SPECIAL FEATURE: Seafront resident of 60 years John Govier writes about Sidmouth sea defences
PUBLISHED: 12:48 11 June 2018 | UPDATED: 12:48 11 June 2018
"Offshore semi-submerged breakwaters are nothing new. You can see them all around the world in various forms - they are used mainly in shallow waters and their primary aim is to preserve the coastlines and the properties that are there.
“What they generally do is break the storm waves further out to sea and usually create a lagoon between the breakwaters and the shore and, in turn, create many benefits like calmer waters, which in turn lessens the shore erosion.
“Sidmouth seafront faces 20 degrees to the east of south - ie nearly south-east.
“If you draw a line from the outside of the present offshore breakwaters, across the sewer pipes, I can tell you, at low water on spring tides, you are in about nine feet of water – no more. In other words it is very shallow and that depth is quite constant across the whole seafront.
“In all storms, the time of high water and height of the tide, together with the direction of the wind, are the most important factors to consider. The direction of the wind is critical and the biggest waves to hit the shore, in my experience, have come from almost a due south wind, although of course the south-west wind is predominant.
“Sidmouth is situated at the inner most point of Lyme Bay – if you drew a line from Portland Bill to Start Point and drew a line from Sidmouth to meet that line at a right-angle, you would be approximately 13-and-a-half miles out to sea - out in the shipping lanes. Lyme Bay is a big bay.”
Mr Govier said he was not a sea defences expert, but had lived on the seafront for more than six decades and was quite involved in the present sea defence scheme which was finished in 1993.
He added: “The main purpose of the present offshore breakwaters and rock groynes was to replace the missing shingle, because shingle is the best shock absorber to large waves, and to try and hold that shingle on the beach with breakwaters. We need to remember what the beach was like in 1990 - there wasn’t any. It had all gone and we were down to the red marl. The seafront was closed regularly in bad storms to all traffic. The foundations of the sea wall were at risk and rock boulders were put across the front, against the wall.
“The sea wall was re-cladded with stone, right across the seafront. We were also fortunate enough to get a government grant to build the present sea defences – I think it cost somewhere around £8million. We have now had the present offshore breakwaters and groynes for nearly 25 years.
“In the main, they have worked – they have protected the seafront and properties from Clifton to approximately the Mocha Restaurant and the shingle has held on the beach from Clifton up to the rock groyne at York steps.
“The beach has not held from York steps eastwards and, as we all know, the shingle has gone between Salcombe Cliffs and Salcombe Mouth and we have suffered mass erosion of the cliffs eastwards from Port Royal, causing a major problem.”
Mr Govier said one of the town’s main issues was that, once the shingle had gone, the large waves hitting the sea wall and the cliffs stopped backwash and the shingle coming back.
He added: “You can see that happening during a storm – you can watch it.
“Of course we all know that predominant storm winds come from the south-west, but from time-to-time we do get southerly storms and south-easterly storms and it is easy to see why the beach to the east of York steps has gone and why the waves break on the promenade. That part of The Esplanade is not protected by the offshore breakwaters at the moment.
“We were told back in the 1990s by the marine surveyors who drew up the scheme that, then, the only scheme that would definitely work was offshore breakwaters across the whole of Sidmouth’s seafront. That is why I am convinced, that in the long-term, we need to build more offshore breakwaters across the front and these could be semi-submerged so that they would not be visible for most of the time. It is important and vital that we keep the present sea defences as they are and not change them - there is no need to.
“I do not think that raising the dwarf wall on the seafront promenade would be necessary either, and in my opinion raising it would ruin our ‘shop window’.
“Building a rock groyne under the eastern cliffs would not hold shingle, either. If anything, you would lose more shingle and gain nothing. A non-starter, for me. If you were going to build another groyne anywhere, I would build it at Pennington Point, protecting the river and the Ham.”
Mr Govier said building offshore breakwaters with large imported boulders would be very expensive, as it was before, so he has a second idea - to use second-hand ship containers and fill them up, if it was practical.
He added: “They are about the right size and might serve the purpose.
“I saw them being used at Dawlish when the sea wall there was breached and the railway line damaged – it is an idea, but worth exploring further. Having studied the existing offshore breakwaters, I would expect a build-up of sand on the inside of any new breakwaters - ie leeward side. This would be a good thing, because, the shallower the water near the shore, the better.
“Look what has happened at Clifton. We have a lovely sandy beach there now. A place for the lifeboats to launch, a good sheltered area for all sea sports – quite an asset and a popular sandy beach for young families.
“Finally, I want to say that planning for the next 100 years is not really possible or practical.
“When you think that the long picture of Sidmouth was painted in 1815 and you can see what it looked like then, 200 years ago, and then the sea wall and seafront was built in 1834 – there has always been change. And, of course, in 1995 the whole seafront was reinforced.
“Sorry to say, but the cliffs will always erode and fall down much to our dismay and that will never stop happening.
“Hurricanes and very violent storms can cause major damage and change things. Remember that Chesil Beach appeared and was formed by a very big storm by all accounts. It makes you think nothing will stop nature or the power of the sea and wind.
“The best we can do is protect Sidmouth and its properties the best we can in a practical way, in my opinion, with more offshore breakwaters and to try and stop those huge waves smashing against our seawall and cliffs.
“A great opportunity is coming at long last to redesign and tidy up Port Royal.
“But the most urgent problem is the sea defences - they must be tackled in a cost-effective way and soon.
“I do not think that more residential property should be built at Port Royal – it is not a suitable area.
“Any space we have at Port Royal would be more than needed for the future generations of sea-loving people.
“Fishing, boating, sailing, kayaking, swimming, gigs, paddleboarding, windsurfers etc.
“We probably have more people using the sea than ever before. It is all about quality of life for the future.
“I envisaged the area artistically designed with as much pedestrianisation as possible for people to enjoy – here’s wishing.”