Lewes and the UK’s deadliest avalanche!

Lewes

Cliffe Hill Lewes  –  Map: County Series 1:2500 1875

Lewes is the county town of the administrative county of East Sussex. With a population of just over 16,000 the town sits in a gap in the rolling South Downs, cut through by the River Ouse.

William Morris is quoted as having said “You can see Lewes lying like a box of toys under a great amphitheatre of chalk hills … on the whole it is set down better than any town I have seen in England.”

All the more surprising then that on 27 December 1836 it was the location for UK’s worst avalanche disaster.

South East of Lewes looms Cliffe Hill, rising to 164 metres above sea level. The hill has a steep sloping western edge which dominates the eastern view from the town. In 1836, a row of seven flimsily constructed workers’ cottages called Boulder Row (or Boulters Row) stood immediately at the foot of Cliffe Hill.

The winter of 1836–1837 was exceptionally severe across the whole of Great Britain, with heavy snow, gale force winds and freezing temperatures. Very heavy snowfall began over the South Downs, on 24 December 1836, and continued unabated over the Christmas period. Strong winds at the same time created blizzard conditions, with reports of snowdrifts over ten feet high in some areas of Lewes. The accumulation of snow at the top of Cliffe Hill, driven by a particularly severe gale on Christmas night, had formed a large overhanging edge of snow on the hill’s almost sheer western edge. The inhabitants of  the cottages below were warned that they could be at risk and were advised to leave their homes, but for reasons known only to themselves they chose to ignore the warning.

At 10.15 on the morning of Tuesday 27 December the ridge collapsed, producing an enormous avalanche directly onto Boulder Row. The Sussex Weekly Advertiser, reporting an eyewitnesses account, stated: “The mass appeared to strike the houses first at the base, heaving them upwards, and then breaking over them like a gigantic wave. There was nothing but a mound of pure white.” A rescue operation by townspeople succeeded in pulling seven survivors from the wreckage, but eight other individuals were found dead.

A public house called the Snowdrop Inn (named in commemoration of the incident) was built on the site once occupied by Boulder Row, and still trades under the same name to this day.

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