Village lost to the sea

24th March 2006 at 00:00
strip of rock and shingle sandwiched between steep cliffs and a fierce sea does not seem an ideal place to found a village. But somehow, Hallsands, just around the south Devon coast from Salcombe, clung on to existence, its inhabitants scraping a living from crab fishing.

By 1891, there were 37 houses there, and the population of 159 had everything they needed, including a pub and a chapel. Most important of all, they had a great offshore deposit of shingle that so protected their beach from the ocean waves that they could leave their boats out on the sand all year round.

However, the relative calm of Hallsands was about to be shattered, for the Admiralty was intent on expanding its Plymouth dockyard. The first the villagers knew of the plan was in 1897, when dredgers appeared and began removing shingle to make concrete. With the help of their MP, they managed to get a public inquiry. But the upshot was less than satisfactory.

Sir John Jackson Ltd, the company that had won the dockyard contract, argued that the sea would naturally replace the shingle. He agreed to pay pound;125 a year to the community anyway, but carried on dredging.

By 1901, some 660,000 tonnes of material had been removed, with just the consequences that the villagers had feared. That year, a second inquiry heard that the beach had fallen by as much as 12 feet. It concluded that "in the event of a heavy gale from the East... few houses will not be flooded, if not seriously damaged".

But although the inspector called for dredging to be halted, it was only when the villagers took direct action that work stopped. And, by then, it was too late.

With the beach eroded, hauling boats in and out of the sea became almost impossible. And although protective walls were built, Hallsands now found itself increasingly vulnerable to storm damage. In 1917, disaster struck.

On the night of January 26, a combination of gales and high tides wrecked all but one property, leaving Hallsands the ghost village that tourists see today.

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