Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Continuing a fine tradition

COASTAL damage during the storms prompts a couple of thoughts. What insight into the forces of nature, what skill in design and construction those builders of the Cobb had centuries ago! 

Its encircling arm hasn’t always stood firm to save Lyme from a battering, but it has protected the town pretty well over the years. Bruised by the latest onslaught, it did the job - we still have a harbour.

And how well their successors today continue that engineering excellence. Other cliffs, beaches and coastal towns have suffered severely; Lyme less so. The Marine Theatre, Buddle Bridge and Cobb Gate still stand, thanks to Phase I of the protection scheme. Phase II has again proved its worth, the shingle moved and reshaped but absorbing the sea’s destructive energy; the Cart Road and Marine Parade survive.

Even the work-in-progress on Phase IV escaped lightly. Contract supervisor Clive Evans is phlegmatic in describing how the haul road for machine access has to be re-made after storms. Work has been rescheduled due to landslipping above the east end of the seawall construction: “When the rain stops, we’ll be back in there.”

The photograph shows the new wall doing its job in high seas, throwing back the waves and minimising “over-topping” in exactly the way predicted by the wave tank modelling.   

Despite the weather, Phase IV will open to public access by the end of July, with work finished on constructing the seawall, creating ramps and steps for access, making a turning area (complete with decorative ammonite!) at the east end for emergency vehicles, and building the promenade with rear splash wall along the top. 

Draining and consolidating the land above, reinstating the allotments, and establishing the footpath from Charmouth Road car park with viewing area at the top, will have been completed. Only landscaping and planting will remain for the late summer.

It’s not just for protecting Lyme that the schemes since 1995 are so important. Together, they create a wonderful seaview walk between Charmouth Road Car Park and Monmouth Beach - potentially re-orientating the town to face confidently and proudly seawards, rather than having to turn a shoulder to huddle nervously inwards. The new walkway will be another front door to Lyme (will someone have the sense to signpost the Tourist Information centre from below Theatre Square for visitors approaching this way?).

Behind the big machines and cheerfully muddy people on site lies an equally impressive, if less obvious, brilliance. West Dorset District Council’s long-term advance planning phased the work meticulously. How many of us recall, for example, that the roadway below Theatre Square, above the sewage “cavern”, was built with sufficient strength to carry the heavy machinery now needed it for Phase IV almost 20 years later?  

Research and analysis of the physical forces at work on the town’s sea frontage, detailed design and planning, environmental constraints, the political and bureaucratic challenges of gathering in the funding before time ran out, public liaison, devising working methods that minimise disruption to the life of the town - all this and more is intellectually complex and technically demanding. 

We owe them a lot: the WDDC team led by Nick Browning, main contractors Dean & Dyball with project manager Chris Hill, Clive with supervising engineers Halcrow. These modest and earthy engineers with their charts and calculations, and the workforce with their strong machines and skillful hands, are worthy successors of the old Cobb builders. They well justify the opening of their Royal Charter: “The profession of a Civil Engineer, being the art of directing the great sources of power in Nature...”. They’ve certainly done some magnificent directing here.

I love engineers. They’re logical, methodical, businesslike and attentive to detail - for physical and material forces are unforgiving of sloppiness, and one small technical error in an engineering project can be catastrophic. There’s no ego and no waffle; they calmly analyse, plan, and do it. Yet they’re also imaginative and adaptable as circumstances change, and easy to work with. 

What a shame it is that, as a country, we tend in our public life not to promote the values and qualities of the engineer. How lucky we are that in Lyme they’ve done us proud. 
And now, on to Phase V - the Cobb, where it all began...

CHRIS Boothroyd is donating his fee for this monthly column to Amnesty International