Langstone Millpond – The urgent need to balance habitat, heritage and amenity
Why you should read this
Do you take your children or grandchildren to the millpond at Langstone to feed the ducks, or enjoy a walk or a cycle ride down the Billy Track to Hayling, perhaps stopping off at The Royal Oak or The Ship on the way? Well, without urgent action by the relevant authorities, the path will be gone and the millpond abandoned to become a tidal swamp, changing the shoreline forever and destroying this unique environment.
We cover the essential detail below so please read the rest of this post to understand the background and the current state. If you share our concerns, then please write to your MP, lobby your Councillors, sign the petition and get involved with the campaign to save this much-loved part of our local heritage.
It is, without question, the most sketched, painted and photographed corner of the borough of Havant. The Royal Oak and Langstone Mill have been significant local sites for the past three hundred years and, thanks to the many overseas staff who worked in the borough during Havant’s manufacturing heyday, framed memories of this scene can be found in homes around the world.
The term Langstone Mill is probably seen by many as a singular reference to the old black structure of the windmill. Less obvious is that Langstone is possibly unique with its combination of both a windmill and a tide mill on the same site.
Built around 1800, the tide mill operated two ten foot wheels, one set higher than the other to make full use of the stream feed and the tide, which was kept back behind tide gates. The more distinctive black windmill is an earlier structure, dating from 1720 – 1740. The Historic England listing record describes “a close group of three parts, comprising a water mill (tide mill) and a mill store (now a dwelling) attached to a windmill (part of the dwelling). Early 19th century. The water mill is built across a creek and is associated with a sea-wall with sluices.”
Tucked away behind the mill is the millpond, a destination well known to bird watchers, local families and the many passing hikers on the England Coast Path. It is a peaceful and beautiful haven which in recent years has become home to the largest colony of little egrets on the south coast of England, which have recently been joined by nesting pairs of cattle egrets.
The structure of the dam
The millpond is contained by a simple earthen dam which also forms the foundation of the walk Havant residents have enjoyed for the past couple of hundred years. On the pond side, a clay coating prevents the pond water from permeating the dam while on the seaward side the Victorian brick structure protects the earth dam from erosion by high-tide wave action.
The integrity of the whole depends on each of those components since failure on either side will significantly weaken the structure. The pressure of water behind the dam would ensure that any uncontrolled breach would be rapid and dramatic.
Why should you be concerned?
Look behind the tranquillity of the scene and all is not well. The Victorian sea wall which serves as the boundary between the chalk-stream fed millpond and the shore of Chichester Harbour is now in a precarious state as these image from 3 May 2023 demonstratew.
The increasing intensity of seasonal storms and the inevitability of the rising sea-level leaves the sea wall between the mill and the bottom of Wade Lane at risk of collapse. Only last year, a memorial bench placed as a testament to happier days had to be removed from the most immediately vulnerable section close to the bottom of Wade Lane. After years of wear and tear without a coordinated programme of maintenance, if the wall is now allowed to fail, then the damage to the currently stable environment of the millpond will be unrecoverable.
At the date of this article (early May 2023), the whole length of the wall fronting the millpond is in a serious state of disrepair. Without urgent action, the wall is likely to emulate the failure of the wall at Southmoor, a few hundred metres away to the west of Langstone bridge. T
The result of that breach can be seen in the RSPB drone image below, taken at high water in October 2022, just two years after the breach occurred.
Aerial view of the Southmoor site, 11 October 2022 (RSPB)
The poor condition of the Southmoor wall had been recognised well in advance of the breach and the Environment Agency had developed plans for its ‘managed realignment’ in 2017. In the design of that project, the breach would have been located at the weakest point on the wall to create a new coastal wetland. This was the point at which the tide eventually broke though during storms in October 2021. The deliberate ‘managed’ realignment had not been progressed due to concerns about the underground utility services to Hayling Island that run across the site but within the space of four winters, nature had taken its course. (For further information, see the ABPMer ‘OMReg’ website.)
Taking a positive view, the new Southmoor lagoon will in time mature into a new biodiverse wetland which should also add value to the local amenity. The path is yet to be re-established, the current coastal walk is only possible via the road. The ‘unmanaged realignment’ at Southmoor has created a new tidal lagoon at Southmoor will provide a net positive environmental benefit. In contrast, the adoption by default of an ‘unmanaged realignment’ approach for the Langstone millpond will destroy an existing established environmental asset; leaving it to fail will leave a mess which will take many years to stabilise. If the wall is left to breach, 15,000 tons of water and silt will be spilled rapidly into the Chichester Harbour SSSI, leaving behind a tidal environment in which the level of the former pond pond would drop by well over a metre at each low tide.
Faced with conflicting priorities for already inadequate funding , the local authorities are content to play a waiting game in the hope that the forces of nature will eventually take the issue off the immediate agenda as they did with Southmoor. To defend their positions, the various national and international environmental and ecological designations are being played like cards in a game of Top Trumps. The local authorities, Havant Borough Council and Hampshire County Council, seem more concerned with bowing to national directions rather than sticking up for their own locally designated environments. HCC and HBC currently appear to accept that national designations at the Chichester Harbour level should trump local designations such as the millpond and the paddock, a position which is overly simplistic and not supported by local residents. Stuck in the middle, while some at very local levels might disagree, Coastal Partners are doing a solid job of ensuring that the right coastal engineering solutions are being delivered for the areas given the priority for funding. With so much of the Solent shoreline at risk from sea level rise, sacrifices will inevitably have to be made and that’s where HBC need to step up, with the support of the borough’s MP, to fight the case for the millpond. That fight will only be won when the heritage and amenity cards are played in support of local habitat.
A recent Chichester Harbour Conservancy ecology report notes that the pond and woodland has designated Langstone millpond as a Site of Importance for Nature Conservation (SINC) while some of the woodland to the north, Wade Court Park, is a separate SINC. Three components of the site are listed under the Natural England ‘priority habitat inventory‘, the woodland as ‘deciduous woodland’, part of the reedbed area as ‘reedbed’, and the entire paddock as ‘floodplain and coastal grazing marsh’.
The site lies immediately adjacent to the Chichester Harbour Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI), Chichester and Langstone Harbour Special Protection Area (SPA) /Ramsar and Solent Maritime Special Area for Conservation (SAC).
The current millpond is a 2.9 acre natural reserve for wildlife. The sea wall fronts a dam with the footpath set on top of an earth bank backed by a clay membrane retaining the pond water. Its unique feature is that its waters occasionally become saline when some combination of Spring tides, low pressure, and south-easterly storms cause the dam wall to be overtopped. The pond is subsequently refreshed with fresh water from the Lymbourne Stream making this a large and highly unusual intertidal habitat. Usually such intertidal habitats are found on the fringes of estuaries and drain on every tide whereas the sea wall at Langstone millpond permanently retains the pond water, occasionally becoming saline but regularly refreshed by the incoming, chalk-fed spring water from the Lymbourne Stream. This unusual phenomenon provides a habitat which is rare in the UK. Its size and seclusion make it an attractive nursery for a wide range of bird species, and yet this public amenity is also readily accessible, free of charge, to local people.
The inclusion of the millpond and paddock in HBC’s Langstone Conservation Area, recognises the importance of the mills, the millpond, the dam and sea wall as an integral part of this important heritage site.
Ownership and responsibility
The sea wall is not registered as the property of the owners of the mill, nor is it an asset registered to the Chichester Harbour Conservancy, whose responsibility includes the intertidal zone in front of it.
Extract from the Land Registry title plan showing the boundary of the mill
Since there are no homes at risk of flooding behind the sea wall, the Environment Agency and Natural England, both non-departmental public bodies sponsored by Defra, have neither responsibility nor legal obligation for the maintenance. Significantly, they also deny any justification for the use of ‘Flood Defence Grant in Aid’ funds for this purpose. It is that aid program which is underwriting the massive sea defence work seen around Portsea Island.
Hampshire County Council is responsible for the management of the public’s right to access and use of the public footpath, but has no legal responsibility for maintenance of the sea wall.
A Langstone Flood and Coastal Erosion Risk Management (FCERM) Scheme is currently being developed by Coastal Partners to reduce the flood and erosion risk to the community, important heritage assets and the A3023, the single road access to/from Hayling Island. Following extensive option, environmental and economic appraisal, replacement of the defences fronting the millpond were deemed not financially viable and therefore are not part of the proposed scheme at Langstone.
Havant Borough Council has permissive powers under the Coast Protection Act 1949 to undertake “any coast protection work, whether within or outside their area, which appears to the authority to be necessary or expedient for the protection of any land in their area.” It appears that the current approach by HBC and HCC is to cover only land on which home or business properties are at risk, ignoring the obvious potential for loss of heritage, amenity and locally designated habitat. The local authorities appear also to be suggesting that no central funding can be made available to protect against such a risk, whereas the same Act of Parliament appears to provide a loan mechanism with repayment over a twenty year period. Langstone Village Association have independently arrived at a costing of £400,000 ‘for a viable solution’. While we’re unable to verify any detail of that proposal, even doubling the figure to add contingency would result in loan repayments of around £40,000 per annum over a twenty year period. A small figure in comparison with the amount HBC spend on Regeneration every year .
The local authorities have seized on a blanket high-level argument by the Secretary of State responsible for Defra that “It is more likely than not that the opportunity to rollback would produce a healthier saltmarsh of more variable composition, which would enhance the quality of the protected sites”. That argument is undoubtedly true in the overall context of the 86 km shoreline of Chichester Harbour, where 25 km is already free to rollback, but it’s hardly a convincing argument for abandoning the 200 metre stretch of sea wall which protects the millpond and the paddock. An argument should be made that the unmanaged realignment at Southmoor has already added three times that length of coastline in mitigation.
The overriding fact is surely that the millpond is a fundamental part of the borough’s premier heritage and outdoor amenity asset – free of charge to all. It’s an asset which punches well above its weight to a world-wide audience. As a natural branch from the Billy Track and an integral section of the Wayfarer’s Walk, the sea wall forms part of a well-known and well-trodden coast path which the families of local residents and visitors have enjoyed for generations. Allowing the wall to fail will result in the failure of two ecologically interdependent SINCs; the pond and the paddock. Placing a recycled plastic boardwalk over the muddy wreckage is surely not the best solution that can be found for such a much-loved public amenity.
So where are we?
The opinion previously put forward by HBC representatives that the advice from ‘Natural England is clear’, effectively that ‘unmanaged retreat’ is the only viable option is, we believe, flawed.
In coastal management terminology, the main designations for stretches of coastline are ‘Hold the line’ (maintain the existing coastline), ‘Managed realignment’ (enable controlled rollback) and ‘No active intervention’, (do nothing). The North Solent Shoreline Management Plan (2010, last updated 2022) shows the millpond included within an ‘Important Heritage Site’ and designates the entire coastline between Wade Lane and Southmoor Lane (Policy ref. 5A18) is marked as ‘Hold the Line’, noting that “further detailed studies are required which consider whether ‘Managed Realignment’ may occur at Southmoor”.
The action needed
These are complex arguments to understand and in the light of a shortage of funds, there seems a lack of will on the part of the authorities to fight for a long term solution which will preserves the heritage, habitat and amenity in balance. We would encourage concerned residents to write to our member of parliament, Alan Mak MP, copying Cllr. Alex Rennie as the leader of Havant Borough Council and your local ward councillors, calling for a concerted effort to push back against the Secretary of State for Defra and argue the wider case for investment in a properly thought out solution.
If all else fails, then there are local precedents for community-driven sea defence work. You only need to look a little further round the same shoreline to see the work undertaken by the ‘Friends of Norebarn Woods’. The problem they needed to solve was rather more straightforward and the ownership of the land was not in dispute – it was Havant Borough Council! Times and scientific thinking have now moved forward and with a necessary focus on the effect of sea level rise on the entire coastline, any local ‘small scale’ project would need to take into account its relationship with the land and the shoreline on either side of it. Immediately east of Wade Lane, the England Coast Path follows the shore – already inaccessible at high water spring tides – and the only sea defence there is provided by a line of vertically-stacked railway sleepers recycled from the Hayling Billy line.
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May 14th Bob Complat Havant Civic Society
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