Palaeolithic 450,000 – 12,000 BC
The south coast was joined to what we call France today. 125,000 years ago, the high water mark was higher than it is today, and sand from the sea was left in the harbour area, which was part of the active shoreline. The climate cooled down, sea levels dropped and the tides grew stronger. The chalk (with flint seams) was covered with clay and soil washed from the Downs. In 13,000 BC lower sea levelsallowed Hunter-gatherers to cross the North Sea to Britain.

There were shingle beaches below chalk cliffs, possibly beside lagoons or mud-flats. As sea levels fell, grasslands began to form.

Animals present included red deer, roe deer, horse, boar, bear, wolf, elephant, rhinoceros, lion and hyena!


Mesolithic 12,000 – 4,000 BC
During this time the Glaciers melted and sea levels rose, cutting Britain off from the rest of Europe (about 8,000 BC). The lower areas of the harbour would have been flooded, but the water level would be about 140 metres lower than today and our harbour would have been 40kmfrom the sea. Inland there were streams and deep river valleys. There would have been grassland and sedge in the valleys, with lime oak, elm and hazel on the higher dry land.  Many areas of the harbour that are underwater today were dry in Mesolithic times. For instance, the valleys that now form the harbour channels were used as access routes to the coast, as well as for hunting and base camps.

Freshwater streams drained down the valley sides in an open grassy landscape. Later, pine forest took over the valley sides, the streams filled up with peat, and there were forest fires.
Towards the end of the Mesolithic period, sea water came into the harbour area, flooding the valleys. Lots of sediment was now filling up the valleys. Around Thorney Island 3 metres were deposited in 300 years.

There were deer, cattle, boar, horses, and fish in the streams.


Neolithic 4,000 – 2,000 BC
The harbour area was increasingly under water, the higher land becoming islands. The deep river valleys have silted up, leaving shallow, probably tidal, river valleys.  Storms may have led to much of the flooding of the valleys. Later in the Neolithic period, water levels reached near the top of the valleys and flooded across the edge of the flat areas. Woodland of oak, lime, hazel and elm shrank as the flooded areas grew. Neolithic people may have been clearing woodland for fields, for seasonal settlements and animal grazing. As sea levels began to stabilise, shingle barriers formed along the coast.

  bronze age   Bronze Age 2,000 – 600 BC
bronze age

The landscape of the harbour looked as it does today, a flooded landscape, with underwater channels and large mudflats between islands of low ground.The streams and rivers were probably tidal, with salt marsh along their edges fringed with alder carr and sedge fen. Drier land is likely to have been grassland, with oak, yew, alder and willow. Farmland and woodland would look similar to today.

  iron age   Iron Age 600BC - 43AD
iron age

The harbour now had a similar indented coastline as it has today, although sea levels were 1-2 metres lower then. Shingle bars continued to form, allowing the land behind them to be used. Large areas of the harbour were salt marsh and ideal for salt extraction. The land was used for farming, with fields and meadows for grazing animals. Woodland of oak with beech and ash trees in the harbour would have had animals such as wild boar living in it.

  roman age    Roman Age 43 - 410AD

During the Roman Age, sea levels were lower than today.There were large areas of salt marsh. Rich soil areas were cleared of trees and used to raise crops. Meadows at sea level were used for grazing animals. Some woods were probably coppiced at this time, and the timber used in buildings and industries such as salt working and tile making. A Roman road stretched along the top of the Harbour area (the present A259), and possibly from Dell Quay to Chichester.

  Saxon and Viking Age Saxon Age 410 - 1066AD



After the Roman army left, the number of people living and working in the area became smaller, with less farming and fewer villages. With less crops being grown, more pasture and woodland developed. The better soils in the area were probably used for crops, the poorer soils as pasture for animals, the wet valleys for meadow and the woodland for timber and grazing. Salt workings are listed in the Domesday Book, for example in South Hayling there is Mengham Saltern, so there were large areas of flooded salt marsh.

After around 900AD trade started to increase. Villages grew in size and number and farming increased.  The landscape would have looked similar to today, with fields and woodland and roads and villages (of course far fewer people lived in the harbour area then).
  medieval age    Medieval 1066 - 1485AD

Medieval 1066 - 1485AD
Medieval Landscape

Between 1048 and 1298 sea levels stayed the same, but at the end of the 13th century sea levels rose rapidly, with storms and flooding for the next 100 years. A large part of the harbour area was lost to the sea, for example 40 acres were lost on Thorney Island between 1300 and 1340.

The Medieval landscape consisted of villages clustered around parish churches. There were woodlands, some of which may have been coppiced. Farming was important, but the flooding caused some areas to be used for pasture for animals such as sheep, pigs and cattle, rather than for crops. Corn was grown on the dry fields. There were large areas of salt marsh.

   industrial age   Industrial Age 1485 - 1899AD


Langstone Mill Pond
Langstone Mill Pond

Many features of the Harbour landscape from this time remain today, such as mills, churches, villages, copses and field boundaries.

At this time the Harbour had many people living in it, although less than today. During this period new ways of transporting goods and people changed the landscape, such as canal, road and (later) rail. The route of the Roman roads continued to be used, but far more houses would have existed in villages along it. There was farmland, woodland, and on the water there were fishing boats and oyster beds. As today, there were areas of salt marsh, reed beds, mills, boatyards, shops and houses.

The shifting shape of the harbour mouth has been shown on maps from the latter part of this period. The shingle beach and sand banks are constantly changing and the spit of land at East Head has moved 90 degrees to the north in the last 250 years. (click here to look at maps)
  modern age   Modern Age 1900 - Today

Boats in Harbour

During the last century there were 2 World Wars, which had an impact on the landscape. Concrete bunkers were built around the harbour to defend it from an enemy attack. Areas of the Harbour were cleared for airfields. At Cobnor there was an airfield used in WW1. At Apuldram there was an airfield used in WW2. The areas around West Wittering, Itchenor and Cobnor were made to look like airfields to trick enemy bombers away from the real airfields. After the war these areas went back to farmland. Some of the concrete blocks used for defences are now used as sea walls.

Thorney Island was made into an airfield in 1938, and protected by many concrete defences and an anti-tank wall. Thorney Island is still an army site, although not an airfield.

Today the Harbour is named as an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty. It has many houses, shops, roads, cars and busy places, but it also has areas of beautiful countryside, where the landscape still looks the same as it did  long ago.