Life on the edge

A seaside tea shop teeters on the brink - a graphic illustration of coastal erosion and the heartache it causes.

TOP: The cliff has now crumbled away
right to the gardens of the teashop.
BOTTOM: How the same area looked in 1999.

Di Wrightson's home and business are just yards from oblivion as wintry waves gnaw away at the soft cliffs separating the holiday village of Happisburgh from the sea.

She has become used to living life on the edge after years of watching the cliffs crumble and campaigners grumble about the lack of Government action to replace worn out sea defences.

Three years ago she was told the end was nigh, but, as Miss Wrightson says: "We're still here."

However, as the EDP's aerial picture shows, this could be the last season for the popular tea shop - if she even decides to open it.

There is just 15m of back garden left behind the pair of Edwardian homes which make up the Cliff House guest house and tea rooms at Beach Road.

"When it gets to 10m the council has said we will have to go," said Miss Wrightson.

"We don't want to move out and close the business until we absolutely have to.

"Every year it becomes more and more difficult to decide what to do.

"There are things that need doing to the house and business, but what is the point of spending money on a place that will be lost in a couple of years?

"The dining room gets a coat of paint, and we patch things up, but nothing major gets done," explained Miss Wrightson, who bought the place 26 years ago - when there was a road, a row of bungalows between her property and the clifftop.

"At the time the council had every intention of maintaining the defences, and the coast had changed little since I used to visit it as a child 50 years ago."

The buildings are one of the few brick ones in a road mainly consisting of wooden holiday chalets - the low value of property being one of the reasons coastal engineers have struggled to make the sums work to justify Government spending on sea defences.

The substantial homes sprung up in the heydays of Edwardian holidaymaking when there were plans to extend the railways as far as Happsibrugh, and build an esplanade. The houses were built by an enterrprising speculator awaiting trains full of tourists.

It never happened, but Cliff House was a popular bed and breakfast spot anyway.

However trade has dropped off as the cliffs have crumbled - which also made it impossible to invest in the business and provide the en-suite facilities wanted by modern-day tourists.

The tea rooms continue to thrive in spite of - or maybe because of - the erosion.

"People still love coming to see the coast, how it has changed since their last visit, and are glad to see we are still here," said Miss Wrightson.

It normally opens from Easter to November, but the rate of erosion over the rest of the winter will now determine whether that will be possible.

Some temporary rock defences, put in to buy time, had helped in recent years. But a large lump fell off over the festive period, including a chunk of the concrete base of garages which were pulled down last winter for safety.

Miss Wrightson said campaigners were still busy fighting the cause for Happisburgh, and the whole coastline - which is under threat from the planned abandonment of defences.

"Officials are now starting to talk about compensation, but it may come too late for us," she added.

She has a "plan b" in place, with a rented home already lined up inland.

It was a decision sparked when council officials called and asked her to fill in a "homelessness" form - which "brings you up with a bit of a jolt."

Rather than go on the council housing list however Miss Wrightson decided to rent.

"When it goes I will lose everything and will be upset. Until then we live from day to day," she said.