Whitstable and the Flood of 1953 - A Legacy of AD 1287?


The great flood of 1953 didn't just write a new chapter in the history of Whitstable. It actually reproduced an old one from 700 years ago... by recreating some of the coastline of King Edward I. To demonstrate, this we need to cross refer to Brian Smith's superb article, The History of Whitstable Shoreline from 1287. If you haven't read Brian's work already, you can click here.

The AD1287 Picture

Let's start by taking a look at one of Brian's maps and recapping on some of his findings (see below). The map gives us a picture of how the shoreline may have looked in 1287 after an inundation by the sea had created a "new" waterfront.....

Map of the Whitstable Shoreline in the reign of King Edward I (AD 1287)

The Whitstable Shoreline in the reign of King Edward I (AD 1287)
Map by Brian Smith © Brian Smith

The broken blue line plots the relatively smooth waterfront of today. The red line shows the approximate coastline at the end of 13th century. Now, let's pick out some key features from 1287......

Seasalter Levels (aka Seasalter Marshes)

In the extreme west, Seasalter Marshes were inundated. Thus from Blue Anchor Corner, the shoreline dipped sharply south to follow the line of Favesham Road to Seasalter Cross.

The Inner Shoreline

Moving east from Blue Anchor corner, that "red" shoreline pretty much mapped the high ground of Whitstable's clay slopes. Thus, it progressed along the line of Preston Parade, Joy Lane and West Cliff. In the east, it trimmed Old Bridge Road before heading north along the line of Clare Road and Northwood Road to Tankerton Slopes.

The Outer Shoreline - The Islands

North of this inner shoreline, there was an area of land which may have formed two islands - Upper and Lower Island. These now support the "modern day" locations of Island Wall, Horsebridge and Sea Wall. In fact, Island Wall probably gained its name from these geographical features.

The islands are thought to have been separated from each other - possibly at "Marine Gap". Even today, older natives still refer to the eastern section of Island Wall as "Upper Island" and the western section as "Lower Island.

The Salts and The Gorrell Delta

Between the Islands and the Inner Shoreline, there were two "floodable" areas - the Salts and the Gorrell delta. Brian suggests that these probably varied from complete sea coverage to swampy marshland - depending on seasons, weather and tide.
The Salts are now occupied by Seasalter golf course, Nelson Road, Cornwallis Circle and Waterloo Road.

The Gorrell delta was the flood plain of the seemingly insignificant Gorrell stream which flowed across the marshy area to Long Beach. Nowadays, it is occupied by such roads as Westgate Terrace, Cromwell Road, Reservoir Road, Westmeads Road, Station Road, Diamond Road and Railway Avenue.

The Gorrell stream was eventually truncated by our ancestors and redirected into a reservoir (known locally as 'the backwater') at Westgate Terrace. During the twentieth century, the entire lower course of the stream was covered by the concrete of the Stream Walk pathway that runs from Belmont Road to the junction of Cromwell Road and Woodlawn Street. Finally, the backwater was also covered - by the concrete of the Gorrell tank car park. However, the stream and reservoir still exist - out of sight and waiting to cause mischief.

The Isthmus

Between The Salts and the Gorrell Delta, a narrow piece of raised ground reached out towards the islands - pointing towards the modern day locations of Horsebridge and Sea Wall.

There is some debate as to whether this "isthmus" actually connected with the islands via a natural causeway. Even if it didn't, it seems likely that our ancestors eventually built a shingle link or even a wooden bridge in order to access the landing site that later developed at the Horsebridge. Either way, the natural or man-made 'bridge" between the "mainland" and "islands" probably gave rise to the name "Horsebridge".

(Note: The shallow waters of the Salts and Gorrell delta would not have been suitable for larger boats. Thus, any substantial landing site needed to be built on the outer shoreline - ie on one of the islands. That in turn necessitated a link to the mainland - one that was capable of supporting horses and carts. Remarkably, use of the Horsebridge beach as a landing site continued until the mid-twentieth century).

In 1287, the isthmus was unpopulated. However, by the 16th century, it had been used to create a settlement known as Whitstapl Street. This fishing community eventually expanded into the town of modern day Whitstable. Current day Oxford Street and High Street actually follow the line of the Isthmus to the old landing site of the Horsebridge.

Although now accepted as "just another town centre road", the raised Middle Wall was actually part of an inner sea wall - built in 1583 and originally known as Valley Wall. This protected the isthmus and its inhabitants from floodwater encroaching from The Salts. We suspect that the road was actually called "Inner Wall" at one time.

Sea walls and drainage schemes eventually dried out the swampy regions and pushed the shoreline back to form the smooth coastline that we know today. The islands were lost forever..... Well, almost!

The Temporary Shoreline of 1953

Now, let's look at the temporary shoreline created by the flood of 1953. The map below has been created from the flood memories of our readers. It may not be wholly accurate in every detail but it does give a reasonable "broad brush" picture....

Map of Whitstable flooding in 1953 - an approximation

Map of Whitstable flooding in 1953 - an approximation

Here are the links back to 1287....

The Islands

The flood virtually cut off the Island Wall area and returned it to its original "island" status. However, the long lost gap between Upper and Lower Islands was NOT re-established. Thus, we had one "island" rather than two!

The Salts

West of Middle Wall, sea water submerged Seasalter Golf Course, Nelson Road, Waterloo Road and Cornwallis Circle. This re-established the floodable swamplands of the "Salts" and the original "inner" shoreline along the clay bank of West Cliff.
Of course, back in 1287, water could ebb and flow freely across this area and the Salts therefore varied from full water coverage to marshland. This was not the case in 1953. The man-made sea defences actually prevented the sea from draining back to its proper place! Thus, the area filled like a bath tub - to around 5 or 6 feet.

The Gorrell Delta

East of the High Street, the flood re-established some of the old swamplands of the Gorrell delta.

In 1287, the swamp extended south to the general line of Old Bridge Road. In 1953, the flooding also reached Old Bridge Road.... but only along the actual banks of the mischievous stream itself. Much of the flooding ended just north of the houses of Wheatley Road.

The Isthmus

Perhaps the most fascinating feature of our map is that it provides some evidence of the original isthmus wedged between the Salts and the Gorrell delta. Thus, Oxford Street remained "dry" during the 1953 flood and provided an artery for aid and rescue.

A number of our readers have also drawn attention to a curious "dry" island in the vicinity of St Peters Road back in '53. This could have been a remnant of the isthmus of 1287. However, there may be other, more recent explanations.

Brian tells me that some parts of central Whitstable were "built up" from time to time. For example, it is known that soil was removed from the top of Borstal Hill in order to reduce the severity of the slope and then deposited in parts of central Whitstable. (This gave rise to a local joke that people in the town centre actually lived on top of Borstal Hill).

Another possibility is that, over the centuries, parts of the old swamplands rose quite naturally as a result of the process of draining and drying.

Seasalter Levels (Marshes)

Although not shown on our flood map, the sea reclaimed Seasalter Levels in 1953 and recreated a temporary shoreline similar to that of 1287. The deluge was sufficiently severe to cut the main rail link between Whitstable and Faversham/London.

Finally.... Mapping It

To emphasise all  this, let me now take the coastline of 1287 (marked in red on Brian's map) and plop it onto my flood map of 1953.....

The 1287 shoreline superimposed on the flood map of 1953

The 1287 shoreline (shown in red) superimposed on the flood map of 1953

Voila! It matches the flooding pretty well - apart from the fact that the 1953 floodwater didn't reach the whole of Old Bridge Road.

It seems that 700 years of sea wall construction and land drainage simply weren't sufficient to cope with Mother Nature on the night of the 31st January 1953! As a result, it was the night that time ran backwards.... to King Edward I and the year AD 1287.

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