Blackpool Sands 02
Dart History - Blackpool's Defences
Over the centuries Blackpool has been confronted by two very different threats. Military attack on the one hand – and nature on the other.
England has spent much of its history anticipating invasion from the various tribes of mainland Europe. The Romans were successful in the first century AD, and the Normans again in the eleventh. Since then the English have stood firm and repulsed various attacks on their island from the French, the Spanish and the Germans.
The south coast of England is inevitably the area most vulnerable to an invasion from Europe, and various kings, queens and governments have taken steps over the years to defend their southern beaches.
Henry VIII prepared an ambitious plan to build castles all along England’s Channel coast, and a sixteenth century map shows the proposed locations. One was to be built at Blackpool. Perhaps the scheme was too ambitious because most of the castles, including Blackpool’s, never progressed beyond the planning stage.
During Queen Mary’s reign in the 1550s, the little sheltered bay at Blackpool, only two miles from the important port of Dartmouth, was seen as an ideal landing place for enemies wishing to attack the town from the rear. This fact was noted by Sir Peter Carew. The Carew family were lords of Stoke Fleming and had built a manor house for themselves within the walls of the first Dartmouth Castle at the mouth of the river. But Sir Peter, along with a number of associates, was alarmed at the proposed marriage of the Queen to Prince Philip of Spain and the possible consequences for England. The malcontents began to plan an uprising to depose the Queen, but suspicions were soon aroused.
The loyal Sir John St. Leger wrote urgently to the Lords of the Council reporting that he had heard Carew boasting that if he were the Queen’s enemy he could storm Dartmouth castle and “... burne the Towne with fewer than a hundred persons and lett ynto the haven suche as pleased hym”. Sir John continued “I, also, am creadeably informed the way howe he should be able to do so. That within a myle, or les, of the said Towne, there is a very good open place called Black poole, for the queene’s enemyes to lande, and invade, and from thense may come to the saide Towne from the back side”. Sir Peter was promptly summoned to London to account for himself, but he opted instead to make a rapid departure to France, sailing in a small boat from Weymouth. The bay of Blackpool remained undisturbed.
But perhaps this event prompted the Crown to take the defence of Blackpool more seriously. Although Henry VIII’s planned castle never materialised, a more modest defensive structure was erected in about 1554. Referred to in contemporary documents as the Bulwark of Blackpool, it was probably a series of earthworks topped by look-out towers which would have contained some form of artillery. During the second half of the sixteenth century England was constantly under threat of attack from Spain, and men from the local parishes were given orders directly from Queen Elizabeth I to man the Bulwark whenever there was an invasion scare.
The Armada was eventually defeated by Drake in 1588, but the threat of invasion from Spain only remained dormant for a few years. By 1596 very specific orders were again being issued in England to defend the south coast from possible attack. An instruction dated 25th June 1596 states that “Mr. Seymour’s colonelship reacheth from Plymouth to Dartmouth ... Long Sands (Slapton) and Black pool to be defended by Mr. Ameredith and Mr. Roope.” The document goes on to detail the names of the officers and the numbers of men assigned to defend each location. Fortunately the expected attack never materialised and as far as is known the Bulwark of Blackpool never saw active duty. It is believed that the fortification was situated right on the line of the old beach on land that has since been covered by the encroachment of the sea.
Three hundred and fifty years passed before Blackpool was once again the site of feverish military operations. In 1940 a German invasion of England was imminent. All along the south coast defences were constructed and Blackpool was no exception. The beach was mined and festooned with barbed wire. Tank traps and trenches were dug in the land behind.
But the defences were of course never tested, and within four years Blackpool was to play a very different role in the war effort. In early 1944 the Allies’ plans for the invasion of France were well advanced. The American forces, as yet inexperienced in battle, needed somewhere to practise beach assaults and Start Bay, including Blackpool, was the chosen location.
The effect of this decision on the local people was dramatic. A huge area of the South Hams, including eight villages, was to be completely evacuated. Everybody had to move away, along with their farm, animals and pets. Although some war time maps show Blackpool to be outside this exclusion zone, it is certain that the residents of Blackpool had to leave their homes as well.
Within weeks the area had become a war training ground – and to make the exercises more realistic, live ammunition was fired rather than blanks. The nearby beach of Slapton Sands was used as the main practice area, but Blackpool itself was designated Green or Quartermaster’s beach and war time pictures show the area’s natural tranquillity shattered by a flurry of military activity. Access to anybody other than authorised army personnel was firmly denied by a roadblock on the hill leading down from Stoke Fleming.
But all the activity ceased even more suddenly than it had started. On 6th June 1944 Blackpool and the rest of Start Bay suddenly fell silent. The army that had temporarily occupied it had crossed the Channel to do the real thing on the beaches of Normandy.
It took time for the normal way of life to be restored in the area of the evacuation. Damaged buildings needed to be repaired and neglected farm land which nature had converted into a wilderness had to be re-cultivated. But eventually the evidence of Blackpool’s role in winning World War II gradually disappeared. Today the only remaining visible vestige of this era is the surface of the beach car park – constructed in part from concrete “paviours” which were made by the American forces, and were purchased after the war by Sir Ralph Newman from surplus stock in Dartmouth.
Although Blackpool has from time to time taken steps to defend itself against military attack, the threat of nature is more fundamental and more irresistible.
The coastline of Start Bay is far from static. The tides that sweep the beaches, combined with winter storms that send breakers crashing on to the sand and shingle, can sometimes dramatically change the layout of the shore within a few hours. Literally thousands of tons of beach can be shifted several miles by a single tide. It is not uncommon for the level of a Start Bay beach to rise or fall by fifteen feet in the space of a couple of weeks. In the last years of the nineteenth century man accidentally caused this natural ebb and flow to become even more dramatic. Plymouth dockyard was then under construction, and thousands of tons of single were dredged from the sea bed at the southern end of Start Bay to make concrete.
It did not occur to the Victorian engineers who conceived this scheme, until it was too late, that the beaches which protected the Bay’s fishing villages would gradually slip into the huge hole they had excavated.
The most direct and calamitous result of this disastrous error was the complete loss of the village of Hallsands in 1917. The beach was no longer high enough to hold back the raging sea in a winter storm and Hallsands’ cottages were battered into oblivion.
Beesands and Torcross would also have been lost in the same way had not extensive sea walls been built to protect them in the last few decades.
The damaging effect the sea has had on Blackpool is not so obvious today, but in the past the little cove has suffered as much as the rest of Start Bay. It is not uncommon for the tide to come roaring right up to the top of the beach, scouring and undermining the base of the cliffs, and flooding the low lying land.
Even before the dredging of Start Bay made matters worse, the Newman family took steps to counter the damaging effects of winter storms. In 1860 Thomas Newman decided to build a sea wall to protect the beach. His plans were ambitious. The intention was to construct a barrier that would run from the cliffs backing Matt’s Point at the western end of the bay all the way across to the cliffs on the eastern side. The building firm of Wills in Strete was contracted to carry out the work. The stone used to construct the wall was quarried from the hillside above Blackpool valley, and a special overhead rail truck system was set up to carry the blocks from the quarry down to the beach.
The building of the wall was a considerable feat of engineering. It took thirteen years to complete the construction, and its final length was some six hundred yards.
It was sixteen and a half feet tall, and six foot wide at its base. Enough, one would think, to defend Blackpool from the wildest winter storms, which indeed it did for forty four years. But the violent tempest of 1917 which ravaged Hallsands also took its toll at Blackpool. The eastern end of the wall was breached, and the sea surged through to flood the land behind. This was the beginning of the end for Blackpool’s sea defences. There is no evidence of any serious attempt being made to repair the damage. The fact that much of England’s male work force was bogged down in the trenches of Belgium and France at the time could have been at least a partial reason for this.
Once breached the foundations of the wall were vulnerable to erosion from both the seaward and landward sides and over the next decade it progressively collapsed. The western end held out the longest, but this section finally succumbed during a fierce storm at the end of 1929. The Western Morning News on the 11th January of that year described the scene:
“Huge pieces of masonry, together with other debris, have been scattered over the beach, while the encroaching sea has washed its way to a distance of perhaps thirty feet into the adjoining field.
A boathouse which stood in the centre of the field is now perched precariously on the edge of a crumbling slope of earth twenty feet high, which at each high tide moves slowly towards the building, which will, after perhaps another storm, fall in ruins mingled with the remains of the sea wall.”
Remnants of the old wall can still be seen on the western side of the beach.
So for nearly a hundred years Blackpool has once more been virtually unprotected from the sea. As tourism grew after the second World War a more modest wall was built in 1952, mainly to protect the car park and the amenities that were beginning to be established at the centre of the beach. Major repairs in this wall were carried out in 1964.
The occasional flooding of the lower lying areas around Blackpool during winter storms is a problem, but erosion of the cliffs is an even greater one. Twice in the last sixty years sections of the coastal road have collapsed. In 1946 part of the road at Matt’s Point slipped into the sea. This was a fairly minor breach which was remedied quite quickly with a new stretch of road built a little further inland. But more recently , a much greater disaster struck. A particularly violent storm not only caused extensive flooding and the demolition of the beach cafe, but also resulted in a massive cliff fall at the eastern end of the bay.
The coast road once more became unusable, and this time the repairs were a much more difficult and expensive operation. It was necessary to cut back the cliff substantially so that the coast road could be realigned and re-built on solid foundations and it was several months before traffic flowed once more up Blackpool Hill. This huge engineering project did however provide one side benefit. The vast quantities of waste material excavated from the cliff were used to enhance the bank protecting the beach car park.
First published December 2010 By the Dart