Should Priory Meadow shopping centre have been built on a site with a history of flooding?

Local historian Steve Peak questions the wisdom of building a large shopping centre on a site which has a long history of flooding

He writes: History leaves us lessons to remember, but an important reminder that Hastings Council managed to forget was to never build where the Priory Meadow shopping centre is. And the reason for that warning, as had been known for over 400 years, was that that ground is permanently badly-drained and likely to flood, as happened again recently.

The story begins in 1066, when William the Conqueror chose Hastings as his main landing place. This was because the Priory Valley – today’s town centre – was then a deep natural harbour, the result of erosion caused by several streams running down off its surrounding hills.

Over the next four centuries the valley filled with shingle and silt, becoming a marshland with streams draining into it, as they do today. Then in 1580 some leading local traders persuaded Queen Elisabeth to give them the equivalent of about £2 million today to turn the valley back into a harbour. They built a large embankment to keep the sea out, where Cambridge Road is now, and inland of it they dredged out much of the bottom of the valley, back to where South Terrace is currently.

However, the plotters only spent about half the Queen’s money, and then disappeared with the rest of it. So no harbour was actually built, although a large pond had been created where the shopping centre is today. In following decades the pond partly filled with soil washed down by the streams, forming a big quagmire.

In the 1790s Hastings started becoming a popular seaside resort, and began expanding out of the Old Town into the Priory Valley. Inland of the 1580 embankment the valley was too marshy to build on, but on the seaward side the large area of shingle that had accumulated for 200 years was hard enough to become the mixed housing and industrial estate that became known as the America Ground.

The construction of the railway lines in the late 1840s produced much spoil from the tunnels, which was spread on a large part of the valley and built on. However, the Victorians knew that the site of the 1580 harbour, although covered in grass, was still very wet, so it was left undeveloped, and in 1864 it became the town’s cricket ground. But then in the early 1990s Hastings Council managed to lose the memo from the past, and built the floodable Priory Meadow shopping centre there.

More details are in my book The America Ground, in most bookshops.

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