Once a Week (magazine)/Series 1/Volume 3/England's lost ground


There are two classes of readers, who, I fear, will be much disappointed if they attempt to go through this paper—the politician who expects to find an elaborate disquisition on the faults and shortcomings of the British Government, by which the country has lost ground and is going to the dogs; and the member of Mr. Bright’s peace society, who hopes to be gratified with prophecies of decline, in consequence of the rifle movement.

The lost ground of which I am going to write, has nothing to do with these; for it is not a moral but a physical loss of country, which, to many people, will be more alarming—an actual disappearance of old England’s shores, which lie buried beneath the sea. From the præhistoric days of dim, mysterious legend, down to yesterday, acre after acre of fair land has gradually been swept away by the resistless action of the waves, which, in course of time, has materially altered the shape of the coast; and there is something intensely interesting in bringing before one’s mind their probable features,—the old traditions and legends connected with their disappearance, and the reconciling them with geological facts. I was much struck, while staying last summer at Aberystwith, with the contours of Cardigan Bay, which is in shape a magnificent curve, of which the horns are respectively, Strumble Head, in Pembrokeshire, and Bardsey Island, in Carnarvonshire. If the reader looks at the map he may calculate for himself the amount of square miles contained in that expanse of water, even a rough guess of which I should be very sorry to hazard. Whatever it may be, tradition asserts that a fair land lies buried here, overwhelmed by a fearful and sudden catastrophe.

Once upon a time—so runs the tale—in the year of the world, 3591, there was a Prince of Demetia, a province of South Wales, whose name was Seithenyn, the son of Seithyn Seidi. This province lay low, and was liable to inundations of the sea, to prevent which, great embankments were formed with flood-gates, the care of which was committed to Seithenyn, as a sort of water-commissioner. As the flood-gates were situated at the mouth of the great river, it was necessary to close them at high-water, a duty which the prince forgot on one occasion, during a night of heavy conviviality. The awful result, according to the Welsh Triads, was, that the Cantref Gwaelod, or the Lowland Hundred, was swept over by the waves, which destroyed all the homes, lands, and population, including sixteen fortified towns, superior to any in Wales. A neighbouring king, of the euphonious name of Gwyddno Garanhir, who was also a poet, wrote a long account of it, invoking Seithenyn in no measured strains. The original was believed to have been written in Welsh, but has been thus translated in the “Archæologia Cambrensis:”—“Seithenyn, come out and look towards the abode of heroes; the plain of Gwyddno is overwhelmed by the sea. Cursed be the embankment which let in, after wine, the open fountain of the roaring deep. Cursed be the keeper of the floodgates, who, after his festive mirth, let in the fountain of the desolating ocean,” &c. &c.

From many appearances on the coast of Cardiganshire, it seems probable enough that a large tract of country lies underneath the sea; but whether that tract was ever populated, or was overwhelmed before the time of man, is a difficult question to answer. Near Aherystwith there are, running out from the main land at intervals from each other, certain curious embankments about the width of a road, extending a long way out. They are so straight and of such extreme regularity, that it is hard to consider them, as some do, natural beds of rock, more especially as on each side of them, there is very rough, foul ground. At low water they can be traced a long way out to sea, and even when covered by the waves, a peculiar streak marks their subaqueous course, although I cannot vouch for the great length to which they are said to extend.

Sarn Badrig, to the south of Harlech, is believed to be twenty-one miles long, and is often dry for nine miles at low-water of spring tides. Sarn Cynfelin, near Aberystwith, is seven miles in length, and at the end of it ruins, like those of old walls, are said to exist, called Caer Gwyddno, or Gwyddno’s fortifications. Besides these, there are several minor “sarns,” the word itself being generally applied to a Roman road.

Whether these embankments were artificial, or whether they are natural results, such as the pebble banks which are formed sometimes by the operations of tides and currents, it is at least curious to observe how our ancestors have speculated on the appearances that presented themselves to their notice, and have endeavoured to account for them by a legend, instead of a theory, as they of the present day would do.

There are, however, other appearances on the same coast, which afford such convincing proof to the geologist of the existence of former land, that he needs not the additional confirmation of tradition. These are submarine forests which have been detected at unusually low tides in various places. At the embouchure of the river Dovey, which divides the counties of Cardigan and Merioneth, a considerable number of oak-trees were found under the bed of the sea, together with the Pinus Sylvestris or Scotch fir, a phenomenon, however, by no means confined to Cardigan Bay. At Newgale, a little south of St. David’s Head, trunks of trees have frequently been seen when the sand has been blown away by certain winds, and so notorious was the fact, that even old Giraldus Cambrensis, the historian of Wales in the time of Henry II., remarked upon it. “Also,” he writes, the trunks of trees standing in the midst of the sea; so that it did not appear like the seashore, but rather resembled a grove.” Similar examples may be quoted at Tenby and in Swansea Bay, where not only a whole forest, of which mention is made in ancient records, as being called Crow’s Wood, but also a castle, have disappeared beneath the waves.

Now, as to the probable cause of these phenomena. Geologists are well aware of the fact, that there is a certain relation between the land and the sea; or, in other words, that the relative position of the land towards the sea sometimes changes. There are and have frequently been, in geological eras, extraordinary oscillations of coast lines, some of them indeed going on now, though so gradually, that they are invisible, but not the less capable of being noted; and as an instance we may point to the coast of Sweden, which by actual measurement has been discovered to be rising at an appreciable amount for every century. Au contraire, if elevations of land may happen, so may depressions, and these may be of every variety of direction, from the gradual and gentle sinking to the sudden and violent catastrophe. If the buried country, as for instance, the Lowland Hundred, was so little raised above the level of the sea as to demand embankments, according to the legend, it would not, in that case, require such a very great amount of depression to produce an inundation of the sea; indeed, even at the present day, were it not for the extreme care and jealousy with which the Hollanders maintain their dykes, we might at any time expect to hear the same story realised. To a certain extent this has partly happened, for it is on record that the Zuyder Zee was in the Roman era nothing but a marsh, drained by a river, but that the sea broke through the isthmus which joined Friesland to North Holland, and rushed in, permanently submerging the country. England’s lost ground, however, is by no means confined to the shores of Wales, but is even to a still greater extent on the south coast. It is, I think, a reasonable speculation, that the Scilly Islands formed a part and parcel of Cornish ground, and many are the legends of the fair land of Lyonnesse, which we are told contained one hundred and forty churches, and was celebrated for the gallant deeds performed there by the knights of King Arthur’s round table. The catastrophe which swallowed up this district, was in all probability caused by an earthquake, as even an unusually severe storm has frequently inflicted on our coast a loss scarcely credible; and the portion of that county between St. Ives and Mount Bay, has been more than once threatened to be made an island under the attacks of the fierce elements.

Some of my readers might be inclined to say, that all these examples of buried land, if ever they did happen, took place in times of such antiquity, that they are little better than fables, and that such things do not occur now-a-days. I will, therefore, passing by Old Brighton on the south coast, which in the reign of Elizabeth stood where the chain pier now stands, glance at the cliffs of Norfolk and Yorkshire, where the most unbelieving of mortals can actually see for themselves the precarious tenure of the land. Speaking on this point, Professor Phillips observes:—“Even the hardest rocks that begird the ocean are more or less wasted away by its never ceasing attacks; and cliffs composed alternately of softer and harder strata, are quickly eaten away, and still more rapid destruction falls annually on the crumbling diluvial clays and loose gravelly cliffs which margin so great an extent of the coast of England.”

The pleasant little watering-place of Cromer and the adjacent coast, particularly in the neighbourhood of Mundesley and Happisburgh, furnish abundant confirmation. The sailors at the former place will tell you that old Cromer church is three miles out at sea, and not only the church but that a whole town, formerly known as Shipden, which stood near it, has undergone the same fate. It is very certain, that were it not for the enormous sea wall and breakwater erected by the inhabitants, Cromer would soon be numbered among the things that have been. In Yorkshire the devastation has been even more rapid and more recent. Church after church, village after village, acre after acre of broadland has disappeared, and are daily disappearing. Owthorne church, near Withernsea, was carried off within the last forty years, and a melancholy sight was it to see the skeletons and coffins protruding from the cliff, as the sea gradually washed away the churchyard. Kilnsea church has shared the same doom; but held up as long as 1831, when the cliffs sank down, carrying the church and a part of the village with it.

It has been calculated, that the annual loss of land along the shores of Holdernesse is not less than two and a half yards in breadth each year; on the Norfolk coast, about one yard; and on Thanet Island, three feet. In districts where soil is bad and land of no value, it does not so very much matter; but when house and church property, besides acres of good land, are annually swept away, it becomes a serious question, not only to the owners of property, but to the nation at large, how to guard against the incursions of the sea, and thus prevent old England losing any more ground.

G. P. Bevan.