Thursday, 31 January 2013

Sixty Years Ago Today...

The East coast floods which devastated much of the East coast of England, from Yorkshire down to Canvey Island in Essex took place on the last day of Janurary in 1953, destroying homes and killing around 300 people.
On the radio today they spoke of the small village of Sea Palling in Norfolk and that invoked a strong memory for me. In the years following WWII Britain was recovering and people had started to go on holiday by the sea again. The land mines and other beach defences were more or less removed and we were allowed on the beaches once more.

We had a caravan and one of my father’s favourite places was Norfolk, so we spent several of our holidays there. We often went to stay in a small caravan park close to Waxham, near Sea Palling, which was basically a field owned by a local farmer. There was water at the farm and fresh milk straight from the cow but no other facilities. To us children it was heaven.
 Between us and the sea were a twin row of massive sand dunes, which we had to trudge across with the hot sand almost burning our feet. Along the coast from the farm there was the small coastal village of Sea Palling and many summer visitors went there since it had easy access to the beach. Whereas at the farm you had to climb about thirty feet of loose sand studded with clumps of Marram grass and then you went down into a deep dip between the two rows of dunes, where out of the wind, the sand was even hotter underfoot to then struggle up over the remaining dune to run and slide down to the beach.
Marram grass on sand dunes
That part of the coast had seemingly endless sandy beaches. It was often windy and the fine sand would sometimes whisper whilst snaking along the beach and stinging your ankles with the North Sea bringing in big rollers, sometimes large enough to knock a child off your feet. But this was all part of the charm and excitement of a real sandy holiday by the sea and we loved it. At Sea Palling, over the years the holiday makers had worn a path down to the sea and the rows of cottages on each side of the short street that ran through the centre of the village almost ran into the sea. This was Sea Palling’s undoing. When the flood came, this easy access to the sea also gave the sea easy access to the land and it rushed in through this gap taking with it several of the cottages and many of those asleep in them at the time. The government of the time felt there had been enough bad news from the war casualties, so they did not allow a very full report in the news following the flood. They felt people would become demoralised if another disaster befell them and so we did not really know much about the flood at the time. I think that my parents would have looked for another holiday venue in 1953 if they had known more but instead, all unawares, we returned to the farm next to Sea Palling and found devastation. We were completely unprepared for what we found. The little village had become half its original size, so many houses were washed away. The sand dunes which had been such a challenge to small children to get to the sea were just a small remnant, barley fifteen feet high and only one stretch of dune between us and the sea. They had held the flood back from the farm, but only just. It was only where the village traffic had worn a gap in the dunes the sea came through. The sand dunes had been built by Dutch engineers several hundred years before and they had built well. All along the Norfolk coast, the protection those ancient dunes had provided had saved many more lives but this was not the case in many other places. In Essex near Clacton on Sea, a place I lived in for many years, these is a small area called Jaywick. Further along the coast there are a number of tidal creeks which stretch inland behind Jaywick and the sea, unable to breach the concrete sea walls along the sea front, it poured in behind them rushing up the tidal creeks and devastating parts of Jaywick. I knew one of the survivors, he lost his wife in the flood and described his wooden chalet bungalow as being like a matchbox in a drain. He was only able to save himself because by sheer incredible luck, he managed to catch hold of a small boat that was torn away from its moorings and happened to be still afloat and near him when his house finally fell apart. He never saw his wife again.
In Dovercourt, just north of Clacton, the police went around the town with loud hailers to warn people of the storm surge heading their way. Because of this many people were prepared for the flood and survived, but some older people, still in WWII mode and not quite sure what the police were saying, went into their cellars believing it was an air raid warning. A work colleague of mine who had been a naval diver in 1953 told me of the grisly job he and his colleagues had to do, to recover their bodies. So it was sixty years ago today and there are many who still remember, even if we were not directly affected. We went back to Norfolk for many years after, not always to Sea Palling, but we saw the feeble results of the rebuilding of the dunes. A concrete sea wall was built soon after, which was probably designed to be the right height to prevent another flood exactly like that one, but it only needed to be a few centimetres higher to overtop that and the dune behind it is nothing like the old Dutch built ones. It is now a single low dune, pathetic in size when compared to the one those old Dutch engineers built.

The beach near Waxham close to Sea Palling twenty or so years ago.  The sea wall is almost buried.
Now I hear the sea wall is crumbling too and they are considering letting the sea carry on destroying the coast on the assumption it is cheaper, and better ecologically, than trying to stop it. It is certainly cheaper, but not for the people whose homes are falling into the sea and whose farms are invaded by salt water but they are only a small number of voters, so who will listen? It seems sad to me that those communities that survived the flood are now unlikely to survive government policy.


  1. Fascinating account, Snafu. I don't know that part of the country at all and it sounds fascinating. You write so well you should do an adventure or mystery type book about that area. The only thing I remember about the weather in 1953 is that it snowed one day in June! I somehow think it was on Coronation Day and I think that was June 3rd. I remember we had some bad storms at Flamborough and the waves were enormous. We lived up at the Lighthouse at that time.

  2. I am wondering why Sea Palling sounds so familiar to me. Is it a place that one could access via the Norfolk Broads? Not only does the name seem familiar, but even your description of it, and I am wondering if we might have gone there, when we were holidaying on the broads, in my early years. Such an interesting story, and, as ChrisJ says, as always well written!

    1. I am certain you would have been there, the nearest point on the Broads is Horsey Mere, which required passing under Potter bridge, but our parents knew the area well.and all of them had been boating there at one time or another. We went to Sea Palling if we were not on a boat and occassanly when on a boat we would moor close by and walk there.

    2. PS, I have just looked at a map, and I remember now, there is a longish cut from Horsey which gets you closer to the sea, but not as far up as Sea Palling. We would have walked straight to the sea from there and ended up a couple of miles or so from Sea Palling, closer to Waxham, when arriving there by boat,

  3. "Between us and the sea were a twin row of massive sand dunes, which we had to trudge across with the hot sand almost burning our feet." It was this that sent the memories spinnning through my mind...I am positive that we have been there, but I would have been very little. I remember the sand dunes, and, amazingly, the hot sand! Even tho the sea has figured largely in my childhood, I can't remember any other place where we lived that would have had sand dunes...and the name, Sea Palling, immediately rang bells! Thanks, snafu, for the memories!

  4. If that's Ian, I'd say that photo was more like 30 years old.