Tandridge Past: the rise of the River Bourne

This year has been notable for seeing the impacts of climate change, and parts of England had one of their wettest summers since records began in 1836. This month, the museum is looking at what has been one of the causes of flooding in the local area for many years, the rise of the River Bourne.

The Bourne at Caterham is one of three subterranean rivers that flow into the Croydon Bourne and then into the Wandle. The river generally appears above ground after excessive rainfall and often in winter, when the water table in the chalk rises above the valley floor. In full flow, the Caterham Bourne may form a continuous even-mile stream from Chelsham, near Woldingham, through Whyteleafe, Purley and on to Wandle Park in Croydon.

Historically, the Bourne was thought to rise every seven years; its rise being taken to be a portent of doom. Camden’s Britannia (1586) states: ‘When Croydone Bourn doth upwards ryse, disaster dyre before us lyse’. In earlier times, the impact on low lying rural areas would have spelt devastation for some. Writer Daniel Defoe recorded how some Surrey residents associated the rise of the Bourne with famine. In more recent times, with development of shops and businesses along the route, flooding can have disastrous effects on trade as well as damage to stock and premises. However, in recent years the Bourne has risen less often: extra drains, reservoirs and culverts lessening its impact. Nonetheless, when nature takes over any weaknesses in defence becomes a tipping point. Significant floods from the Bourne have occurred in 1903-04, 1968-69, 1974-75, and 2000/01, when this photo was taken in Godstone Road, Whyteleafe (reproduced courtesy of the Bourne Society).

Significant floods also occurred in 2013-14, when winter storms swelled across the Atlantic, bringing excess rainfall which led to the Bourne emerging again and overflowing drainage capacity. Woldingham Golf Course, Whyteleafe and Stafford Road in Caterham were all affected. The A22 and Woldingham Road were closed for several weeks and 65 incidents of internal flooding were recorded in the Caterham Bourne area. This particular incident led to greater local cooperation between the affected local authorities, and a bid for almost £5m of funding for additional drainage and defences was submitted. 

Further work by Tandridge District Council, working with the Environment Agency, was undertaken in 2020. So far this has proved successful, and hopefully the Bourne will not reappear this winter.

We would like to wish all our readers a very merry Christmas, and a happy New Year: the museum is fully decorated for Christmas so pop in and see us if you can.

FInd out more about the museum, and read previous Tandridge Past columns here.

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