THE GREAT TIDE
I’ve written a lot on this blog about the alleged invasions of the Suffolk coast – by the Germans at Shingle Street, the Russians at Orford, extraterrestrials at Rendlesham – and about the erosions which really are driving the coastline landwards at Dunwich. Its position – an isolated county at the easternmost tip of England – means it is vulnerable to hostile forces, be they elemental or military, and myths and forebodings abound.
In his recent and excellent book The luminous coast, Jules Pretty writes:
“This east coast has always been in the front line of national defence. During the ice ages, it was linked to Continental Europe by land bridge, and this was how the first modern humans came across as they pressed north, eventually to displace the long-resident Neanderthals. Much later came Romans, Angles, Saxons, Danes-Vikings, and finally the Norman armies. After 1066, though, no further invasion efforts were to succeed.”
No military invasions, that is. But the biggest invasion of the last century – which, inexplicably, I’ve never mentioned here – was the North Sea Flood of 1953, which killed 44 people in Suffolk, more in Essex, and thousands in the Netherlands. It was caused by the concurrence of three factors: very low pressure over the north Atlantic, gale force winds over the North Sea and an unusually high tide. One or two of these would not have been abnormal, but the three together were fatal.
A surge of water was pushed southwards from a low pressure zone over Scotland, and by midnight on 31 January / 1 February, an extra 15 billion cubic feet of water was rushing down the eastern coast. “The tide came as a giant standing wave, hundreds of miles long, arriving at King’s Lynn five hours before Harwich, and seven hours before Tilbury on the Thames.” It hit Lincolnshire in late Saturday afternoon; by half-past seven, the water had hit an estate in Hunstanton and swept 65 people under. But due to the gale-force wind, most of the phone lines from King’s Lynn to the Thames Estuary were down and there was no way of warning coastal residents, who were blissfully unaware of the incoming swell of water. “Today,” as Pretty notes, “this is inconceivable.”
Southwold was hit shortly afterwards, the water leaking through to its marshy backyard, effectively turning the town into an island, un upturned boat on which residents perched and hung on for dear life. The sea breaks down doors, rushes through halls and dining-rooms, its level rising and rising, forcing people upstairs. A couple, Rene and Don, rescue their disabled neighbours, the McCarthys, and spend the night in darkness. “At one point they look out of the windows and see the wooden tea room from Walberswick sailing regally upstream, lace curtains silver bright in the moonlight, heading for doom against the waiting bridge.”
Weeks afterwards, when the marshes are finally drained, hundreds of thousands of eels are left wriggling on the wet mud. Five people die at Southwold that night.
Felixstowe was the worst hit town in Suffolk. 39 people died, including 13 children. They lived in the West End of Felixstowe in prefabs which buckled under the force of the water. The eyewitness accounts of that night are terrible. Doris Watkins, who was eight months pregnant, describes how she, her husband and their two children managed to climb to the roof. When they were eventually rescued, she and Bill were taken to hospital, but her two young children were taken to a nearby house where her daughter died.
“Yes, I feel bitter about this. The children should have been taken to the hospital like me. But this had never happened before, the poor people thought they were doing right.”
28 of the 39 casualties in Felixstowe that night were killed as the roofs they clung to were swept out to sea.
Canvey Island was worst hit of all the settlements along the east coast. Jules Pretty describes how husbands helplessly watched their wives drown; how a mother stands knee-deep in water, holding two baby sons who drown in her arms; how a boy stands in five feet of water holding his younger brother until his legs go numb and he has to let him go. “No accounts do justice to the lonely despair, the shouting and urging, and the clawing sense of failure as those smallest children died. All survivors will remember this night for the rest of their lives.”