Blyth Estuary Group
Works on the Blyth River Breaches

Works on the Blyth River Breaches and Future Plans

Repairing the ‘Main Breach’

Initial efforts were made by workers from Natural England (NE) to plug the main breach following the November storm surge, but due to the forces of water involved, both the first and second attempt to build a dam failed. NE workers then constructed a third and much stronger dam. This stood up well, but it was being overtopped by water at high tide causing erosion at the sides and behind.

At this time the Environment Agency (EA) had stated, they had no intentions to repair these river defences; they were in fact, already doing construction work at Palmers Lane (The old railway track) to form their new flood defence.

The Blyth Estuary Group (BEG) was as keen as NE to see the 160 acres of marshland reclaimed and were keen to help. It was the view of all involved, that the permanent loss of these marshes would have a detrimental effect on the Harbour and infrastructure through increased erosion. It would also be a loss of 160 acres of freshwater habitat and a loss to tourism.

As a result, John Huggins and Peter Shore, members of the BEG became the driving force behind the recruitment of volunteers, sourcing materials and the next steps to reinforce the dam as a joint effort with NE workers.

On Sat 1st March about 45 volunteers in all set out to fill 1000 sandbags on Walberswick Quay and then transport them up river to the main breach by a flotilla of small boats. By midday work to fill the 1000 sandbags was well under way and about 850 bags had already been filled. But a further storm surge halted the work and the transportation of sandbags in a flotilla of small boats had to be abandoned. This was resumed the following morning and all 850 sandbags were ferried up river to the breaches. However, on arrival at the site it was discovered that all the materials used to construct the dam in the main breach had been washed away by the latest storm surge. It was quite clear that something even more substantial needed to be constructed.

On Tuesday 4th March a small group from the BEG and NE went up to the main breach to inspect the site and assess what was possible within our capabilities. It was a sad sight; water was cascading through the breach into the marsh at an alarming rate, but the determination amongst the group was strong and to ‘do nothing’ was considered to be not an option. Further plans were made to fill another 1000 sandbags, ferry them up river to the site and continue the building of a new and stronger dam.

On Sat 8th March at 0900hrs on Walberswick Quay all was in place, about 40 volunteers arrived to start work, together with 6 boats to transport the sandbags up to the main breach. It was great to be part of such a determined group. By 12.30hrs about 1150 more sandbags had been filled and ferried up to the site. This now brought the total number of sandbags on site to 2000.

The next few weeks were frustrating. As each day passed the main breach was getting wider and deeper; a series of high tides and gales had made it unsafe for work to commence.

Finally on the morning of 31st March after several delays, the work to build the new dam began; it was a very successful day. The combined efforts of workers from the BEG, NE and their helper, had the entire timber framework in place and about 500 of the sandbags also in position. The following day was all about moving sandbags into position and keeping ahead of the tide. In all a further 1300 sandbags were manhandled into the dam by 10 people; shattered is probably an understatement. This meant that a total of 1800 sandbags were now in position; a substantial construction, but in reality we realised that we may not have been able to plug this breach if we had not started when we did. The final 200 sandbags were positioned on the top of the breach the next day bringing the final total to 2000.

A week later it was clear that the work had been successful; the water level on the marshes was clearly subsiding and a further visit to the site on 26th April we saw Avocet nesting on an area of marsh that was previously underwater.

Supporting the Remaining Breaches

There were a further 9 breaches to the river walls remaining between the Bailey Bridge at Southwold and the A12 at Blythburgh. It was agreed, it was neither possible nor practical for 45 or so volunteers to fill these breaches as we had done for the main breach using sandbags. However, it was agreed that we could give support by strategically placing about 100 sandbags at each breach to prevent further erosion should overtopping by the river occur. On Saturday 19th March another work party of volunteers got together to fill 1000 more sandbags. This was achieved and they were all transported up river on that morning.

Over the following weeks these were all positioned by smaller work parties as tide and time allowed.

Future Plans

This involves a self help approach, but also continuing to lobby the EA and DEFRA to fund and take over this work. However, until this time the BEG will press ahead with plans for the self help approach to repair and maintain these walls. This however, needs to have the necessary documentation in place to proceed with the work. We are hopeful that the EA and NE will assist with this.

Initially the work will involve the building of an access road from the Gamekeepers Cottage on the Blythburgh to Walberswick road through to Tinkers marsh adjoining the river. The estimated cost is almost £50,000 and will be a significant outlay, but no other option could be found. Waste soil can then be tipped along the back of the river walls through to the Ferry at Southwold to form an access track for heavy plant to repair and maintain these walls, a distance of about 2 miles. This part of the work would be self financing as a charge will be made to tip the waste soil and the revenue will cover the cost of repairing and maintaining these walls

Despite the refusal of the EA to repair and maintain these river wall defences dialogue will continue between the BEG and the EA to reverse their decision. It is not just about the protection of Walberswick and the detrimental effect to the Harbour, it is also fresh water habitat, a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and part of a public footpath between Southwold/Walberswick and Blythburgh, it is used by hundreds if not thousands of residents and tourists each year.