Wednesday, January 21, 2009

The Crumbling Coastline

There’s so much footage showing the cliffs around Yorkshire (not to mention Scotland and other such places) collapsing into the sea because of erosion, that you’d be forgiven for thinking Shakespeare’s ‘island fortress’ is rapidly becoming a ‘ruined keep’. The Fylde and Wyre are no exception. Our coast is forever being worn into oblivion by pounding waves, as the saga of Uncle Tom’s Cabin illustrates.
No, not the novel about American slaves! I’m talking about the Georgian building in Blackpool, so called because its original owner was the enterprising Tom the Cobbler, whose foresight to open his wooden ‘lean-to’ as accommodation for paying visitors was probably more responsible for the sprawling great mess that Blackpool became than any other factor.

There’s Uncle Tom’s Cabin, look, although visitors to the town nowadays might be hard pushed to recognise it. That’s because the entire building infamously fell off the cliffs in the 19th century, although (fortunately perhaps) nobody was in at the time. In the 1860s a large field stood between the building and the cliff’s edge but within thirty years, due to constant erosion, only the dangerously narrow path shown in the etching (which, incidentally, we’ve coloured in for our reader in an attempt to cheer up this board) remained. At one hundred feet above sea level the final collapse must have been depressingly spectacular.

Here’s what Uncle Tom’s Cabin look likes today.

Well, it’s something like that anyhow. I might have got the colour scheme wrong. I’ve lost the original photograph and can’t be bothered catching the tram back to North Shore to double-check. I’ve got a suspicion there might be more creams and pinks in it than that, but who cares?

Obviously during the rebuild of Uncle Tom’s Cabin (the only building in the country, by the way, that, as far as I know, has a tram stop named after it) the owners took the precaution of laying the foundations some considerable distance from the cliff’s edge, behind the tramlines in fact, the idea being, no doubt, that when trams starting disappearing into oblivion accompanied by descending screams and mangled, meaty crunches, it was probably time to sell up and move on.

One of the main reasons for the disintegration of Blackpool’s coastline was quite simply greed. The railway companies needed gravel for their tracks, so the enterprising bods around town set about digging up the ‘scars’ (or banks of shingle) off the coast that had been protecting the shore from rogue waves for millennia. The net result was no more protection for the cliffs!

It’s hard to say how much prehistoric stuff has been lost in the gradual collapse of the cliffs. Ancient tribes favoured the coast for their natural habitats as it provided them with abundant seafood as well as being a great place to spend their holidays.

Every so often, however, a small glimpse of what’s been destroyed comes to light amongst the detritus. Here’s what Allen Clarke had to say in his ‘Story of Blackpool’: “The late Mr. Chew, of Granville Road, an ardent geologist, who used to go poking about the shore with a hammer and magnifying-glass, once showed me a curious old urn and a stone head and face, rudely carved, with marks on the forehead like hieroglyphics.”

Needless to say the whereabouts of both artefacts are now unknown. The stone head, however, wasn’t unique. John Hallam’s ‘The Surviving Past: Archaeological finds and excavations in Central Lancashire’, for example, records that: “Other objects characteristic of this period and found in other parts of the north-west…include stone beehive type rotary querns and carved stone heads. Some of the latter representing Celtic Gods, may well belong to the Iron Age, such as the one in the Harris Museum found near the River Ribble.”

Here’s an illustration of that particular stone head, which, all matters considered, was probably very similar to Mr. Chew’s artefact.

The ‘hieroglyphs’ across the forehead were most likely Ogham, an early form of Celtic writing predating the runes of the Norse.

Allen Clarke goes on to inform us that both objects were: “…found in the clay cliffs (near Uncle Tom’s)”, all of which suggests that there was possibly an ancient burial ground and settlement close by.

This wasn’t the only prehistoric settlement to be usurped by the waves along the Fylde coast. According to Peter Bennett’s ‘A Very Desolate Position’: “In a lecture given at (Rossall) school in 1905 (William Boyd Dawkins) described the submarine forest which stretched in prehistoric times from the Isle of Man to the Isle of Wight. He pointed out the section which could still be seen at low tide off the Rossall coastline, where Neolithic flints and bones have been discovered, and where Bronze Age occupation was attested by pottery and weapons, similar to those discovered at Bleasdale.”

Then there were the later Saxon villages that couldn’t withstand the constant pounding of the sea. Singleton Thorpe off Cleveleys and Waddum Thorpe at the other end of the coast both dramatically succumbed to the unstoppable tide. Or, at least, that’s how the legends run. Rather than gradual erosion, there’s a distinct probability that both were drowned by tsunamis.

Over the centuries, lesser, but almost as destructive, storms have been responsible for the disappearance of the White Houses (a row of cottages) in Fleetwood (they used to stand on the corner of the Marine Hall gardens just opposite the Mount Hotel), the original, mediaeval version of Rossall Hall, Fenny Farm, and, as William Thornber informs us: “At Foxhall and onwards, the devastation has been enormous; tradition speaks of whole fields, including the ‘Horse Bank’, having been swept into the sea.”

You want a picture of the Fox Hall, don’t you? Go on then. It’s an old ’un, but it’s a good ’un.

And on that sudden and inexplicably abrupt note, I’m going to stop.


RVB said...

Here’s what Uncle Tom’s Cabin look likes today.

It's a very strange-looking building.

he only building in the country, by the way, that, as far as I know, has a tram stop named after it

Us Australians can do better. We have a railway station called Jewel for no reason whatsoever.

Andrew said...

Suggest Lord Fleetwood's abode be attached somewhere inland with strong cables.

Reuben, are you sure about Jewel? Get Jayne onto it.

John said...


First I've seen of carved stone heads in the UK. Fascinating, and definitely something worth studying if it hadn't followed so many other artifacts into oblivion.

As for teh submerged forest, was the Uk that much bigger in prehistoric ir neolithic times? Were today's islands yesterday's coasts? If so, then as you suggest, a lot of valuable history is now either out of reach or out of context.

perhaps some big University should study your clay hills along the eroding coasts now, before some important history washed away with the tide?

JOHN :0)

PS You kin find me on FaceBook :0)
I'm thinking of starting a page there called The Wyre and Fylde Antiquarian. :0)

JahTeh said...

Nice place for a blogmeet, I'll let Bella know. Start stocking the whisky but ditch the soup.

Brian Hughes said...


"It's a very strange-looking building."

Most of Blackpool's a bit strange looking. I suspect the architect had a drink problem.


Oddly enough our little old fisherman's cottage is tucked away behind the Mount in Fleetwood, about the only location along the coast that isn't likely to fall into the sea at some point in the future. It might get burnt to the ground by unsociable neighbours, but it won't fall off the edge of a cliff.


Yes, Britain is shrinking and, yes, a lot of our islands used to be part of the main land. There's also a whole genre of archaeology out there dedicated to looking at the stuff that's disappearing under the's all very intriguing.

As for Facebook, there does appear to be somebody already on there under the guise of Wyre Archaeology. Presumably it's one of our members (come on whoever it is...own up). Not having Facebook myself I don't actually know.


I saw the photograph of your latest blogmeet. I'll bring the whisky, you bring Bella and Annie...and tell Sedgwick to lose the sunglasses and do something with his hair will you? He looked like a drowned rat.

Jayne said...

With this insistence of leaving archaeology insitu there'll be bugger all left above the high tide mark shortly!

*Am hunting down a book on the train station names, Reuben and Andrew, somewhere on the 8 bookcases in the lounge....

John said...


I'd love to se more about the archeology of the crumbling coast, especially since you imply how fascinating it all is.

As for FaceBook, I have searched but have found no mention of Fylde and Wyre antiquarians or archeology. There is a girl named Tracy Wyre showing a pic of herself in lingerie, but I know you're no tinterested in surface archeology. :0)

Cheers, JOHN :0)

Brian Hughes said...


If that were the case ('cos we've got quite a bit of archeology in Blighty, even on the mountaintops) the rest of us would be underwater too. (I'd better get my snorkle and flippers ready.)


Underwater and coastal archaeology comes up quite a lot on television programmes over here. They're always on about it on 'Coast' for example.

As for Facebook...try typing Wyre Archaeology and Facebook into Google. The page itself doesn't load for me...'cos I'm not a member of Facebook. I've got a suspicion it might be Joolz's old page. I reckon I should make enquiries

RVB said...

You should get Facebook, Brian. It'd be the only way you'd reach youth like me.

Brian Hughes said...


This is nothing against you and your own mob of intelligent, creative and energetic miscreants, you understand, but most youths I didn't even want to reach when I was young myself. Any decent, more-than-half-baked youths tend to find their way to us anyway. I think it's less a case of age distinction and more of a case of misfits of a feather all end up in the same hedge...or however that saying goes.

RVB said...

I agree Brian. Today's youth are generally pretty stupid, uncaring and intoxicated.

Brian Hughes said...


Today's youth, middle-agers and dotty old bats are generally stupid, uncaring and intoxicated.

Speaking of which, where's that whisky I poured myself? Waddya mean, y' put it in the oven f' safe keepin'!? Y' stupid bl**dy cat! The Yorkshire puddin's are cookin' in there!

Jayne said...

...and after this the Archaeologist stopped drinking lighter fluid and took up the heavy stuff - H2o.

Brian Hughes said...


Even heavier than that...frozen H2O, with whisky wrapped around it.

I can't believe this. The word verification is BUMSO. Somebody at Blogger is definitely having a joke.

Jayne said...

Yep, had my suspicions someone at Blogger grew a sense of humour in the hothouse on their holidays.
Am now typing in WV of "ressesc" obviously in memory of their own recess! :P

Brian Hughes said...


I suppose you'd need a sense of humour working at Blogger when you see some of the sites they're sponsoring out there.

Anonymous said...

im very sickened at what is been said about today's yuth and i think you are been very stero-typical. Going off the other comment, I work at Uncle Tom's Cabin in blackpool and a few things have been saved like the orignal indians that once stood proud on the oringal buildings roof and these are still in the 2nd Uncle tom's to this day as i was looking at them last night a lot of picture's (sketch's) that was once with the orignal build are also there. the picture above that has been sketched is not far off the really thing but its brown now but new owners so changes will happen there is a group which can be found on facebook for Uncle Tom's Cabin if anybody would like to look or request picture's they can do

Brian Hughes said...


"im very sickened at what is been said about today's yuth"

Quite right too. Mind you, you obviously don't live round my way in Fleetwood. You'd be sick of 'em as well if you did.

"there is a group which can be found on facebook for Uncle Tom's Cabin if anybody would like to look..."

Like I say, I'm not on Facebook, but if anybody out wants to copy them and stick them on the forum I'd be much obliged. I'm always interested in that sort of stuff.