Mighty surge of Weston's tide

DOWN the years humorists have made many a quip at Weston's expense about the immense distance the tide goes out, but while Torquay

DOWN the years humorists have made many a quip at Weston's expense about the immense distance the tide goes out, but while Torquay, Bournemouth, and other resorts where the sea is always in have obvious advantages, they have nothing to compare with the magnificent sight of a Spring tide riding into Weston Bay. What a sense of immense, inexorable power it conveys.Weston has one of the highest tidal rises in the world. Chepstow, at the Severn's mouth, is stated to be the second highest, beating Weston by only a few feet. The Bay of Fundy, between New Brunswick and Nova Scotia, holds the record. Open to the great tidal surge of the Atlantic the ordinary Spring rise there is 50 feet, but 80 to 100 feet tides have been known.It is fortuitous that Weston's highest tides of the year are nearly always accompanied by calm weather. While to see those forty-foot tides lapping the top of the sea wall is a thrilling sight, it also gives one to think what immense havoc could be wrought if a gale coincided.But for the sea wall, Weston's high tides would today flood down Regent Street and West Street as they used to, and were it not for sea defences and river sluices, high tides coming up the Bristol Channel would flood the Burnham level, roll down the River Axe up to Crooks Peak, and sweep on over Kewstoke to Wick St Lawrence, leaving Sand Point an island.From time to time down the centuries, great gales have sent mountainous seas heading up the Bristol Channel, defences have crumbled, thousands of acres have been inundated, and people and cattle drowned.The great floods of 1606-7 were vividly described in an old book that stated:"In this civil warres between the land and the Sea many Men, Wimen, and Children lost their lives: to save which some climbed uppe to the tops of the houses, but the rage of the merciless tide grew so strong, that in many, yea in most of the villages aforenamed, the Foundations of the buildings being washed away, the whole frame fell down, and they dyed in the waters: others got up into the trees, but the trees had their rootes unfastened by the self-same destroyer, that disjoynted barns and houses, and their last refuge was patiently to die."We are told that the sea bank at Burnham broke and 30 villages were utterly inundated "and their cattle destroyed, and men, women, and children beside". Suddenly, without warning the country for 20 miles by fice was flooded to a depth of 11 or 12 feet, the deepest part being at Kingston Seymour. Weston was among the places that suffered, and 11 people were drowned at Uphill.A great gale hit the West Country on November, 1703. During this violent night Bishop Kidder and his wife were killed in their beds by a falling chimneystack at their palace at Wells.Coming down to more modern times, the most frightening night of gales and tide recorded at Weston occurred on September 10, 1903. It was a Thursday, and from about 8pm in the evening until dawn next day a terrific gale swept through the district. Roof tiles were scattered like autumn leaves, windows were blown in, and chimneystacks brought crashing down. Fences were flattened and trees uprooted.There was an unusually high tide piled up by the wind. As the Mercury put it: "Huge rollers swept straight in from the open bosom of the wild-tossing Atlantic, hurled themselves with Titanic fury against the coast protections, throwing up huge pyramids of spray, hundreds of feet in height, sweeping volumes of water over the barriers and flooding practically every low-lying thoroughfare in the town."The water was knee-deep at the corner of Oxford Street and reached as far as the Public Library. Hundreds of cellars and basements were flooded. Knightstone Causeway was partly demolished; sections of the Promenade were ripped up; the landing stage and pier at Birnbeck Pier were wrecked, and the boiler houses at Knightstone shattered as if by high explosive. Weston's damage was estimated at £20,000, and there was a trail of havoc all along the Somerset coast."A veritable night of terror," was how the Mercury described it. "With a terrible gale from the West, with drenching rain, and the thoroughfares in the seaward portion of the town many feet deep in water, the mind could not fully comprehend the fearful devastation that was being wrought."Townspeople were greatly alarmed. Sea water was pouring down the streets like a mill race, and there was general belief that the sea walls had been brought down and that the whole town was being engulfed by a huge tidal wave.Material damage was colossal. When daylight came the promenade was a scene of wild confusion. Huge blocks of masonry had been tossed about like corks, sections of the parade ripped up, iron railings fantastically twisted, iron framed seats and chairs smashed, automatic machines overturned, and shelters wrecked.Bathing machines were reduced to matchwood, and baulks of timber littered West Street, Richmond Street, and Regent Street. Sand and seaweed were everywhere. Opposite Victoria Buildings the pleasure yacht, Diamond Jubilee, was resting across the roadway completely blocking it. A sailing boat, the Blue Jacket, was also thrown up on to the Promenade, while the gardens fronting Park Place became a lake, the water lying there for several days. Of the several boats torn from their moorings at Knightstone, some were smashed against the sea wall.Just before the gale struck a crowd of 500 had gathered at Knightstone Baths for the Weston Swimming Club's annual gala. At about 7.30pm they realised something unusual was happening. Water began to pour through the roof of the bath. At first they thought it was due to the heavy rain, and the programme continued,Then the electric light failed. Water poured into the building and those downstairs soon found themselves standing in water that came over the tops of their boots. People in the gallery were being drenched by water pouring through the roof.By this time Knightstone Causeway was awash with three feet of swirling water. Club officials, assisted by men in the audience, carried women and girls to the nearby private baths, struggling knee-deep through water. Shortly after 9pm the east retaining wall of the Causeway fell, and the road began to crumble under the tremendous battering it was getting. The gas main to Knightstone was broken, thus cutting off the last means of lighting for the crowd at Knightstone.You can imagine this scene with 500 people marooned in darkness and not knowing what was going on around them. The wind was roaring, masonry crashing, and always there was the thunder of the waves as they broke over the island. With the tide receding some venturesome individual managed to make the mainland at about 10.30pm, and eventually the whole 500, carefully shepherded by members of the swimming club, managed to reach the mainland. Fortunately, one of the races in the swimming club's gala had been a nightshirt-and-candle race, and the club's committee had bought several pounds of candles. When the lights failed, these candles lasted just long enough until the last of the crowd was got away to the mainland.Over half the jetty at the Old Pier was swept away, and on the other side of the gap there stood, incongruously, the ruin of the landing stage. The structure had been incredibly distorted, steel girders bent, and several stages of a new low water pier then under construction were swept away. Cost of the damage was put at between £10,000 and £15,000.The Mercury commented: "On Birnbeck Island scenes of havoc confront the spectator on every hand. Massive automatic machines lie about in grotesque confusion, twisted and warped as if they had offered no more resistance to the wind that mere cardboard structures whilst the lofty back of the Switchback has been carried bodily out to sea. The Pier Pavilion itself has been sadly damaged, massive steel girders supporting the portico being snapped off right and left their fragments lying amid heaps of debris."There was another great gale at Weston in October 1883. The town's sea front improvement scheme was then in progress and the gale made 'hay' of the contractors' plant and material. Huge masses of recently laid masonry were scattered, and the promenade broken up. The tide flowed down Regent Street as far as the High Street crossroads. A great gap was made in the sea wall at Anchor Head. Knightstone Causeway was undermined and the baths-house flooded.These stories make clear how important sea defences are in these parts. Sea walls and the internal system of rhynes have existed for centuries, to combat not only the threat from the sea, but also flooding from the watershed of the Mendip Hills. The possibility of extensive flooding from excessive rainfall is very remote nowadays, but what about the flooding from the sea?In recent years hundreds of thousands have been spent on improving the sea defences along the Somerset coast. Take, for instance, the magnificent wall at Woodspring Bay that now protects the Wick St Lawrence area, and the strong wall being gradually extended along the Kewstoke front. But no drainage authority can plan to cover the freak occasion.If, in the year ahead, there is a howling gale when it so happens one of those 40-footer tides is due to come rolling into Weston Bay, Weston could be in very serious trouble indeed.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on September 8, 1967

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