Book Review: The Severn Tsunami?

River Axe estuary between Brean Down and Uphill, inlet behind Brean’s sea defences
© Karen Netto (Andrews) 2018-19

A chance find in a Frome bookshop has set me thinking. The book itself is frustrating. It makes me want to get my editor’s pen out and completely restructure it. Yet, Mike Hall’s The Severn Tsunami? The Story of Britain’s Greatest Natural Disaster has critical content buried in its muddled presentation. It is relevant to Somerset and the UK’s climate change decisions.

Unprecedented Storm Surge

The book suggests that the natural disaster was the only recorded instance of a tsunami in Britain. The date was muddled. The confusion is simply explained by the inconsistent change to the Gregorian calendar. The author settles early on 30 January 1607. He also decides fairly early that the killer wave was the result of a storm surge, spoiling any chance of a climax at the end of the book. Yes, Somerset is thankfully not in an earthquake zone, but an underwater landslide could cause a huge wave.

Dangerous Global Inaction

As a local, I tend to read the contents as a modern-day warning. We know full well that climate change has us on the dangerous crest of a wave. Unfortunately, the country is monumentally distracted by divisive Brexit from taking the urgent action that cannot work without European and global cooperation.

River Severn Flood

A 7-metre wave swept up the River Severn, flooding land in both England and Wales in 1607. I read with knowledge gained since childhood of how treacherous and unpredictable the Severn and Bristol Channel can be. Bristol, Cardiff, Barnstaple and Glastonbury are places that I know well. Countless thousands of people were killed. The water rushed as far inland as Glastonbury.

Fishlake, Glastonbury and Grenfell

Recently published maps show that climate change apathy means much of my beloved Somerset could disappear permanently under the waves. I read this book as floods devastated the homes of the people of Fishlake. We remember the Glastonbury floods. The human cost is real. We see tangible distress and anger. Politicians always promise money and help on camera after a disaster and then, casually forget the homeless afterwards, as has happened with Grenfell.

Where’s the Investment?

There are always claims of an unprecedented, unpredictable combination of events after a disaster. This book proves that a storm surge is not unprecedented. The area is much more densely populated now. I read as someone who wonders why there is so much investment in central England’s infrastructure and so little by contrast in Somerset. Why destroy ancient woodland for HS2, unless the real plan is to abandon the coast without a genuine fight?

Rare Botanical Species

Brean Down, Berrow and Burnham-on-sea are some of my favourite botany sites. They offer an extraordinarily wide range of species, including the rare White Rock-rose, Helianthemum apenninum. It seems to resemble a white flag of surrender. The climate change maps show that Brean Down will become an inaccessible island.

Brean has the second largest tidal movement in the world with dangerous currents. These tides move fast and frequently catch out the unwary and unfamiliar. There are sea defences along the beach, where sand dunes have been removed. They do not seem adequate for the future, extreme weather conditions to which climate change will expose us. It is certainly feasible for a future storm surge to combine with a high tide and the area’s natural tidal rebound, when the land is already saturated from high rainfall – isn’t it?

Human Cost v. Impersonal Data

Much as I love plants, people have to come first. I recognise that the good people of Somerset will not want to leave their homes and land. This book comes alive when you have been familiar with the local geography and geology since childhood. It’s personal. I can picture both land and sea in my head. I can see living individuals in my mind, not merely the data they collect in Whitehall and Westminster. Like the author, my thoughts come out in a jumble.

A Nuclear Disaster?

Remembering the Fukushima nuclear disaster, I fear for them, as a nuclear power station is under construction at Hinkley Point. The risk does not make sense when scientists still have not solved the problem of nuclear waste. Renewables are an increasingly improved, available alternative.

A new Maginot Line?

When I stand in front of the sea defences at Brean Down, it is with knowledge of the low-lying agricultural land on the other side and open access at the estuary below Uphill. Won’t the sea surge take the easiest route?

I can’t help thinking of the Maginot Line.

Web Links

Maginot Line

Book Details

Hall, Mike (2013): The Severn Tsunami? The Story of Britain’s Greatest Natural Disaster. The History Press. Stroud, Gloucestershire.

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