The Somerset Tsunami

You may think there’s been a lot of flooding in the last few years, but nothing comes close to the devastating Somerset floods in January 1607. Back in 2014, you could look out from Ham Hill, Somerset, the largest hill fort in the country, and see the flooded Somerset Levels in all their ‘glory’, but thankfully that’s been a rare sight since the Levels were drained in the eighteenth century. Before then, the Bristol Channel would regularly flood the area all the way to Glastonbury Tor, which would become an island – possibly the reason it was considered a candidate for the Isle of Avalon, as it appeared and then disappeared regularly. In mediaeval times and earlier, you could have looked out from Ham Hill and regularly seen nothing but water. Indeed, the remains of many stilt houses have been found over the years, suggesting that the inhabitants in ancient times were more than used to dealing with a land under water. It has been suggested that the word ‘Somerset’ is a contraction of ‘Land of the Summer People’, because in winter the area became virtually uninhabitable.

But in January 1607 something more than the usual flooding occurred, and here you must excuse me for copying and pasting from a well-known online encyclopaedia:

“The Bristol Channel floods, 30 January 1607, resulted in the drowning of a large number of people and the destruction of a large amount of farmland and livestock. Recent research has suggested that the cause may have been a tsunami.

On 30 January 1607, the devastation was particularly severe on the Welsh side, extending from Laugharne in Camarthenshire to above Chepstow in Monmouthshire. Cardiff was the most badly affected town, with the foundations of St Mary’s Church destroyed.

Floods resulted in the drowning of an estimated 2,000 or more people, with houses and villages swept away, an estimated 200 square miles (51,800 ha) of farmland inundated and livestock destroyed, wrecking the local economy along the coasts of the Bristol Channel and Severn Estuary.

The coasts of Devon and the Somerset Levels as far inland as Glastonbury Tor, 14 miles (23 km) from the coast, were also affected. The sea wall at Burnham-on-Sea gave way, and the water flowed over the low lying levels and moors. Thirty villages in Somerset were affected, including Brean, which was “swallowed up” and where seven out of the nine houses were destroyed with 26 of the inhabitants dying. For ten days the Church of All Saints at Kingston Seymour, near Weston-super-Mare, was filled with water to a depth of 5 feet (1.5 m). A chiselled mark remains showing that the maximum height of the water was 7.74 metres above sea level.

A number of commemorative plaques still remain, up to 8 feet (2m) above sea level, showing how high the waters rose on the sides of surviving churches. For example at Goldcliff near Newport the church has a small brass plaque, inside on the north wall near the altar, about three feet above ground level today at this point, marking the height of the flood waters. The plaque records the year as 1606 because, under the Julian Calendar in use at that time, the new year did not start until Lady Day, 25 March. The estimate of resultant financial loss in the parish is given as approximately £5,000 (£960,000 as of 2014).

The flood was commemorated in the contemporary pamphlet entitled God’s warning to the people of England by the great overflowing of the waters or floods.

Written evidence from the time describes events that were similar to those that unfolded in the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake and tsunami, including the sea receding before the wave arrived, a wave of water that rushed in faster than men could run, sparks coming off the top of the wave, and a crowd of people who stood and watched the wave coming towards them until it was too late to run. Some of the most detailed accounts also state that it had been a sunny morning.

A 2002 research paper, following investigations by Professor Simon Haslett of Bath Spa University and Australian geologist Ted Bryant of the University of Wollongong, suggested that the flooding may have been caused by a tsunami, after the authors had read some eyewitness accounts in the historical reports which described the flood.

The British Geological Survey has suggested that as there is no evidence of a landslide off the continental shelf, a tsunami would most likely have been caused by an earthquake on a known unstable fault off the coast of Ireland, causing the vertical displacement of the sea floor. One contemporary report has been identified which describes an earth tremor on the morning of the flood.”

So while modern day flooding is disruptive and destructive, we should at least be thankful it never gets as bad as that!

Alastair Swinnerton is the author of ‘The Multiverse of Max Tovey’, a Young Adult novel about a troubled teenager who discovers he’s a time traveller, set in and around Ham Hill, in which Max finds himself on a wild journey through first century Celtic Britain, real and mythological, his every action threatening to change the past, and his future.

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