David EP Dennis, founder of Friends of Combe Valley, applauds the council’s belated decision to withdraw its development proposal.

Combe Valley is the vale of the Combe Haven River. Its southern outflow area, called Bulverhythe, is a natural winter-flooded valley with a consequent flood plain.

Twelve thousand years ago Bulverhythe was a steep-sided inlet of the sea. Six thousand years ago there was a gathering place where people would sit on the shores, south of what is now called Crowhurst, to make flint axes and arrowheads. Later, in the Iron Age, the farmers cut trees for their cooking fires and homesteads. Winter rains and gravitational soil-creep reconfigured the U-shaped valley we see today, with its wonderful winter lake full of wildlife. 

In early medieval times, Bulverhythe harbour existed under King Edward the Confessor (ruler from 1042 to 1066). In 1359, King Edward III appointed Bulverhythe as a ‘limb port’ of the Cinque Ports and ordered that “the manor of Bulverhythe shall provide one ship, this duty to be supported by the people of Pebsham” (called then Petit Ihamme or Pyppels Ham). Bulverhythe Harbour docking records show that in an assembly of those in charge of harbours for the Cinque Ports held at Bulverhythe (called then Bulverhide) on 22 September 1676, it was decreed that all “shallops and other outlandish vessels, which put into Bulverhide haven, or stretch a rope or line, and if any the maisters or men thereof doe come on shore wherever within the libertie of this towne, shall paie 12d. for everie vessell to the pierwardens.”

CREDIT: David Dennis

Annual flooding

It is likely that the harbour was still transporting cannons from Ashburnham ironworks to the continent in the 1700s. Eventually, longshore drift, hinterland farming activity and silting put paid to the harbour, but not to the annual flooding of the Watermill and Powdermill streams and their main outflow – then called the Asten after the Haesten tribe.

Now it is called the Combe Haven and, having lived on Bexhill Road directly opposite Bulverhythe since 1947, I have watched our back garden and front roadway flood when the tide was high. I knew
how the area flooded regularly, sometimes requiring an army-style Bailey bridge over the waters to permit cars to travel along the A259.

In 2008 a management board with representatives from four local authorities – East Sussex County Council, Rother District Council, Hastings Borough Council (HBC) and Crowhurst Parish Council – was set up to guide the restoration of landfill areas at Pebsham and to protect and maintain the remaining countryside between Bexhill and St Leonards. In 2012 the board renamed the area Combe Valley Countryside Park (CVCP). This included Tiers 1, 2 and 3 of Bulverhythe Recreation Ground as a natural urban annex to the wildlife-rich sites of scientific interest in the main Combe Valley and Filsham Reed Beds – the largest area in Sussex.

In February 2013, I set up Friends of Combe Valley because of the remarkable wildlife of this area with its giant winter lake. This converted to a national charity in September 2015. Later, the Sussex Police and Crime Commissioner (PCC) and the Chief Constable kindly helped to fund the warden service, which is ongoing.

Proposal for housing

Fast forward to February 2018 when the Bulverhythe Protectors, led by Peter Clarke, started collecting funds to fight against the proposed large housing development on the flood plain of Combe Valley. 

In 2018, I met several times, over coffee and buns, with a HBC councillor at the De La Warr Pavilion café. The councillor explained that the housing needs of Hastings were so great that all the previous decisions on green conservation space would have to be overturned. Innovative technology would surely enable 190-plus homes to be built on the public recreation ground inside the formal CVCP boundary which extended to the coast and a short way out to sea. These houses had to be built on land that would be artificially raised, to stay above the natural winter flood plain of the ancient medieval harbour.

Now, exactly four years later, the planning application has been withdrawn on the advice of government agencies, ack-nowledging that the area is a natural flood plain not recommended for housing. Global warming and sea level rises must have been factors in this decision.

Future opportunities 

Rather than regret a wasted past, let us look for new opportunities. 

I hope that fresh co-operation between Friends of Combe Valley, Groundworks, HBC and Rother can result in an urban extension to the Countryside Park as originally planned. There could be new woodland, a physical exercise area, and a wheelchair-accessible pathway for people with disabilities.

During the time I have lived here, no flood remediation has ever taken place to protect the existing houses on Bexhill Road. This seems deeply unfair; theoretically, those new homes would have been protected – and yet existing homes would be left once more to fend for themselves. The 2018 new estate proposals were backed by Homes England with, potentially, around £5.8 million for flood remediation. It would make sense to ask Homes England to permit HBC’s retention of that money to protect the existing Bexhill Road housing stock, especially as a small housing estate is now planned behind 419 and 447 Bexhill Road despite flooding caveats within the planning documents. 

Another use of the Homes England funds would be to buy the Grove School site using a compulsory purchase order to ensure that the homes built there would be socially affordable. It seems that the majority of people who need houses in the Hastings area are not rich, and yet the schemes put forward hitherto have large components of unaffordable homes in order to satisfy the profit margins of the house-building companies and their shareholders. It might be possible for HBC to start their own house-building company and ensure that every one of the Grove site homes is affordable.

Meanwhile, HBC must under-stand and fully accept what Bulverhythe is – an ancient harbour with a winter flood plain, and to promote, with great pride, the remarkable wildlife-rich areas of Combe Valley with its reed beds and 30% of all the fen landscape in Sussex as part of the HBC green portfolio. No more building plans here, please.

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