There’s not much left of the once thriving community at Tidemills, near Newhaven on the Sussex coast. A few crumbling walls, the old tidal millpond, traces of a railway. On a chilly winter’s day, when the wind whips in from the sea and waves pound the shingle beach like it’s done something wrong, it’s hard to imagine anyone ever living here.
But they did. And in its boom years, their village must have seemed as permanent to them as our towns and cities do to us. Then, at the end of the nineteenth century the redevelopment of the nearby port closed the tidal creek to barge traffic and the coming of the railways made it cheaper for farmers to send their grain to market than have it milled locally. The mill shut down; the settlement fell into decline and in the 1930s, after several houses were declared unfit for human habitation and demolished, it was dubbed “Britain’s most backward hamlet” by a national newspaper. It was finally cleared in 1940 as part of the country’s sea defence strategy and used for street fighting practice by Canadian soldiers stationed nearby.
A memento mori of brambles and broken bricks, Tidemills is a whispered reminder of how our own certainties are built on shifting sand. And while nothing lasts forever, I suspect the relevance of that message will endure for a very long time.