The Rathfinny Wine Estate is located just to the west of the Cuckmere Valley.
I came here as a child on a geography field trip to look at the meandering river and the iconic ox-bow lakes. I’m sure many other students have done the same over the years as the Cuckmere attracts over 400,000 visitors a year. Well those ox-bow lakes are now at risk because the Environment Agency (EA) decided in 2009 to give up on maintaining the sea defenses and wants the area below the A259, the Cuckmere Haven, to become a “self-sustaining system”. However, there is a problem with this plan because the shingle on the beach keeps shifting. All the modeling of water flows and the like can’t predict what will happen to shingle that blocks off the river mouth and prevents the river from emptying properly, so we get flooding up the valley, as you can see.
The EA argue that because of budget constraints and the fact that very few houses are affected by the flooding they are rule bound and have to priortise expenditure in other areas. Haven’t we heard that before? Didn’t they say that about the Somerset levels?
The trouble is that the EA “do nothing” approach to the Cuckmere Valley is a convenient get out clause to pass the buck onto East Sussex County Council and say “okay we don’t need to do anything anymore, so over to you.” The result of this policy will mean that the A259 will have to raised by over two-metres and the roads running along and across the Cuckmere Valley to Alfriston, West Dean and Litlington, which get cut off for weeks at a time during winter flooding, will also need raising and protecting. This will all cost tens of millions of pounds to correct. Yet it only costs the Environment Agency £30,000 a year to carry out the existing maintenance work and wouldn’t cost an awful lot more to do some basic maintenance to the sea defenses, de-silt the Cuckmere and maintaining the slice gates that drain the meadows. Some of which they have agreed to do but haven’t.
I’m a believer in climate change and agree that sea levels might rise a little over the next hundred years, but probably wont rise as much as everyone thinks, because ice floats and the level in my gin and tonic glass doesn’t go up when the ice melts. However, it seems silly to me that we are allowing the EA to get away with not doing some basic maintenance to the Cuckmere on the assumption that sea levels might rise by a metre in one hundred years time! After all this structure, which was designed by Dutch engineers over 100 years ago to ensure adequate drainage of the Cuckmere Valley, has stood the test of time.
I hope some heads can be knocked together, and adults can get involved to ensure we don’t face a huge bill for unnecessary work to our local infrastructure and we can maintain a system that works so well despite climate change.
Let’s try and preserve this iconic landscape.