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Intrigue of century old line exposed on Fish Hoek beach

The remnants of what was first thought to be a temporary spur line, built in 1929, but now considered to be remains of the first beach revetment built in Fish Hoek in 1930, were briefly exposed on the beach yesterday. The very low beach levels exposed this piece of history which has been buried in the sand for over 90 years.

The City of Cape Town’s Coastal Management Branch spent most of Monday morning trying to uncover the line and to ascertain exactly what it was.

‘We are still trying to establish the facts, but early on we suspected that the exposed line formed part of a temporary spur line, built on the beach in 1929, when the Government of the day decided to remove all the dunes from this section of Fish Hoek beach. However, since then, we have concluded that it is most likely a substantial remaining piece of the first beach revetment built in 1930 at Fish Hoek beach. This revetment was built with sleepers from the railway line and joined by rail components, thus the confusion with the spur line. Lying on its side it looked like a railway line. It has been buried for over 90 years, and was briefly exposed on Monday,’ said the City’s Deputy Mayor and Mayoral Committee Member for Spatial Planning and Environment, Alderman Eddie Andrews.

At this stage, the City is not planning to remove the line.

‘The very low beach levels have exposed the revetment. We believe that this will be temporary only, until the coastal processes cover it again, over time. Or coastline is very dynamic and winds and cycles and storms have an ongoing impact – this was evident during the recent surge, coupled with the full moon spring tide last month. Thus, there is no need for us to take action, we will let the natural process unfolds,’ said Alderman Andrews.

Should it remain exposed the City will consider removal, but we anticipate the sand levels will recover and that the old revetment will be buried once again.

The initial confusion with the rail line stems from a reading of A History of Fish Hoek, 1818 to 1968, written by Eric Rosenthal and published by the Fish Hoek Chamber of Commerce in 1968. Rosenthal mentions efforts by the then Railway Department in 1929 to remove the dunes at Fish Hoek beach and dump the sand at the Cape Town Harbour.

It was, therefore, initially thought that the exposed line was linked to a Government decision in 1929 to control the sand hills at Fish Hoek beach. Rosenthal describes in detail how the decision led to a dispute among residents and even a local referendum about the sand dunes – some claiming they were an eyesore and obscuring the sea view, while others were concerned about the impact the removal of the dunes would have on the coastal town.

In 1930 a majority of the village board requested the Railway Department to remove the dunes in exchange for a hundred pounds.

Those who were in favour of having the dunes removed, erected the revetment and proposed the planting of trees and flowers, while the opponents labelled it ‘vandalism’ and predicted there would never be a garden by the sea.

A referendum was called in April 1930 and the far majority voted for the dunes to remain, however, the authorities were not deterred and by December 1931 the Railway Department was still removing the last of the sand dunes.

The Railway Department was in favour of removing the dunes as they claimed they were already spending over a thousand pounds a year digging out their rails after heavy southeaster winds blew the sand onto their tracks.

‘I suppose what we also learn from the brief sighting of this piece of history is that the more things change, the more they stay the same. Nearly a 100 years later and the problem of windblown sand on railway lines and roads remains, as do conflicting opinions on how to live in harmony with nature,’ said Alderman Andrews.

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