Modern-day Climping Beach – once part of the village of Atherington
From tales of Atlantis to the Arthurian romance of Lyonesse, there is no shortage of legends about land that has sunk beneath the waves, but inundations of this kind are not just fantasy. Towns and villages really have been lost to the sea in the past; the current bad weather and fears about the climate have brought coastal change into the headlines as perhaps never before. In England, the most famous ‘sunken’ town is Dunwich (the subject of a fascinating research project), but the West Sussex coast also has its lost places, one of which is the village of Atherington, near Littlehampton (1).
Strictly speaking, though, Atherington is not ‘lost’ at all. You can still find it, a place with a few cottages lining the road leading south from the pretty village of Climping to the beach. However, a detailed map of 1606 shows that Atherington was larger 400 years ago, with sixteen buildings and a small crossroads in the centre. The map is credible, partly because it was drawn by the surveyor John Norden (c 1547-1625 – one of the greatest cartographers of his day), but also because some features can still be traced on the ground, such as the line of the road from Climping (2). Nowadays, about half of the 1606 area of Atherington is still on land, covered by the open fields of the modern car park. The other half is now a beach, quite a bit lower than the land behind, suggesting that this part of old Atherington was largely rubbed out by the English Channel (3).
Atherington was not the only place in the vicinity to be attacked by the sea. There was another settlement nearby called Cudlow, which really is lost. Cudlow was a small port in the Middle Ages, and even contributed a couple of ships to a royal fleet in 1343, but eventually it succumbed to the waves. The last record of someone living at Cudlow comes from 1620 (4).
Records suggest that the decline of these places was not due to sudden cataclysms, but to the relentless chipping-away of the land by coastal erosion. Fascinating though it is, the story of these two villages is also a disturbing reminder of Nature’s ability to erase our works from the face of the Earth.
Blog and photo © Ian Friel 2014
(2) The Victoria County History contains a succinct and interesting history of Climping and Atherington: T P Hudson (ed), A History of the County of Sussex: Volume 5 Part 1: Arundel Rape: south-western part, including Arundel, London 1997 pp 126-47; the text can be accessed online for free at http://www.british-history.ac.uk. Norden’s map is in the West Sussex Record Office, Add. MSS 2031: a discussion of it, together with a two tracings, can be found in P M Johnston, ‘Notes on an early map of Atherington Manor’, Sussex Archaeological Collections, Vol. 44, 1901, pp 147-66.
(3) The coast here may also have sunk some 40 cm (about 16 ins) since 1606, part of the long-term, post-glacial sinking of southern England, reckoned to be 1 mm per year on average: see www.parliament.uk/briefing-papers/POST-PN-363.pdf
(4) For Cudlow, see the VCH entry; 1343 fleet: N A M Rodger, The Safeguard of the Sea. A Naval History of Britain, Volume 1: 660-1649, London 1997, p 495.