Walking Class Hero: standing in the breach

It would be fair to say that the Environment Agency (EA) had a hard time from the media and politicians of all stripes last winter. You could hardly open a newspaper or turn on the TV without seeing some party leader or other wading about in new wellies with a frown of concern etched across their face. With so much of the country seemingly underwater the narrative was established that the EA was doing a lousy job.

However, just a quick look at their website shows they currently have over 50 flood management systems in various stages of completion around the UK so at the very least the job is big and dare I say it, thankless.

Many of their schemes have been incredibly successful as well as applying ‘outside the box’ solutions to perennial problems. The largest of these schemes was recently completed at Medmerry. It cost over £28 million, is described as a ‘managed realignment’ and was opened in November 2013.

Medmerry lies on the Manhood Peninsula between Bracklesham and Selsey in West Sussex and for centuries this flat low lying area has been at the mercy of the sea. In recent years the sea wall and shingle defences have been routinely breached causing the misery that reinforces the notion that ‘business as usual’ is not working.

Shingle beach at Medmerry
The shingle beach at Medmerry

Seeking a radical new solution the EA decided that ‘managed realignment’ was the only credible way forward. Managed realignment means building new defences inland from the coast and allowing a new ‘intertidal’ area to form seaward of the new defences. ‘Intertidal’ means the land that is exposed at low tide and covered by the sea at high tide.

Of course with so much of our coastline occupied by housing this option is not always available. I’m not an engineer and my experience tells me that to keep the sea off the land at high tide you build a high wall. Well, we’ve got a lot of coast and the walls rarely seem high enough. The counterintuitive solution is to knock a hole in the wall, or a breach, and let the tide in. Before this, 7km (just over 4 miles) of smaller, less obtrusive sea wall is built up to 2kms inland.

As well as reducing the threat of flooding for hundreds of nearby households the ‘surrendered’ land has become wonderful wetland habitat for numerous species. (For all you twitchers out there, Black-winged stilts have recently been spotted.) But importantly, despite the south coast suffering some of the worst weather for 20 years last winter with a sustained period of very high tides, strong winds and stormy seas, the new flood defences held firm and are working as planned. As expected the shingle beach, which used to be the flood defence, has rolled backwards and has been flattened by the sea.

Map and ariel view

Today work is on-going to finish the 10 kilometres of new footpaths, cycleways and bridleways that cross the site. Right now the site could not be described as picturesque and there is still a lot more to be done to complete the project fully and the timing of the work depends on the weather. When you visit you get a feel for the scale of the development first-hand.

Between the new earthen walls and the sea lies 180 hectares of land that is fast turning into saltwater marsh. Once considered ‘wastelands’, saltwater marsh is now acknowledged as one of the most biologically productive habitats on earth, rivalling tropical rainforests. In that ‘build it and they will come’ way migratory birds started arriving during construction. It’s a complete mystery to me how they know about it and how other birds get to know.

The RSPB is responsible for managing the site and it is hoped that they will be dedicating the new footpaths as rights of way. Located near Chichester this stretch of the south coast is probably the last undeveloped area on the crowded south coast and it’s great to see such an effort being made to create an amenity for the public, alongside providing flood protection for the next 100 years. 

Looking out to sea 
Enjoying the invigorating sea-breeze

The walk was bracing (there is nothing like an invigorating see breeze) and there is plenty to see, especially when carrying of a decent pair of binoculars. I didn’t spot any Black-winged stilts but Brent geese are just starting to arrive for the winter and plenty of Oystercatchers could be seen probing their long, orange bills into the soft ground to find invertebrate food beneath the surface.

In time a circular walk of about 4 miles will be created. With the attractions of Chichester, Pagham Harbour and the Witterings nearby you won’t have to be a hardcore walker or birder to make a day of it. Get yourself down there; there’ll be something to see whatever the season.

STOP PRESS!

It’s not often I agree with David Cameron but since my visit to Medmerry the scheme has won 2 awards: 

  • the prestigious Prime Minister’s Better Public Building Award that celebrates all round excellence in construction,
  • the Civil Engineering Project of the Year in the 2014 British Construction Industry Awards.

Watch this:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=x7jemyJujg8

Walking class hero’s playlist:

Standing In The Breach – Jackson Browne
Time And Tide – Madison Violet
Of Time And Tides – Nick Jonah Davis
The Tide Is High (Get The Feeling) [Radio Mix] – Atomic Kitten
Floodgates – Colbie Caillat
Flood Waters – Josh Garrels

Walking Class Hero is a regular blog contributor. Find out more about him, including his previous blog posts, and follow him on twitter @walkngclasshero.