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How Hallsands was lost to the sea
Andrew Cooper
By Andrew Cooper
BBC Nature Expert

The ruins of Hallsands
The ruins of Hallsands

When disaster struck a tiny fishing village on the coast of south Devon, the war raging in Europe was entering its third year.

In the village of Hallsands the night of 26 January 1917 serves as a reminder of the folly on interfering with the sea.

The village was one of several small communities dotted along the coast that relied on the sea for its living.

It supported 128 inhabitants before that fateful day, and was protected by a large pebble ridge.

Darkness came early that afternoon as the pending storm blew down the Channel, a rare, strong, easterly wind.

Well protected from the prevailing South Westerlies, the village became vulnerable as the winds swung around to the north-east and strengthened.

Hallsands before the disaster
Hallsands before the 1917 disaster

The tide was exceptionally high that night and, coupled with the fierce onshore winds, the sea came pounding up the beach.

It surged over the pebble ridge, crashing across a wall into the houses beyond. Smashing through windows and bursting open doors, it flooded the ground floors of the houses, enveloping them in cold swirling water.

The destruction was unbelievable. By midnight four houses had gone.

The inhabitants gathered the few belongings they could and assembled on the cliff tops above to watch the final blow.

Even the dawn was not to relieve their anguish, for the following day brought another high tide and houses were felled one-by-one by the pounding waves.

At the day's end only one house was left standing. The devastation was complete. Altogether some 29 homes had been taken along with the livelihoods and belongings of the entire village.

The greatest sadness was that this disaster need never have happened. Its origins lay in plans, unknown to local fishermen at the time, to extend the naval dockyard at Plymouth.

A ruined house in Hallsands
In all, 29 homes were lost

The plans involved sand and gravel being taken from the seabed further up the coast.

Dredging began in the spring of 1897 and during the next four years some 660,000 tonnes of material were removed.

Activities were eventually stopped when opposition from several fishing villages grew as they saw their shingle beaches being relentlessly carried away.

It took 20 years from the start of dredging to the final destruction of Hallsands village.

It had been assumed that the removal of any shingle would be replaced naturally by more material that lay somewhere out in the channel.

We now know that the same shingle which protects the nearby villages of Beesands and Torcross was deposited thousands of years ago during the ice ages, and is not being replaced.

Today, a new village built higher up the cliff face overlooks the scene of the disaster. The ruins of some of the buildings still stand as a reminder of man's meddling with the forces of nature.

Call of the Sea is an extract from Andrew Cooper's book, Secret Nature of the Channel Shore.

In pictures: Hallsands then and now
29 Jan 10 |  History
A-Z of Devon history
08 Oct 09 |  History
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