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Digital Subscriptions > Family Tree > Family Tree October 2018 > Losing the land of our ancestors

Losing the land of our ancestors

The lands inhabited by our forebears were physically and environmentally very different places than they are today. Wayne Shepheard looks at the impact of Mother Nature on our landscape over time
Figure 1: Frontispiece from The Lost Towns of the Yorkshire Coast showing locations of lost towns offshore Holderness Peninsula, (Sheppard, 1912)

What happens to families when the land they have occupied, farmed or on which they have built other businesses – sometimes for generations – is taken away? I don’t mean through war or by political events, but as a result of natural phenomena.

Reports of the type and magnitude of changes and the consequences for people and communities can be found in local church, civil and manorial records, scientific assessments and studies, and newspapers and journals. Of significance to genealogists, many summaries will include the names of people caught up in the events.

Land can be lost through erosion along the margins of rivers and oceans, the outcome of which is permanent physical removal. Changes along the coastline of the British Isles, for example, are well-known to those who have studied its geography and geomorphology or even walked along parts of it for any distance.

A stunning example is the coastal area of East Yorkshire that has been undergoing attrition for several thousand years. Holderness Peninsula, in particular, is among the world’s fastest eroding regions. Studies of old documents and maps indicate that over 30 villages, along with more than 55,000 acres of surrounding farmland, have been lost to the sea since the time of the Roman occupation (Figure 1). Today the average rate of removal of land and infrastructure along the peninsula is proceeding at over five feet per year – comprising about two million tonnes of material! Where defensive measures have not been constructed to reduce destruction, the shoreline is being moved back at even higher rates. Estimates from the past indicate the shoreline in some localities was being shifted landward at rates close to 20 feet per year.

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