National Character Area 124

Pevensey Levels - Description

The Pevensey Levels today

Pevensey Levels is a low-lying, open landscape with few trees and wide views to surrounding high ground and the sea, giving the impression of remoteness. The area is largely reclaimed land with extensive grazed wet meadows actively maintained by purpose-built drainage systems and characteristic dykes. The present-day appearance of the Pevensey Levels is a product of centuries of measures to keep the sea at bay plus a combination of natural sediment, scrub clearance, depositional processes and extensive reclamation of the wetland for agricultural use.

The geology of the Pevensey Levels consists of sandstones and clays overlain by fairly impermeable marine silts and clay. The combination of the flat and low-lying nature of the topography and poor drainage of the soils can result in long periods of standing water on the surface, particularly in winter, encouraging associated flocks of birds to the wet fields. Extensive drainage and improvement for agriculture in the past has left a network of channels which provide botanical interest, public water supplies and wet fences for stock control, and act as flood storage reservoirs.

The wetland is internationally important for wildlife, with Ramsar and Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) designations covering 3,500 ha, 37 per cent of the NCA. The ditches support a wide variety of species, many of which are rare in the UK, including the fen raft spider. Some of Britain’s most spectacular waders and wildfowl winter here, making the most of the wet pasture.

A coastal shingle bank extends along the length of the southern boundary and acts as a sea defence, protecting homes and businesses, roads, railway links and the tranquil grazing marsh.

A windswept feel characterises this open, large-scale landscape of grazing marsh. Cattle and sheep graze the wet fields below the wide, open skies. Shelter on the marsh is sparse, as ditches mark out the irregular field boundaries. Hedges and fences are mainly found along roadsides and tracks but some small fields are also bounded by hedges, giving them a surprisingly enclosed and intimate feel within the open landscape. The area is devoid of significant tree cover.

Looking southwards towards the sea, the flat grazing marsh with its intersecting ditches tells a story of past reclamation which has been continuous since the 13th century. Fields reflect the piecemeal reclamation (or ‘inning’) of the area. It is known that some monastic institutions such as Battle Abbey were involved in this reclamation. The most irregular, mostly medieval, fields are concentrated to the north-east of the area. The relative permanence of the ditches and the continued pastoral use of much of the area mean that this landscape is a remarkable survival of a medieval field system in a lowland context.

As a flat, accessible area between lengths of cliff, the area has always been strategically important. Defences protecting the coast from invasion include Napoleonic structures such as the Martello towers, which remain prominent features along the coastline. More subtle are the relics of the salt making industry. Recorded in Domesday Book, these low mounds can be seen dotted around the marsh.

In the east, Willingdon Levels (also known as Eastbourne Levels and including smaller parcels of land historically known by local names such as Langney Levels), although similar in geology and landform, are heavily urbanised, which provides a contrast to the overall relative remoteness of the Pevensey Levels.

Eastbourne is the main settlement within this small NCA with its essentially Victorian seafront and later settlement further inland and along the coast to the east, including the Sovereign Harbour complex, constructed in the 1990s. There are a handful of villages scattered on pockets of higher ground but no nucleated settlements on the flat marsh, adding to the remoteness of the area. Where farmsteads are located, it is the flint or brick walls, weatherboarding or hung tiles which hint at the traditional buildings found here. Essentially, the marsh itself provides an area of tranquillity between the two bustling urban areas of Bexhill and Eastbourne.

Eastbourne Park is an urban park of grazed wetland in the centre of Eastbourne. Its primary role is flood storage, created as part of a flood compensation scheme in response to recent extensive, and ongoing, development. It has an essential role in mitigating the effects of flooding on the surrounding built environment but is also designed to provide high-quality accessible greenspace for residents and visitors and important habitats to benefit biodiversity.

The landscape through time

The bedrock underlying the Pevensey Levels was deposited during the Cretaceous, when the sands of the Hastings Group were laid down in a freshwater-brackish flood plain environment of braided rivers and channels and the Weald Clay was laid down in lagoons and tidal deltas. At the west of the NCA, overlaying these, younger marine Lower Greensand, Gault Clay and Upper Greensand deposits mark a deepening of the sea, and a phase of land subsidence led to the Chalk being deposited. All of these were faulted and folded when the Weald was formed during the Alpine mountain-building episode.

At the end of the last glaciations, about 10,000 years ago, rising sea levels flooded the lower reaches of the coastal river valley, creating a tidal estuary. The present Pevensey Levels were submerged and consisted of a wide, shallow bay backed by the rising ground of the High Weald. By the 1st century the wide bay was partly sheltered by storm beach shingle spits which gradually developed to allow vast quantities of marine and estuarine alluvium to be deposited behind. Palaeo-environmental work has shown that the Willingdon Levels developed as rising sea levels deposited sediment upon which peat formed as the sea level regressed in the Bronze Age.

These sediments give rise to the present-day loamy soils which, when drained, produce high-quality agricultural land. The Pevensey Levels gradually changed from salt marsh to reedy meadows, although much of the area was still under water as recently as 700 years ago. The area is mentioned in Domesday Book as being important for salt making. Remains of this industry are of considerable interest with high survival of sites in the form of low mounds, some possibly Roman in origin.

The present-day landscape is relatively young in geological and historical terms, much of it having been reclaimed over the past thousand years or so by a combination of natural processes and human intervention. In Roman times the Pevensey Levels were a broad, shallow bay punctuated by small clay islands founded on underlying Wealden beds which provided suitable dry sites for Roman settlements such as the Saxon Shore Fort at Pevensey. These were later protected by the development of shingle along the coast, affording natural protection. The origins of many modern-day settlements within the Pevensey Levels such as Northeye (which is also the site of a deserted medieval village) are reflected in the use of the suffix ‘eye’, Old English for island.

Older evidence of human occupation is mostly restricted to higher ground. However, excavations for Eastbourne Park in 1995 revealed remains of wooden trackways and platforms, suggesting a causewayed settlement pattern comparable to that of Flag Fen in Cambridgeshire. A number of important bronze- and iron-age artefacts were recovered from this site.5

There is evidence of pre-medieval settlement in Eastbourne itself with a significant Roman villa near the site of the present pier and a large number of Anglo-Saxon burials.

At the time of the Norman conquest much of the present NCA was under water, the tide having full access for several kilometres inland. Traditionally, William the Conqueror’s army landed at Pevensey, and St Mary’s at Westham claims to be the first Norman church built in England. The Normans certainly used and extended the Roman fort.

Pevensey Levels was a tidal inlet until the eastward drift of coastal shingle in the Middle Ages isolated it and a salt marsh developed. Drainage of the marsh by ‘innings’ (digging drainage ditches), largely undertaken by local religious institutions, allowed the development of summer grazing and, by the 13th century, some arable farming. Reclamation involved the construction of meandering drainage channels such as Mark Dyke and a 14th-century sea defence known as Crooked Ditch. For centuries, a pattern of summer grazing and winter flooding was maintained and wildlife associated with wet fields and ditches flourished. Pevensey was traditionally known for cattle, suggesting that drainage may not have been as successful as at nearby Romney Marsh, where sheep predominated.

As the threat from Napoleon’s France was realised, defensive measures were constructed between 1804 and 1810 along the coast in the form of Martello towers and a fortress at Eastbourne. The towers are now a distinctive feature of the coastal landscape.

Since the 1960s most of the marsh has been pump-drained and winter flooding is now restricted in area. The NCA remains important for wildlife, particularly invertebrates, but numbers of wildfowl have decreased owing, at least in part, to drying of the land.

Expansion of urban development on the fringes of the Levels has impinged on the open character of the landscape in some places, with associated pollution often damaging the fragile ecology of the area. New roads and improvement schemes form visual divisions in the landscape, along with new agricultural buildings and associated features. Power lines are particularly prominent. Eastbourne was transformed from a small town and collection of farms and hamlets into a busy seaside resort during the 19th century, particularly after the coming of the railway in 1849. It was heavily bombed during the Second World War, but development continued apace during the late 20th century with settlement extending north and east. A series of lakes at Shinewater, West Langney and Southbourne were created from the 1990s onwards to provide flood mitigation.

Sovereign Harbour, a large marina with retail facilities and a residential complex, was constructed on the beach area known as The Crumbles in the 1990s, with the marina becoming operational in 1993. By 2009 there were 3,600 homes with a population of around 6,800. There is pressure from expansion of the towns of Hailsham, Polegate, Eastbourne and Bexhill and large developments along the coastline, including further projects at Sovereign Harbour (Mid-year estimate 2010 – Sovereign Harbour Supplementary Planning Document, 2013).