Case Study Site 1 – Highcliffe to Hengistbury Head, Dorset

Case Study Site 1 – Highcliffe to Hengistbury Head, Dorset

1.         Location

The study site extends from the Dorset - Hampshire border close to Highcliffe Castle westwards to include the Christchurch harbour frontage and Hengistbury Head; a total distance of 8km.

2.         Why was the Case Study Site selected?

This site was chosen because it includes the soft cliff frontages at Highcliffe and Hengistbury Head that have been susceptible to coastal erosion, together with potential flooding issues within Christchurch Harbour. Over the last two centuries the study site has illustrated the impacts of coastal change on heritage assets, including the former Old High Cliff House, and Hengistbury Head, which was a defended site during the Iron Age. 

3.         Summary of the Geology, Geomorphology & Coastal Processes

The geology of this frontage comprises silts, sands and shelly clays of the Solent Group, Bracklesham and Barton Groups of the Eocene and Oligocene epochs. Historical accounts suggest maximum erosion rates of up to six metres a year after severe storms, although the average rate of cliff retreat over the last century prior to the construction of coastal defences averaged one metre per annum. 

The direction of sediment transport in Christchurch Bay is from west to east with cliff and coastal slope erosion contributing to the sediment inputs.  Sediments are also driven onshore by waves from Christchurch Bay both to the south of Hengistbury Head and to the east of Christchurch Harbour (New Forest DC & Halcrow, 20132). 

4.         Risks to Heritage Assets along the Case Study Frontage

Working from east to west, coastal erosion has proved to be a significant risk to heritage in the past.  The former Old High Cliff House was constructed by the third Earl of Bute from 1775; Lancelot ‘Capability’ Brown landscaped the grounds (Stevenson, 20161). 

Figures 1.1 and 1.2 overleaf show views of the old house from the sea and from the east, whilst Figure 1.3 shows the grand north façade. A pair of elegant circular temples and a gazebo adorned the cliff edge. (See Figures 1.4 and 1.5). The unstable nature of the cliff can be observed in Figure 1.5 and rapid coastal erosion led to the loss of the temples and necessitated the demolition of the property from 1813.

The new Highcliffe Castle (Figure 1.6), a Grade I Listed Building, was constructed by Baron Stuart de Rothsay from 1830, and was set back much further from the cliff edge. The relative positions of Old High Cliff House and Highcliffe Castle are plotted on the 1980 Ordnance Survey map and indicate the extent of erosion at that time (Figure 1.7).

The frontage is now protected through cliff drainage works, together with rock groynes and beach replenishment (Figure 1.8). 

Figure 1.1: ‘High Cliff from the Sea’ by Adam Callader.  Oil on Canvas. 1783. This view shows the proximity of the mansion to the unstable cliffline.  By 1813 the property had to be demolished. 

Image Courtesy of V. & A. Images.

Figure 1.2: ‘High Cliff from the East’ by Charles Stewart.  Oil on Canvas. 1783. The view shows the relationship between the house and the cliff.  Christchurch Priory and Hengistbury Head can be seen in the distance. 

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 1.3:‘High Cliff’ showing the north façade by Charles Stewart. Oil on Canvas. 1783.

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 1.4: ‘High Cliff Mansion’ after its wings had been removed to make the residence a more manageable size.  Brown wash watercolour by Elizabeth Fanshawe. 1811. The pair of temples or gazebos may have been lost as a result of coastal erosion and instability. 

Image Courtesy: Ian Stevenson Collection.

Figure 1.5: ‘Capability’ Brown’s early Beach Hut’ on the cliffs below High Cliff Mansion.  Workers can be seen repairing the slope and path down the obviously unstable cliff.

Image Courtesy: Ian Stevenson Collection.

Figure 1.6: ‘Highcliffe Castle’ today.  The Grade I Listed Building is set well back from the cliff.  The Castle represents an early example of adaptation to a rapidly changing coastline.

Figure 1.7: A map showing the relative positions of old High Cliff House and Highcliffe Castle plotted on the 1908 Ordnance Survey Map.  The extent of land loss up to 1908 is clearly visible bearing in mind the old house was constructed perhaps 100-150 metres back from the cliff. 

Map OS Crown Copyright.

Image Courtesy: Frank Tyhurst

Figure 1.8: Highcliffe beach today.  The rock breakwaters, beach replenishment and cliff works help to protect the frontage.  The frontage has a ‘Hold the Line’ coastal protection policy for the next Century.

Image courtesy of J. Salmon Ltd of Sevenoaks.

On the northern side of Christchurch Harbour lies the medieval town of Christchurch, which contains a designated Conservation Area with numerous Listed buildings (including five Grade I), and ancient monuments.  One of these, Christchurch Priory, is located between the northern bank of the River Stour and the western bank of the River Avon.  The area is partially defended by floodwalls, which offer some protection to the Priory Quay frontage. However, the walls have been classified by the Environment Agency as non-flood defence structures and consideration is being given to improving the flood defences in the area (New Forest District Council, 20132). The picturesque Priory was a subject chosen by many artists from William Daniell RA (Daniell & Ayton, 1814-18253) who painted it in 1825 (Figure 1.9) to the painter in oils, Sidney Pike in 1896 (see Figure 1.10). Later the prolific watercolourists and colour postcard artists Alfred Robert Quinton and Henry Wimbush painted the Priory in its waterside setting (Figures 1.11 and 1.12; Figure 1.13). The artist David Addey (Addey, 20024), whilst retracing William Daniell’s journey round the British coast, painted a watercolour of the same view in 2002 (Figure 1.14).

Figure 1.9:Christchurch’ by William Daniell RA.  A hand-coloured aquatint engraving from his ‘Voyage Round Great Britain’ (1825).  Daniell was a fine, accurate draughtsman as well as a topographical artist.  See also David Addey’s view from the same location in 2002 (Figure 1.14 below).

Image Courtesy: Private Collection.

Figure 1.10: ‘Christchurch Priory’.  An evening scene in oils by Sidney Pike painted in 1896.

Image reproduced with kind permission of the Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery, Bournemouth.

Figure 1.11: ‘Christchurch Priory’ by the prolific watercolourist and colour picture postcard artist, Alfred Robert Quinton (c.1920). Quinton’s work is generally very accurate and his output of over 4,000 British coastal views, like Daniell a century before, provide a virtual ‘state of the coast’ report for the time.

Image Courtesy: J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 1.12: A further fine watercolour of ‘Christchurch Priory’ by A. R. Quinton (c.1920). Water levels in these two views can be noted for comparison over time.

Image Courtesy: J. Salmon Limited of Sevenoaks.

Figure 1.13: ‘Christchurch Priory’ by Henry B. Wimbush (c.1910) who was a postcard and book illustrator who worked for Raphael Tuck (postcards) and A. & C. Black (publishers).  The condition of the Priory buildings and their proximity to the water’s edge is shown very clearly. 

Figure 1.14: ‘Christchurch Priory’ by David Addey; a watercolour painted in 2002 replicating Daniell’s view.  The Priory and adjacent buildings are now largely obscured by trees although the eleventh century Place Mill, on the right, is still visible. 

Image Courtesy of David Addey.

Hengistbury Head runs eastwards from Bournemouth for a distance of approximately 3km, and protects Christchurch Harbour from the prevailing south-westerly storm waves.  The location is particularly well-known for the ‘Double Dykes’ which are at the seaward end of the Head.  During the Iron Age the headland was defended by this parallel pair of dykes that ran from the sea to the south across Hengistbury Head to Christchurch Harbour to the north. The site is a Scheduled Ancient Monument and the frontage is defended by a substantial beach along the south side, which is controlled by rock groynes. The Long Groyne, and the seventeen associated groynes sited due north of it at Hengistbury Head, fulfil a key coast protection function.  Because of the nature of this landscape it was not chosen by many artists as a subject in the past and there are very few historical artworks. A view from Hengistbury Head towards High Cliff was painted in watercolour by Nicholas Pocock in the nineteenth century (Figure 1.15), and, later, in the mid-nineteenth century an oil was painted by A. L. Baldry looking along Hengistbury Head towards Mudeford, which shows the ‘Double Dykes’ in 1890 (see Figure 1.16).

Figure 1.15: ‘Christchurch and Old High Cliff House’ viewed from Hengistbury Head.  A watercolour by Nicholas Pocock (1740-1821). This general view was probably a sketch for a future studio work – possibly for High Cliff House.

Image Courtesy: The Red House Museum, Christchurch.

Figure 1.16: ‘Mudeford from Hengistbury Head’. An oil on Canvas painted in 1890 by A. L. Baldry.  The ‘Double Dykes’ are visible in the middle of the painting.  There are few artworks of Hengistbury Head perhaps because the location was not seen as sufficiently ‘Picturesque’ by visiting artists. 

Image by kind permission of the Russell Cotes Museum and Art Gallery, Bournemouth.

5.         How can historical Imagery inform heritage risk management?

In the case of the Highcliffe frontage, the impacts of erosion led to the loss of High Cliff House and an apparent lack of awareness of the rate of coastal retreat at that time. The images, however, provide a wealth of information on the property, architectural detail and the nature of coastal change. Historic evidence suggests that erosion rates of in excess of 1m per annum are likely to be experienced if defences are not maintained, and this rate would be likely to increase as a result of more changeable weather patterns and rising sea levels brought about by climate change. 

In the case of Christchurch Priory, the watercolour drawings by Alfred Robert Quinton and others of the Priory adjacent to the river and water meadows suggest a vulnerability to flooding at this location, although it is understood that the Priory site has not flooded in the past. Flood risk is likely to be addressed further in the face of climate change and sea level rise over the next century. 

The number of engravings or artworks of Hengistbury Head appears to be very limited. Perhaps the landscape was not deemed to be sufficiently ‘Picturesque’ to merit attention. Of those artworks that exist, the main focus is of general topography and the heritage interest in terms of the ‘Double Dykes’ is illustrated perhaps as part of the topography rather than a heritage feature.  

6.         Key Issues – What can be learnt from this site?

This study site clearly illustrates risks to heritage from erosional processes as witnessed by the cliff retreat at Highcliffe, and highlights an apparent vulnerability to flooding at Christchurch Priory (see Figure 1.17).  It emphasises the vital role played by coast protection structures and flood defence measures in terms of protecting such coastal heritage assets. Likewise, at Hengistbury Head, the site is protected by significant coastal defences supported by a substantial beach accretion. Whilst artworks can support understanding of past conditions at Highcliffe and Christchurch Quay the heritage interest at Hengistbury Head will be illustrated most effectively through aerial photography.  

Figure 1.17: A view of Christchurch Priory showing the waterside location.  Consideration is being given to upgrading flood defences in the vicinity.

Image Courtesy of Jinny Goodman/Alarmy.

7.         References

1.         Stevenson, I., 2016. ‘Highcliffe Castle Guide Book’. Christchurch Borough Council. 32pps.

2.         New Forest District Council and Halcrow Group, 2013. ‘Christchurch Bay and Harbour Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management Strategy’. Report for Christchurch Bay and Harbour Strategy Group.

3.         Daniell, W. & Ayton, R., 1814-1825. ‘A Voyage Round Great Britain’. Longman & Co.

4.         Addey, D., 1995. ‘A Voyage Round Great Britain in the Footsteps of William Daniell RA (1769-1837)’. Spellmount Limited. ISBN: 9 781873 376348.