History of the Cuckmere

Balancing the forces of nature with the needs of a community is no new struggle. Today's landscape exists as a result of centuries of human change and maintenance.


The river naturally meandered across a wide floodplain. Flints deposited by water from melted glaciers formed a beach running across the mouth of the estuary.

Part of the river embankment had been built by this time, restricting any natural movement and choking it with silt (mud or small rocks). Slow flowing water and long-shore drift  (sand parallel to the coastline) caused the mouth to block and flood on both sides of the causeway. To avoid this, the mouth was regularly ploughed to clear away any shingle.

The causeway, which now carries the main coast road (A259), was built around this time as a defensive barrier and crossing point.


An artificial cut was made, diverting the main flow of the river. This left the meanders fixed in place but no longer a functioning part of the river. The reasons for this change could be anything from trying to:

  • reclaim the floodplain,
  • reduce flooding upstream, or
  • help boats to navigate the river.


The beach on the West side of the river mouth was much narrower. Slow flowing water still blocked the river mouth, so the area had to be artificially cleared to avoid flooding upstream.


By1911, maps show that the spit (land running into the sea) had disappeared and the water flowed from the river mouth into the middle of the estuary. This was worsened by the fact that shingle was being taken from the beach for construction work. A groyne (a structure to stop sand shifting along a beach) as well as a training wall (built parallel to the estuary to direct the flow) was built to hold the eroding west beach and river mouth in place. Blocking continued to be a problem.


There are still man-made earth embankments along the course of the river and the training walls at the mouth have been strengthened and extended. As the west beach is becoming increasingly difficult to hold in place, the Environment Agency (EA) removes shingle from the mouth and replaces it on the west beach twice a year.

There are increasing threats to the stability of the area due to:

  • continuing coastal change,
  • existing structures degrading,
  • sea levels rising at a greater rate than previously predicted, particularly on the South Coast,
  • economic pressure, and
  • EA being unable to maintain flood defences from April 2011.

The landscape of the Cuckmere will change over time, although no-one can predict exactly when or how.  East Sussex County Council wants to plan ahead now, so that we can manage change and ensure that the landscape of the Cuckmere can be fully enjoyed by future generations.