growing food in a changing climate: an allotment view

Pevensey Bay is a low-lying coastal community in East Sussex, next-door to the large resort town of Eastbourne. The shingle bank along Pevensey Bay’s seafront provides protection from the strong storm surges that often come its way, especially in winter. But the village also experiences flooding inland, as several drainage channels run through it, helping to drain the large water catchment area known as the Pevensey Levels, a freshwater wetland renowned for its wildlife. Because the village is more or less at the level of the high-water mark, the water in the drainage channels can sometimes only be released out to sea when the ebb tide falls below the level of the water in those channels, which can be very full in periods of intense rainfall, periods which will become ever more frequent and intense as anthropogenic climate change accelerates. This can lead to the channels overflowing their banks at times.

flooding in winter of 2023-24

To explore this phenomenon further, following on from my previous investigation on climate change impacts on local food growing, in collaboration with the Eastbourne Food Partnership, I paid a visit in June 2024 to some allotments at Pevensey Bay owned by Pevensey Parish Council, situated off Waverley Gardens. These allotments are next to the Salt Haven, one of the main drainage channels running through the village, and therefore had a history of flooding incidents. From my conversations with some of the allotment holders on site, it was clear that many of the allotments there are flooded at least once every year, but that the winter of 2023-24 was the worst in living memory for flooding, as there were about 4 or 5 very severe flooding incidents. Not all the site gets flooded, as about half the allotments are on higher ground as much of the site slopes gently upwards from the Salt Haven. But all those allotments that back directly onto the haven do flood every year.

fruit trees next to Salt Haven

The main impact of the flooding is that growing vegetables is pretty much impossible in winter on the areas that do flood, but it was noticeable that there were many large, mature fruit trees and bushes on the areas that experienced flooding every year, and that they seemed to be flourishing, with plenty of fruit developing on them, which seemed to indicate a high degree of tolerance to the flooding than if vegetables were planted, perhaps indicating how the allotment holders had adapted to such flooding by earmarking those areas just for fruit growing. Certainly the allotment holders I spoke to were phlegmatic about the flooding situation, accepted that only fruit trees were capable of surviving the flooding and just planned most of their vegetable growing higher up on the slope above the flooding level. But they reported that because there had been so much rain over the previous winter, the whole site was so waterlogged that most vegetable planting had to be significantly delayed until May, shortening the growing season quite considerably. The difficulties for growers on the site is reflected in the fact that the rental charges for the allotments are much lower than on other allotments in the area, especially in Eastbourne. However, it was clear from my site visit that, once planting had finally got under way, the productivity of the site appeared to be high, with most allotment plots demonstrating a healthy abundance and growth of crops.

pipe outlet that exacerbates allotment flooding

One allotment holder was keen to show me a drainage pipe outlet that was below the haven bank as it apparently aids the flooding of the site by allowing the water to flow easily onto the site well before the haven breaks it banks, leading to a much more rapid and more frequent flooding of the site than perhaps should be the case. It appears that there is no tide flap (or the tide flap is damaged or malfunctioning) on the haven side of the pipe to shut off the flow when the water level in the haven rises above the level of the pipe. I heard that there are probably several other similar pipes on site within the bank undergrowth with the same or similar issues, which has been raised by some allotment holders with the local Environment Agency staff to no avail apparently.

view of Salt Haven from allotments bank
view of Salt Haven from allotments bank

It does raise the possibility of whether a survey could be done at some point (perhaps by the Blue Heart Project  or an organisation funded by it?) to investigate what kind of pipe drainage does actually exist along the Salt Haven and how it affects water levels both within the haven and beyond its banks. Such a survey would presumably involve extensive clearing of the undergrowth along the bank to check where the pipes are and what condition they are in. But it would perhaps generate valuable data about how the haven actually functions in a critical stretch of it before it reaches the sea, and also create more accurate data about how fluvial flooding impacts Pevensey Bay generally, as many of the gardens elsewhere in the village also experience flooding from the drainage channels.