In my story (for Simply Whitstable) of the origins and naming of Whitstable, I referred to the tidal surge of 1287AD and commented that the shoreline receded generally to where it is today. That explanation was relatively brief and concentrated primarily on the coast west of the present main street. Now, we take a more detailed look at the coastline of the Whitstable area in 1287 and consider how it developed into the waterfront that we know today. Along the way, I will discuss the natural features and influences plus efforts to control and utilise the sea to shape not only the coastline but also the town itself. The story will explain modern day features and terminology that are rooted quite deeply in the town’s coastal history but are so often accepted without question.
For example…. Why is Island Wall so called? Why is the Belmont/Old Bridge Road route to Church Street so convoluted? A road even more complex before the railway embankment was built and one of the oldest roadways in Whitstable you will see it marks the southern boundary of an old shoreline. A shoreline the sea temporarily reclaimed as late as 1953. These questions and more are answered as we trace developments from the reign of Edward I.
I hasten to add that the emphasis on the 1287 tidal surge does not deny earlier changes to local sea levels and is based on providing a picture which residents, past and present, can relate to recognisable features within their own experience. Insufficient has been recorded to show us, even vaguely, where some of those early shorelines truly were. The mists of time and attempts to fight sea encroachment have obscured much of the otherwise natural coastline.
While defining Whitstable’s early shoreline is subject to conjecture, about which historians will forever disagree, some indication can be gleaned from what has been recorded, observing remaining topography and what has been written on other local subjects. The Gorrel Stream, sea wall building, the salt and copperas works are all good examples of the latter.
East of the Harbour: The Gorrel Stream and Delta
Map 1: The original course of the Gorrell Stream superimposed on a modern stretet map
We start our history by looking at the area East of the harbour – stretching from Starvation Point to the foothills of Tankerton. In my article on the Origins of Whitstable, I mentioned that, in 1287, this locality was no more than a broad expanse of floodable swampland.
In fact, a more apt description is that it was the delta of the small river known today as the Gorrel stream but recorded in the past times as Gorwell Stream or Gorwell River. (NB"Note: Some confusion exists over the modern spelling of ‘Gorrell’. Official documents, reports and street maps show either a single ‘l’ as in Gorrel or a double ‘l’ as in Gorrell."
Readers unfamiliar with Whitstable may be surprised to learn that the stream still exists and that it runs beneath the town in a concrete drainage channel that manifests itself as Stream Walk pathway for much of its course. Amazingly, this somewhat insignificant waterway and its floodplain have had quite an influence on the town.
Pic 1:The Gorrell Stream today - beneath the concrete of the aptly named Stream Walk
Back in 1287, the stream passed through the swamp land on the eastern side of the present day High and Oxfords Streets area.
There are several explanations of the streams naming but the most recent may help with our study of the coastline. In her book ‘The North Woods’, Flavia Taylor suggests Gorwell derives from two Old English words ‘gar’ and ‘well’. Gar meant a promontory and ‘well’ a river.
This suggests a river out flowing alongside land jutting out to sea. The Gorrel Stream exit was at present day Long Beach.
Thus, Tower Hill and, perhaps, the nearby ever moving ‘Street’ would have presented as a promontory in past times. If we could reverse the Harbour building and land reclamation works from the eastern harbour area and go back further in time, we would also see a low promontory projecting on that, the western side, of the Gorrel Stream exit. (See Map 3 and aerial view below).
Map 3: Map and aerial photo (source unknown) showing Long Beach and the approximate sea outflow of the Gorrell Stream
Pic 2 : 20th century view along Long Beach across the site of the Gorrel Stream exit towards the Harbour.
Those who recall the reservoir, (‘the Backwater’ replaced by the late 20th century Gorrell Tank car park), may also recall there was an apparent drain outlet flowing into the reservoir in the south west corner from beneath Cromwell Road. That ‘drain’ was the Gorrel Stream shown in the illustration (below).
Pic 3: The Whitstable 'backwater' with the Gorrell drain marked in the South West corner. Before construction of the backwater, the stream flowed across this area
The Gorrel Stream once flowed eastwards from about the Cromwell Road/Westgate Terrace intersection, along the southern side of ‘the Backwater’ turning northwards to where, a gap remains between buildings in Tower Parade. It then flowed on to the shore. See Map 4 and earlier illustrations.
Map 4:The original course of the Gorrell Stream from Cromwell Rd to the sea at Long Beach
Map 5: The Gorrell Flood Plain - a swampy area subjected to periodic sea flooding
There was some thought that the Stream continued on from its Cromwell Road site to exit about where the Harbour is. However that appears to have been higher land with no stream outlet recorded in any reports on sea wall construction.
The area through which the Gorrel Stream flowed, from about the Belmont-Old Bridge-Millstrood Roads intersection to the shore between the two promontories outlined above, was known prior to the 19th century to be a swampy, sometime treed bay subject to periodic inundation by the sea. (See Map 5).
The final reaches of the Gorrel Stream, from about where it turned northerly to pass across what is now Tower Parade, gained the name "Grand Copperas Dyke". (See Map 6).
Map 6: Location of Grand Copperas Dyke - the final stretch of the Gorrell Stream
As the most westerly Copperas jetty was close to the outlet of the Gorrel
Stream, possibly the stream served some purpose to the Copperas works.
Perhaps it permitted a convenient sheltered jetty.
The lower course of the Gorrel Stream and the Gorrel delta would be set for change once salt production ceased and the copperas industry died. We do not know when salt production in the general harbour area ceased. We do know when the copperas works closed down due to competition from other areas. Suffice to say that, by the early to mid 1800s, the area would have fallen into the usual decay associated with long term disuse of low lying areas.
The planning and establishment of the Canterbury and Whitstable Railway and Harbour during 1825-32 would bring about the final change to both stream and indirectly the delta. These changes set the scene familiar to the 20th centuries.
The railway itself required that a suitable firm trackway be built from the high land around Church Street, along the eastern ‘shoreline’ of the Gorrel delta and across the swampy delta to the Harbour site. Establishing the Harbour would mean more than excavating a hole into which the sea could flow. Firm quays, railway marshalling yards and freight handling areas would all need to be built up.
The once swampy Gorrel delta would almost disappear. The latter half of the 20th century would see the last vestige of the delta disappear - the once wasteland encircled by the Harbour, Harbour Road/Street, Beach Walk and Long Beach.
Diagram 1: The harbour's first sluice reservoir - a triangular affair on the west side of Cromwell Rd
Once the Harbour was established and in use, it soon became evident that silting was a major problem. To overcome that by storing water at high tide to flush the Harbour at low tide, a triangular reservoir was built in the corner now defined by the Town side of Cromwell Road and Harbour Street shown in the following diagram.
There is some reference to a ‘penstock’ controlling a drain from the Gorrel Stream about that same area. (See diagram 2 below). The Gorrel Stream could then have provided water for the reservoir especially during periods of low tides. In addition, by taking water from the Gorrel, land reclamation east of the line of Cromwell Road or perhaps more importantly around the mouth of the Gorrel delta, would have been facilitated.
Diagram 2: The larger reservoir that became known as 'The Backwater" and, more recently, the Gorrell Tank.
Perhaps the penstock drain was added when the triangular shaped reservoir proved ineffectual. If so, that measure failed to solve the problem and the reservoir was abandoned.
Diagram 2 shows the scene of the larger reservoir built east of the original. This reservoir became known as ‘The Backwater’, ‘The Sluice’ or ‘The Gorrel Tank’. (Note: For some time, the water flushing the Harbour still passed through the old reservoir site under the houses and into the Town end of the Harbour).
Pic 4: The well known Backwater