of shingle, but a long-term solution is required. The walls and groynes are necessary to protect local properties, so they can’t be removed. The Spit needs to be rebuilt, but there’s been a long debate about how.
A design has now been finalised. Unfortunately, it requires 580,000 tonnes of shingle and 120,000 tonnes of rock. If that amount of shingle was to be brought to site by road it would require 28,000 lorry loads. It’s a remote rural area serviced by quiet country lanes, so it’s fair to say that such an influx might not go down well with the neighbours.
As the waves slowly wash away the Spit the displaced shingle is deposited at underwater banks of shingle. Over the thousands of years the banks have grown to comprise over 80,000,000 tonnes of shingle. It was realised that this could serve as the ideal source of shingle. Initially, this aroused environmental concerns, but calculations showed that it would be equivalent to removing a single spoonful from a bag of sugar. And using shingle from the banks has been calculated to save £600,000 from the cost of shoring up the shingle bank.
The decision about the long term solution still sits with the government. If given the go ahead, the Spit will be significantly larger. The crest of the beach will be two metres larger and its width will increase by twelve metres. Simultaneously, the volume of the beach will double. In light of this, I’m glad I made my trip when it did. It was tiring enough trudging along all the shingle already. If it was any bigger I might have had to keep stopping for breathers!
But why was I even walking along the Spit anyway? Well, I’m gradually making my way around all of Henry VIII’s castles (those that are extant and open to the public that is). I’ve previously posted about my trip to Calshot Castle here. The next of Henry’s castle to tick from my list was Hurst Castle. It’s situated overlooking the Solent and was built to guard Southampton. It was so well positioned that it never actually fired its guns. Any would-be attackers opted to enter the Solent from the east in order to avoid its formidable artillery. It’s also positioned at the end of the Spit. So, after a long stroll, I reached the castle which featured several displays detailing the story of the Spit.