A walk at high tide of the 2013 Storm Surge between Sizewell and Thorpeness
This is a photographic excursion of the 2013 Storm Surge down the Suffolk Coast. With media firmly concentrated on events in South Africa the only real way to find out was happening was to visit this destructive storm surge oneself. Although this part of Suffolk was relatively unscathed it still presented awe-inspiring seas and crashing waves.
Leiston to Sizewell Walk - Essential Information
- OS Explorer Map
- OS Explorer 212 - Woodbridge & Saxmundham
- OS Route Map
- Full screen plot of route on an OS map
- OSM Route Map
- Full screen plot of route on an OpenStreetMap map
- Google Route Map
- Full screen plot of route on a Google map
- Map My Walk Map
- Map My Walk plot of route
- GPX file for walk
- Downloadable GPX coordinates of walk
- Date of Walk
- Walk Time
- 11:00 to 15:00
- Weather Conditions
- Clear winters day with blue skies
The tidal surge for 2013 had been predicted a week before when the weather forecast put low pressure in the north sea with some gale force winds in the north. No warnings had been issued but it was obvious that we would have some high tides come the weekend. This remained the case throughout the week. No warnings. No alerts. It wasn't until I was driving to work on Thursday morning that I first got any news that the surge was going to be a significant event. The local BBC radio station stated that tide warnings were in place and it could possibly be the highest surge in 30 years. Looking on the Environment Agency web site confirmed this report with multiple severe warnings in place for the length of the East Anglian coast and its tidal rivers. The Environment Agency uses a three tiered system of warnings starting with a Flood Alert which indicates that flooding is possible, A Flood Warning which indicates that flooding is expected and immediate action is required, and its highest level which was issued on this occasion, identified as a Severe Flood Warning indicating a danger to life and severe flooding.
As the day wore on reports kept coming in with increasing alarm. Initially the worse flooding in 30 years was predicted but this was soon revised and news reports were stating that the surge would be the highest in 60 years with the possibility that it would be greater than that experienced in the 1953 floods which brought devastation and loss of life to much of the area. I am afraid that in more recent years, certainly since the great storm of 1987, the media and authorities appear to err on the side of caution with warnings which has resulted in a lot of the general public seeing this as a cry wolf attitude and therefore acting rather nonchalantly in the face of such warnings. I have to admit that I wasn't particularly concerned with these warnings although was keeping a close eye on the media channels, predominantly the BBC, just in case. My attitude changed mid-afternoon when First Group buses, acting in response to customer questions about whether their services would keep running responded by telling passengers that they should attempt to get themselves home as soon as possible as they could not guarantee their services to Great Yarmouth and Lowestoft and were reviewing the situation as an on-going concern. They, quite rightly, wanted their drivers to be able to be back to the depot before any flooding initiated.
The surge hit North Norfolk early evening, the tide sweeping into the likes of Kings Lynn, Wells and Blakeney one and a half hours before the predicted high tide. The official reports were stating that the tide was both higher and earlier than expected and that this was going to be a major event. The surge then made its way around the coast. Sheringham and Cromer took a severe battering. Then Great Yarmouth. Next was Lowestoft. Southwold and the Suffolk coast was expected to suffer beyond this with the tide peaking after 11pm. An evacuation centre had been set up at Leiston and I heard reports that it had taking in people from Aldeburgh, but most of this information was coming via social media and exact details was not forthcoming. This lack of information was probably what drove a lot of people out of their houses to witness the event. Hoards of sightseers in Lowestoft and on Gorleston sea front were said to be putting themselves at risk.
It was in light of this lack of official information that the evening news was greatly anticipated by much of the general public within the area, even if it was to just confirm exactly what was happening. Therefore it wasn't just me who switched on the news that evening at 10pm to find out more. Everyone around the coast seemed to switch on the news that evening in expectation of some clarification of the events. So it was a total shock that instead of reports, information and advice to this ongoing situation the viewer was given a full hour of reports about the death of Nelson Mandela. No news about the destruction that was going on along the East Coast of England whatsoever. Even the local news ignored the events, instead choosing to focus their airtime on South Africa rather than what was happening in their own region to the thousands of people falling victim to this devastating storm surge. The only method any one of us could get any information on what was happening was to either go out oneself and witness it or trawl the numerous social media sites on the internet which were becoming full of snippets of information, video clips and rumours and counter rumours. This was quite a shocking state of affairs that in this unprecedented event where potential life threatening scenes were being enacted out the entire official media circus concentrated all their efforts on South African current affairs.
In the event of this lack of authoritative information, rumours started to spread. Cromer pier had collapsed was the first rumour that spread across the web. Then Sheringham prom had washed away. Starvin Marvins burger kiosk was last seen floating towards Overstrand. Lowestoft was inundated with floods and completely cut off with the bridges at Outon Broad and the Bascule bridge flooded and the Haddiscoe marshes cutting off routes to the north. Further south there was a virtual news blackout with no reports from Southwold which was just succumbing when the news theme changed.
By the next day some news finally filtered through. Amid the myriads of stories about Mandela an official report notified that the tide levels had exceeded those of 1953 in parts of Norfolk. It took a couple of days to fully comprehend what had happened and the destruction that had been wrought. There was devastation to the coastal defences throughout the coastline of Norfolk but luckily these still managed to contain much of the tide although several areas were inundated by floods and many homes had been destroyed including several bungalows at Hemsby. I still dont know if there was any loss of life but I am certain the Nelson Mandela died!
The following day there were two more potentially devastating tides predicted and it was in light of this I sought to get some first hand witness accounts from the Suffolk coast as the official media still appeared to be firmly focused on South African current affairs. I had heard reports on social media that the main A12 at Blythburgh had been cut off in the north and to the south, the area around Snape maltings was completely flooded. These floods were said to be so deep that a tractor had became marooned whilst attempting to get through them. There were also reports that fire crews from across the nation which were due to attend Leiston as standyby in case the power station was inundated were stuck at the Orwell crossing. This explained the lack of fire crews around Leiston and Sizewell area. In 2007 it had looked like a firemans convention with crews from as far afield as Stoke and Oxford attending the scene. On this occasion not one attended. Therefore in light of all this I ventured out on foot across the commons to Sizewell in order to see what was happening myself when the first high tide was encountered around one o'Clock in the afternoon with the intention of getting there an hour or so early then wandering along the coast.
The coast north of Sizewell is all low lying land with dunes being the only defence between the sea and the Power station and beyond that the Minsmere marshes. Therefore it would not be a wise idea to head in such a direction just in case the dunes were breached when there would be no higher level ground to run to. To the south of Sizewell it is all cliffs as far as Thorpeness which presented easy escape and sanctuary from the tide and it was in this direction I slowly ambled, firstly along the dunes in front of the Beach View camp site and then taking to the cliffs at Sizewell Hall because the waters were fully up to the base of the cliff.
I have to admit that my first impressions were that this was a little more than experienced with the 2007 storm surge. The surge was a little higher and the previous nights tide could be seen to have been even higher, the debris showing the tide line it had reached across the dunes. The beach along this section of coastline is predominantly shingle and all storm surges result in flattening the normally tiered beach into a smooth long slope of shingle and this was the case here. The shingle had washed up across the sand and grasses of the dunes and each wave would glide up the shingle pushing it a little further onward. The noise is quite distinctive. It is not a roar or a mighty crashing but a more gentle cacophony of shingle moving under the water and only heard on these high surges. The visible beach was an eerie landscape of stalks poking through the shingle, their vegetation stripped away by the sea. The shingle had a strange feel to it when walked upon. Shingle is always a struggle to walk across but with each step my feet would slowly sink up to the ankles as if it was like a quick sand. The sea looked deceptively calm but it had a large swell which resulted in some enormous waves breaking on the beach.
Further south Thorpeness Point is encountered, this is a shingle spit jutting out and away from the cliffs before returning back to the normal coastline at Thorpeness. It was along this section that access back down the beach provided some awesome views of the waves crashing against the recently constructed sea defences in front of the houses along North End Avenue. This area has been subjected to significant erosion over the last few years and always appears to be a rough area of sea even in the calmest of conditions. The beach has a gulley following the cliffs which has been eaten out with the erosion and this was full of water being continually fed by the waves which breached the shingle bank in front of it. There was enough room to navigate alongside this gulley and get a good view of the defences beyond and it was here that I stood in awe of the tide. At one point another sightseer came over to me and started talking. It was he who noticed that our feet had become enveloped in water as we stood there taking in the sights and we then had to pace back up close to the cliff to keep dry. After he left an almighty wave crashed in and forced me to jump 4 feet up the cliff to remain dry.
Taking the footpath across Thorpeness common and then down North End Avenue one meets the next footpath to the beach. This is no more than an alleyway between the houses and emerges to the south of the newly erected defences constructed in the autumn of 2013 after the St Judes storm had caused damage to the cliff in front of the houses. This gave a vantage point of this side of the defences although the beach was inaccessible due to the tide. Householders stood on their lawns overlooking the sea as the waves breached the shingle bag defences as if they weren't there. Several other couples watched the scene from the end of the footpath where the tide had gouged a steep drop down to the beach. One large waves sent us all running up the alley as its waters chased after us. Once again the scene was totally awe-inspiring the likes of which images and video cannot capture.
Beyond the village there are a row of seaside cottages that back onto the Aldeburgh road all the way up to Thorpeness Haven. The Suffolk Coast Path leads out in front of these and then follows the beach through to Aldeburgh. This was completely inaccessible with a river of water in front of the cottages that was being continually fed by to breaches in the shingle at the Haven. A couple from Aldeburgh related that the beach could not be walked and the only way they could get to Thorpeness was to follow the side of the flooded road which was just passable.
At this point it was clear that the tide had turned. There was no point in continuing further. By all accounts Aldeburgh had managed to survive the flooding although no doubt the marshes beyond were all flooded. Suffolk appeared to have faired well in comparison with Norfolk, maybe because the winds had turned and its south-easterly facing coasts were somewhat sheltered. All the same this had been one long night followed by an apprehensive day. It is just a pity the British media did not take this as seriously as the people who had to endure this.
A simple walk following the marked out routes across the heaths and commons between Leiston and Thorpeness. A lot of this land is open access which allows the walker to find a myriad of alternative routes
Head out of Leiston on the Aldeburgh Road. Almost opposite Goldings Lane there is a little road on the left. This leads onto a footpath alongside the field boundaries. Keep to this until it bears to the left and joins another footpath at an angle. Almost double back on yourself and walk through to the field adjacent to a copse of trees with a track down the side of this. Cross the field diagonally and keep in a straight line through the golf course beyond until the path meets several other paths at the point of the old railway track. Go through the metal gate and onto the common following the yellow topped marker posts. This emerges through another metal gate onto a sandy track. Cross the track and follow the footpath through he trees until it joins another path. Turn right along this, which is now the re-routed Suffolk Coast Path (due to coastal erosion) and follow the marker posts into Thorpeness.
From Thorpeness, take the beach through to Sizewell. At certain times of tide the beach in front of Thorpeness can be inaccessible and an alternative route is to follow Old Homes Road round to North End Avenue which is marked as a private road. Walk up this, parallel to the beach, and at the end there is a footpath out onto the common with multiple access to the beach and cliff paths.
At Sizewell follow the road, past the Vulcan Arms inland. At Halfway Cottages, as the road bends round to the right, there is a track just past the last cottage. Take this, continue straight ahead past the cottage and turn sharp right to take the path across the fields and onto a track at the far end, past the cottage. This track eventually leads out onto Red House Lane where the walk started.
Coastal ErosionView in OS Map | View in Google Map
Coastal erosion is the wearing away of land and the removal of beach or dune sediments by wave action, tidal currents, wave currents, or drainage. Waves, generated by storms, wind, or fast moving motor craft, cause coastal erosion, which may take the form of long-term losses of sediment and rocks, or merely the temporary redistribution of coastal sediments; erosion in one location may result in accretion nearby. The study of erosion and sediment redistribution is called 'coastal morphodynamics'.
The Suffolk Coast is composed of soft rock and sand which presents a vulnerable defence against wind and tide. There is a long history of man made defneces along this coast which have kept towns such as Southwold and Felixstowe safe from the sea although not all have had such a happy history. Dunwich was once a thriving port, one of the largest in East Anglia before it succombed to the sea. Slaughden, at the southern side of Aldebuurgh has vanished into the sea and what remains of Aldeburgh was at one time the centre of the community.
Links and Bibliography:
Below is the route depicted on the OpenStreetMap, Ordnance Survey Map and Google Map. Links to full page versions are found in the Essential Information
Summary of Document Changes
Last Updated: ... 2016-01-16