Defences bring cliff-top homes back from brink

Teetering on the brink of the cliff at Happisburgh, this scene could have been so different.

Taken on Thursday by aerial photographer Mike Page, the picture features coastal campaigner Malcolm Kerby and two members of German television station ZDF.

The gardens at Happisburgh would have slipped into the sea due to this week's storms and high tides if thousands of tonnes of rocks had not been placed on the beach to build up defences.

The latter were there as part of the vast levels of international media interest which Happisburgh now attracts through the linked issues of coastal erosion and climate change.

The concrete where the trio are standing, plus some of the garden behind, would almost certainly have slipped into the sea in the last few days if not for a scheme started in recent weeks to build up defences to protect the at-risk village.

The storms which buffeted the coast this week were exactly the type which people in Happisburgh have grown to fear - high tides whipped up by strong north and north easterly winds. Normally such storms will bite through the cliffs like butter, but not this time.

Thousands of tonnes of rock have been brought to Happisburgh and placed on the beach thanks to a scheme funded by £200,000 from North Norfolk District Council and, quite probably uniquely, to the tune of around £50,000 from the pockets of the villagers and their international supporters.

Although the rocks have not yet been engineered into a finished defence, their very presence had a huge effect in the last few days, said villagers.

Di Wrightson, who joint owns the pink and brick terraced homes in the picture, said life had changed significantly in recent weeks.

"We have a completely new outlook on life," said Miss Wrightson, who is well-known locally for the teashop she used to run from the Beach Road property and the bed and breakfast which continues to operate there.

"I think now we should have a few more years here - before it really could have been a case of weeks if the weather was bad.

"We are putting in a new shower and having some decorating done, which we simply would not have dreamt of doing last year.

"It makes you think wonder why the government is going on about how complicated and expensive it is to protect coastal communities, but then you see a relatively inexpensive and simple scheme like this working so well, taking the power out of such big waves, and you wonder what they are on about.

"I just wish they would come down from Westminster and stand on the cliff and see what happens here."

Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of the Happisburgh-based Coastal Concern Action Group, said the new sea defence scheme had gone a long way towards protecting a number of properties in the last few days.

"It's hard to make judgements about exactly how much cliff would have gone, but some would, of course, have been eroded.

"It has been an excellent demonstration of how badly this type of scheme is needed and shows how much more we need along this coast."

Mr Kerby said the visit from ZDF would feed into a news feature to be broadcast across Germany, Austria and Switzerland.

It was the second time the company had been to Happisburgh - the first was to cover the visit of environment minister Ian Pearson last summer.

"We have had French, Canadian and Japanese television here, not to mention Sky, BBC and plenty of others," said Mr Kerby.

"There is particular interest across Europe in the issues in Happisburgh, because the experience is shared in many other places.

"What is not shared everywhere is the issue we have here of a government which pays no compensation to people who lose everything when their home is lost to erosion.

"They simply can't understand why, in a democratic society, the government leaves people in this situation to cook in their own juice.

"Often when you describe to a foreigner what the situation is they think they have misheard or misunderstood what you have said. When it dawns on people like the French and Germans, who have compensation schemes to help people, there is incredulity - their jaws drop."

The scheme at Happisburgh has been partly interrupted by the storms because so much sand has been eroded from the beach, making access difficult.