This article by Harry Mottram was written in 2014 but has been slightly updated
It was a Sunday before Christmas when the winds howled and the waves began to crash against Burnham’s crumbling seafront. Nobody expected what was to happen next, but the legacy of that day was to have a lasting effect on the town.
The floods of December 13, 1981 left Burnham looking like a disaster zone with the seafront devastated and numerous roads under water. A cold snap had seen heavy snow cover much of the country and bring freezing conditions from Normandy to Scotland. Then a sudden thaw as low pressure move in from the South West produced a perfect storm surge with the Bristol Channel whipped up by a strong wind and high tides saw the sea walls breached and the High Street and large areas of the town flooded.
On the day martial law was declared in Poland Burnham was to suffer perhaps the worst floods in a generation. The Highbridge resident and local historian Robert F Thomas and co-author of The Burnham Book with his late father Winston spoke to the Weekly News.
He spoke about the seafront in the days before millions of pounds were spent in shoring up the sea defences in the town. He said: “A chap called Jack was commissioned by dad to take photographs for the book he was writing. Jack had a photographer’s shop in the High Street in Burnham and he was a freelance working for the Evening Post for a time. He was succeeded by Malcolm Porter I think and there was a guy called Melbourne took some of the photograph for the book.”
He said the new seawall that returns the waves made a huge difference. “Before they had that it was a straight wall,” he recalled, “And I have driven along the seafront towards the church where the road tends to go down a bit and I’ve seen double-decker buses disappear in the spray. It was a night mare driving there in a storm.”
The photographs reveal the power of the sea when it struck the town that winter. However it wasn’t the first time the seaside resort was hit by storms. Since it was settled during the late saxon era and Norman period the town has been hit by the vagaries of the elements. In 1607 a great storm or flood (some say Tsunami) drowned many and destroyed farms and villages in the area. In 1903 another massive storm damaged the growing seaside town.
Mr Thomas’ photographs reveal how bad the damage was – and how similar in their extent they were to the 1981 storm. The jetty was damaged, the promenade was undermined and properties along the front were hit by rocks and waves a worse. And of course flooding caused misery throughout the town centre. Hopefully the new seawalls will repel the elements for at least another generation or two, but since the town was founded, it has always been subject to the forces of nature.
The Book of Burnham-on-Sea: A Record of the Ebb and Flow of a Somerset Seaside Town by Winston Thomas and Bob Thomas is still available at all good book shops and online.
Do you remember the 1981 floods? Do you have photos of back in the day when Burnham was a very different town and had its own railway? We’d love to hear from you. Email firstname.lastname@example.org
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