Five thousand years ago, in an area of sea that is today Rye Bay, we would have found offshore barrier beaches that were constantly shifting with the insistence of the sea. Over several thousand years this shingle was moved and deposited in stages eastwards and started to accumulate on tidal sands. Each mini era of activity formed shingle ridges, mimicking the waves they had been sculpted by, and within each peak and swell was laid bare the genesis of the place that would later be called Dungeness. As much as this process was a gradual one, at times, during the dark ages, great storms quickened proceedings, not only reconstructing the shoreline with brutal immediacy but also altering the flow of the nearby rivers. The area inland from all of this activity was a volatile place as well, what with the rising of the landmass, formation of marshland and periodic inundation of the sea. Man also played his part in altering the landscape to serve his needs, draining to create fertile farmland and the building of sea walls to protect these precious gains from the very element he had stolen them from.
However, the beach has not finished forming. Its western shoreline wants to migrate northwards and eastwards, while the east of the peninsula feels compelled to head towards the southeast. Standing on this land is taking a ride on a slow – a very slow – geological rollercoaster. And so the beach shifts and grows, and extends much further inland than most other beaches dare venture. Man has tried to halt its advance as much as the sea throws the loose shingle back on dry land. The only position to be taken, from which to appreciate the size of the beach is from the air. And once there, the scale of the work of the sea can be admired and even feared.
4 February 1287. Even today, meteorologists refer to this date as the day on which one of the fiercest storms ever recorded took hold of this remote corner of England and throttled it.
There were portents – a red moon that shone a sickly light over the shingle shoals and marshland; a relentless gale force wind that refused to subside; a flooding high tide that allowed no ebb between its next, equally high incursion and mountainous waves that crested with thick white spume.
The marauding sea tore across the beaches and temporarily took back the marshes far inland. Two sleepy coastal hamlets were cast aside and dragged down into a watery grave.
Such was the force of the storm that enormous quantities of shingle were ripped from the peninsula, and, together with mud and soil from the hinterland, were transported northwards, to be dumped, a few miles away and with little ceremony, at the feet and over the ankles of the inhabitants of the busy port of New Romney. This harbour silted up in a matter of hours and was sealed from the sea forever; the land level rose by five inches in a day; the River Rother, which exited from here into the English Channel found itself dramatically diverted over 15 miles to the west. Overnight this bustling port found itself a mile from the sea that had, until the day before, lapped against its streets. Dungeness had, in affect, killed off the port. But the beach still remained, albeit cruelly scoured by the storm. It was a day that irrevocably changed the geology of the area.
In this day and age, the shingle seems to be a benign place. But it is still moving. The weather can still be an influence. We walk and bird in an unpredictable place.
(I will not be staying at the observatory for the planned month, but may be able to get down there for the odd day in early November. The North Downs will act as a substitute shingle!)