Tag Archives: dawlish railway line

Death and destruction at Dawlish Warren

As we stepped off the train at Dawlish Warren station, we had our first glimpse of the river Exe, its waters a sparkling pale blue in the bright sunshine.  The weather was a welcome change after so many cold and snowy days but, during our short journey from Totnes, we had passed bright ridges of snow still piled against field hedges and, in low lying places, large lakes of standing water from snow melt.  Perhaps the weather was giving us a gentle reminder of its power to disrupt life.

We hadn’t intended to visit Dawlish Warren again so soon (see here for a description of our previous visit) but we wanted to get out for a walk and, hearing that some country roads were still snow-blocked, we chose somewhere easily accessible.  We also wondered how the recent extreme weather might have affected this beautiful sand spit.

The view from the promenade quickly told us part of the answer.  Sand was piled up on the retaining wall that slopes to the beach and, along the promenade, some of the benches were partly submerged in sand as if caught by a pale brown snow storm.  On the beach, huge quantities of wooden debris lay in random heaps, along with some very large plastic items; it will be a mammoth task to clear this.  A closer look showed that the debris was a mixture of wood and reeds along with bits and pieces of plastic and many industrial plastic pellets (mostly grey nurdles).  I don’t want to go on too much about these industrial pellets, I’ve written about them several times already, but we found them littering all the beaches at the Warren to a greater or lesser extent.  Near the promenade there must have been thousands.

As we were picking up a few of the pellets, a woman asked Hazel what she was doing.  After an explanation, the woman said:

“I thought you were picking up driftwood,” and after Hazel had shown her some pellets the woman continued “still they might be very nice for decorating a mirror.”

 

We then walked around the Dawlish Warren sand spit following the route I outlined in a previous post, which also gives some background information about this nature reserve.

The central area of the Warren was partially flooded but still passable.  No spring flowers were to be seen yet but small birds were performing florid mating displays while a group of black corvids sat judgementally in a nearby tree.  Vegetation along paths over the dunes was seemingly spray-painted with a coat of rough sand, probably a result of the blizzard sucking up material from the beach.   Near the bird hide, I disturbed a large flock of Brent geese feeding on the golf course.  These imposing birds took off as a group and circled low over us before moving to a quieter spot.

Warren Point at the end of the sand spit was as mysterious and beautiful as always, its pale marram grass covering glowing in the sunshine. A small flock of linnets, the males with their pink bibs standing out, fidgeted in the branches of a low bush.   A skylark rose from the ground, wings flapping frantically as it hovered in mid-air, singing, turning a tune over and over, changing it each time.  Then, without warning, it stopped flapping and deftly descended back to the ground with subtle, steadying wing movements.

The story on the beaches bordering Warren Point was less uplifting.  There was a slew of debris along the strandline, mostly wood and reeds but also many dead birds. We saw at least twenty casualties, mostly lapwings, identified by their largely black colouring combined with russet brown and white undersides.  During the storm there had been a mass movement of these birds across the Warren and a proportion didn’t survive.  We also saw one or two golden plovers with their exquisite pale brown and white herringbone patterns.  On the beach facing up the Exe, the low sand cliffs at the back of the beach had been damaged by high water and when we rounded the point to walk back, there were more signs of storm damage.  Areas of marram grass had been torn out and reddish soil had been deposited on the edge of the remaining marram grass.

The most significant damage, however, had occurred to the taller sand cliffs that abut the groynes on the sea-facing beach.  Sand had been washed away from the back of the groynes and several metres of sand cliff removed exposing, in some places, the old sea defences.  Some of the new fences built on the reinforced dune ridge had been torn out and now lay on the ground in casual heaps or hanging in mid-air, still partly attached.  The groynes themselves seemed to be intact but plastic notices attached to them lay in pieces among the other debris.  In a powerful demonstration of the scale of the storm and the water level reached, small pieces of wood and more plastic pellets lay along the wooden planks of the groynes and on top of the main support posts nearly a metre above the sand.

Despite all this, the Warren itself is intact and ready for the bloom of spring flowers. The scale of the damage to the new sea defences was shocking and a salutary reminder of the power of the sea, but at least the defences did hold.  Elsewhere in south Devon, the coast road linking Torcross and Slapton was almost completely washed away.  As in 2014, when the Dawlish railway line was destroyed, this year’s damage was the result of a combination of high winds and very high tides, perhaps combined with increased sea level.

As we waited at the station for our homeward train, I noticed willow trees by the platform with many plump, pussy willow catkins.  A medium sized buff-tailed bumblebee arrived to collect pollen from the lemon-yellow male flowers.

We visited Dawlish Warren on March 6th 2018

Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach
Sand heaped on the retaining wall and debris piled on the beach at Dawlish Warren

 

Debris on Dawlish Warren Beach close up
Some plastic debris on Dawlish Warren Beach

 

Plastic pellets Dawlish Warren
A selection of plastic pellets found on Dawlish Warren Beach. If you enlarge this picture and look around you will see several clear plastic nurdles, several yellow ones and many cylindrical pellets (grey, pale blue and white). Also a few biobeads noted for the fine ridges around the outside. The larger plastic balls are not nurdles or biobeads.

 

Brent Geese take flight at Dawlish Warren
Brent Geese take flight above the inner bay at Dawlish Warren (photo by Hazel Strange)

 

 

Dead lapwings at Dawlish Warren
Several dead lapwings
Damaged sand cliffs at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences

 

Debris on groyne post at Dawlish Warren
Debris on top of groyne post

 

Dune fences destroyed at Dawlish Warren
Damaged dune cliffs and fences

 

Brunel’s Ambitious Experiment

 

Dawlish January
The coastal railway line near Dawlish

 

For many people the railway journey west from Exeter towards Plymouth and Cornwall is one of the most beautiful in the UK. After leaving the city of Exeter and its Cathedral, the train speeds southwards keeping the river Exe on its left side with ever changing views of the estuary, its boats and the birds feeding on the mudflats. Near the river’s mouth the train turns west, now hugging the coast and its rust-red cliffs. Sometimes the tracks seem perilously close to the beach, sometimes they thread through tunnels punched in the red sandstone by Victorian engineers. On a good day there are fine views of the beach, the sun-sparkling sea and the coastal towns such as Dawlish. On a stormy high-tide day, I have seen fellow passengers drenched having opened a window just as a wave hits the sea wall.

This February, a succession of severe storms hit the south and south west of the UK causing significant damage and disruption. Part of this included the destruction of this railway line at Dawlish where the sea wall was breached and the tracks were left hanging in the air. Devon and Cornwall were no longer accessible by rail and this significantly affected the local economy and way of life.

Network Rail responded with a huge and sustained engineering effort to rebuild the line which opens again today, Friday April 4th. They have certainly pulled out all the stops and are to be congratulated on their achievement. To mark the reopening, I wrote a piece about the Atmospheric Railway, an an ambitious experiment in railway technology performed at and around Dawlish more than 150 years ago by the great Victorian engineer Isambard Kingdom Brunel.

The photo was taken by Hazel Strange

For global warming please read global weirding – how climate change is affecting our lives

Here is an article I wrote for the April edition of the Marshwood Vale Magazine.

South Devon Railway sea wall breach February 2014
Storm damage at Dawlish in South Devon where the sea wall and railway line were destroyed

This winter, the UK experienced an exceptional series of storms. Heavy rain combined with strong winds and high waves lead to widespread coastal flooding and coastal damage. There was significant disruption to individuals, businesses and infrastructure and many parts of the country were affected. Transport was badly hit including the destruction of the main railway line into the south west at Dawlish.

This was indeed extreme weather and we now know that in England and Wales this was the wettest winter for almost 250 years. We are not alone, however, in experiencing extreme weather. The eastern side of the US and Canada was unusually cold this winter whereas California suffered a severe drought. Australia and Argentina experienced exceptionally high temperatures whereas Brazil received record rainfall.

The extreme weather has had the interesting effect of finally making politicians speak up about climate change. Here is what David Cameron said recently: “I believe man-made climate change is one of the most serious threats that this country and this world faces.” John Kerry went a step further, placing climate change alongside disease, terrorism, poverty and weapons of mass destruction as global threats.

But before we get carried away by band-wagon jumping politicians, let’s think about what is really going on. What we have been experiencing recently in the UK is extreme weather. Climate change, however, refers to long term changes in weather patterns. The UK weather is notoriously unpredictable so is there really any evidence for changes in weather patterns that would indicate a change in our climate?

A study of UK weather over the last 140 years found evidence for an increase in the intensity of winter storms hitting the southern part of the country. Instances of heavy rain have also increased in frequency, consistent with a warming planet where a warmer atmosphere holds more moisture. Additionally, global warming has caused sea levels to rise by about 12 cm during the 20th century exacerbating the effects of storms at the coast. The climate in the UK is indeed changing and the recent extreme weather is part of this.

If the climate is changing then we come to the biggest and the most contentious question: why is it changing? Here we need to look at a bit of climate science. The earth is warmed by energy from the sun and as the planet heats up it radiates heat outwards. Some of this heat is retained by so-called greenhouse gases, for example water vapour, carbon dioxide, methane in the earth’s atmosphere. As a result the temperature of the earth is maintained at a level compatible with human life. This is the way it had been for many thousands of years, in fact until the industrial revolution. Since the industrial revolution, however, humans have been increasing carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere, principally in two ways: by burning fossil fuels (those laid down many years ago from decaying plants and animals) and by cutting down forests (reducing carbon dioxide removal by trees). Increased levels of carbon dioxide mean greater heat retention and the earth’s surface temperature is now nearly one degree centigrade warmer. This may not seem very much but there is also a huge reservoir of heat accumulating in the oceans. Taken together these are the processes described as global warming.

It doesn’t stop there: increased warming leads to disturbances in weather patterns. Higher sea temperatures cause melting of ice so that sea levels rise and the effects of storm surges are greater. Reduction in the size and thickness of the Arctic ice cap is also thought by some to lead to changing weather patterns in Europe. Warmer oceans mean that when storms and hurricanes occur they are stronger. A warmer atmosphere holds more moisture so that when a storm arises the rainfall is more intense. An example of these effects is provided by Typhoon Haiyan which killed at least 6000 people in the Philippines in 2013. Haiyan was the strongest tropical cyclone ever to make landfall anywhere in the world and was fuelled by warm water in the Pacific. Weather patterns are shifting and rather than talking about global warming we could speak of global weirding; in the end, however, it all comes down to climate change.

The implications of these observations for human life have led to intense debate about how much of the change in climate can be attributed to human activity. Among climate scientists, there is a strong consensus that climate change is a result of human activity (burning fossil fuels and deforestation). Last year a report from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change recognised the shift in patterns of extreme weather since 1950 and concluded that most of the rise in global temperature since the mid 20th century was due to human activity. They also warned that without substantial and sustained reductions in greenhouse gases, there will be further warming and damaging climate change.

The message could hardly be clearer. Human activity is causing climate change. The sort of extreme weather we have experienced lately will recur. Things can only get worse if we sit on our hands and do nothing as we have been doing so far.

We, therefore, need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and this means leaving fossil fuels in the ground rather than burning them. We urgently need a second industrial revolution that embraces and implements low carbon technologies. Governments must stimulate investment in these technologies and politicians must show vision and leadership.

Since I wrote this article, the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has issued a new report showing that climate change is already affecting life in many parts of the world and may threaten food supplies in the future.