When the sea swallows your home

The North Sea nibbles away at the British Coastline, the country of seafarers is getting smaller. On many beaches the fight to defend has been withdrawn leaving them abandoned.

Happisburgh in November. Now there are only 16 metres of garden path left between the sea and Kitchen entrance of Diana Wrighton's house. She wants to remain here for another five metres and then she plans to abandon what used to be her business and is now her retirement home. The appetite of the sea at Happisburgh can be translated into two metres per year. The beach, the groynes, the promenade and a terrace of houses have been nibbled away by the sea in the space of two decades. Soon it will be Diana Wrighton's turn. Within a few years she too will hand over her possessions to the sea.

Between Cromer and Great Yarmouth the English coastline resembles the curves of a plump apple. But right in the middle of this at Happisburgh the sea has bitten off a one kilometre long and hundred meter deep chunk. For 900 years this village has been situated on the coast of Norfolk, with the listed village church originating at the very least from the 12th century. There is a Manor House, a Lighthouse, 800 inhabitants and during the Summer months a few hundred additional Caravan Holiday Makers, who reside on a field tightly packed with caravans directly adjacent to the cliffs. This is not the only place in Eastern England which is sliding into the sea, it just happens to be the first.

The North Sea continues relentlessly to nibble away on more than a hundred kilometres of this apple shaped curvature. The land of long stretched out plains with its sudden steep cliffs is , according to geological readings and measurements, gently sinking with water levels rising due to global warming. 150 years ago the first sea defence walls and barriers were installed at larger settlements such as Cromer and Mundesley. 50 years ago wooden groynes were built along the whole stretch of coastline here at the foot of these brown clay cliffs- following the heavy floods of 1953 which claimed the loss of human life totalling more than 300. The wooden groynes have successfully shielded the clay cliffs of Happisburgh for the last three decades. And then the sea broke down the defence!

At first Government was unwilling to provide funds for a quick repair says Malcolm Kerby, who spearheads a local initiative "Coastal Concern Action Group" although his own house so far still lies further inland separated from the cliffs by a field and a lighthouse. The next winter floods increased the damage. Attempts were made to temporarily shore up the land by installing granite blocks, but it was impossible to recreate the original coastline. The gap remained, the storm tides bit further into the land but Government politics remained unchanged.

In the meantime the responsibility for coastal defence was handed over by Defra to the Environment Agency. Since then new guidelines apply in evaluating coastal defence issues. The old rule to hold the line now is only applied if special circumstances justify the decision - larger settlements, high property values and outstanding areas of natural beauty. For the rest of these stretches of coast the new motto of managed realignment is being applied. In some locations there is now no active intervention at all.

Malcolm Kerby, the coastal defender, directs his furious fight far more against the Government than the sea itself. "You cannot stop the sea" says Kerby. But you could reduce its power. It seems ridiculous to abandon all and to sacrifice coastal defence structures put in place by previous generations, just because the present Government considers coastal defence a too costly issue and not to be of great political urgency". Ministry Officials vehemently deny this albeit being rather vague in their statement. " We are not abandoning communities" reassures Charles Beardall. The Regional Manager of the Environment Agency immediately restricts his message by stating" with the limited funds available we are making every effort to protect as many people as possible" Beardall admits that coastal defence in rural areas has to stop. This results in some properties therefore being put at danger but "we are in discussion with affected owners".

Nobody so far has talked to Diana Wrightons. "There is no more hope for my property in any case". Her voice stays strong whilst making this statement, she stopped the trembling years ago. During heavy tides in the Year 2003 20 metres of ground were lost, the road with many holiday bungalows diagonally in front of Mrs Wrightons house disappearing. The waves battered and obliterated the concrete ramp which lead from the Life Boat Station directly to the sea. This ramp was strategically very important for the Rescue Service to launch their rescue boats. Since 4 years the station has stood empty. The large inflatable boat of the Life Boat Service now being stored on a trailer in a neighbouring village.

It was in the same year that Diana Wrightsons eventually closed her business of Bed and Breakfast. The sign in the front Garden (Now Closed) with the massage :" With many thanks to all our clients who continued to be loyal to us for the past 26 years" is now battered by wind and rain. "When it became apparent that we won't be able to survive here I stopped investing money in my property" says Diana. "I stopped redecorating and did not replace the deep freezer when the old one broke". The members of the Tourist Board who used to come regularly for their annual inspection, were very considerate. " Of course they noticed that everything started to look a bit grubby and just said: "You could actually do with a new carpet in the Hall" but they too were only too aware of the fact that it was only a question of time"

She herself will wait for the end in her own property - as will many of her neighbours. Lots of elderly couples used to move here to enjoy their retirement by the coast. They purchased houses and holiday bungalows along the beach road and did not anticipate that the sea would take away their retirement properties. Most of them remained until they were forced to move out by local authorities to be re-housed by the Council in Council property somewhere in the south of Norfolk.

Next to Mrs Wrightons white listed building, lies a Bungalow which was occupied until recent weeks by Malcolm and Erica Barber. They had christened their retirement home Felicity but luck took a bitter turning. In their garden there are less than 10 metres left now before the cliff's edge . The Barbers had to move out before they could finish paying off their mortgage. Now they pay twice: Mortgage payments for the abandoned Luck and rent for the council property , which they never wanted to end up in.

Malcolm Kerby gathers evidence such as the fate of the Barbers for his campaign of the Coastal Concern Action Group. Kerby tells of a post code lottery which effectively makes everyone in Norfolk who happens to own a house near the cliffs, a loser. Mortgage Institutions , as well as Insurance Companies evaluate their risks and investment values by land registry entries, which groups properties according to very detailed post code entries. Kerby states that thirty percent reduction should be calculated for anyone owning a house on the cliffs. "And if you happen to have an address within the wrong post code, you get deducted 30 percent even if you happen to live two miles away from the coast.

The most important demand from Kerby's Coastal Concern Action Group therefore calls for all those properties , which in future will no longer be defended by coastal defence measures , to be compensated fully by the state. There is as such no actual fund specifically established for such purpose in Great Britain. The Coast Protection Act of 1949 rather quotes the opposite: That no British Citizen is entitled to assume that they will be defended from the sea. Money for any compensation payments would therefore have to be found within the overall budget of DEFRA. But this budget apparently is to double over the next few years. Although public attention at present is concentrated on the most recent victims of floods having occurred inland of England, those who the sea will make homeless with the next few years, have so far not been considered by Politicians.

Kerby is angry and feels that it is shaming the Nation which is so directly connected with the sea. For the State to abandon the coast is not only against his principles because the sea will slowly encroach nearer and nearer to his own back Garden, it goes against his British mentality. If the sea is allowed to continue nibbling holes and creating further bays along the coastline of rural areas and villages in years to come, it won't be long before larger cities and coastal resorts will also become impossible to save. Kerby prophesises that only a catastrophe with many lives being lost will wake up the Politicians from their present lethargy. And he tells us that only recently he had sight of a confidential map issued by the EA, on which the worst scenario of land loss until the year 2050 had been recorded. This showed the district town of Norwich , presently situated 30 kilometres inland, as being situated directly on the coast!