Coastal erosion is a very real threat to some of Norfolk's most vulnerable communities.

PUBLISHED: 13:22 14 April 2010 | UPDATED: 17:02 20 February 2013

Coastal erosion is a very real threat to some of Norfolk's most vulnerable communities.

Coastal erosion is a very real threat to some of Norfolk's most vulnerable communities.

Living on the edge- coastal erosion is a very real threat to some of Norfolk's most vulnerable communities. Stephanie Elliott discovered what it is like to live under threat from the sea.

Living on the edge

Coastal erosion is a very real threat to some of Norfolks most vulnerable communities. Stephanie Elliott discovered what it is like to live under threat from the sea.

Pictures: Stephanie Elliott and Colin Finch

A home is more than merely a container for the people who dwell there. It is a safe haven from the outside a place to express love and loss. A long-standing home becomes a part of the family, the physical embodiment of all the memories inside. For the people on the Norfolk coast who are slowly losing their homes to the sea, it is like losing a part of themselves.

It is like having a disease; weve known that we were going to lose the house for some time. You get used to the idea that it is not permanent, but it doesnt take away from the anguish you feel having to leave it behind, says long-time coastal resident and Happisburgh homeowner Diana Wrightson. She has had to watch helplessly as the slow, steady rhythm of the sea pulls at her door.

Twenty-six homes have been lost in the past 17 years; many more perch on the brink, and the sea is showing no sign of relenting. Happisburgh is just one of several villages faced with the same fate and yet it truly remains a home, even to those who are being forced out.
Norfolk has become the centre point for climate change in the UK, dubbed one of the most vulnerable coastlines in Europe. University of East Anglia Environmental Science Professor
Julian Andrews says the erosion is a combination of factors. The unconsolidated material of the coast, combined with the wide tidal range, makes it erode much more quickly than most.

Perhaps more important is that when you get storms in the North Sea, they are quite damaging and can be quite erosive, he adds. The Norfolk coastal residents are well aware of the threat. Storm surges like the one in November 2007 can make centimetres loss turn into metres in a matter of hours. Now, the larger Spring tides can do even more damage.
While many wonder how far in the cliff line will go, Professor Andrews says: It is easier to turn it around the other way and say where was the cliff line in the past, because that gives you an indication of how things have happened.

There are terrestrial peaks kilometres into the sea that would have once belonged to our coastlines. Erosion is certainly not new to the Norfolk coast. Were here on the edge of it, losing our homes, but we are only part of the much bigger picture, Diana Wrightson points out. Throughout the ages, the east coast has always eroded there have been losses of whole communities.

So why make such a volatile area your home? Initially, the coastal homes were protected by large barriers that were repaired every year. When those were no longer paid for by government, and the cliffs began to erode at an alarming speed, the residents decided to take matters into their own hands.

No-one is going to subscribe to their own demise there has to be another way, says Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of the now internationally known Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG). I think we have found another way. For the past decade, the CCAG has fought for social justice, new policies, and governmental responsibility about these coastal villages. This tiny community banded together to save its coastline and its homes. It focused everybody in one direction. There always was a nice community but we really pulled together, says Diana.

Recently, two of 15 Pathfinder grants were awarded to the Norfolk coast. The grants were given to communities under threat who had successfully campaigned to pave the way in change. As policy has changed from interfering with the sea, to allowing natural processes to remain, the money will likely go towards demolition and compensation of homes no longer protected from the sea.

There is a huge relief. The sword of Damocles has been swinging over everyones head for long enough, says Malcolm. It hasnt been easy to live this way. The residents have been told on several occasions that help would be given, only to hear soon after that they were effectively on their own.

It is a long list of lost battles, and you cant blame 30-year resident Jane Archer for sounding tired, let alone for not changing her wallpaper for a few years. You couldnt really plan for the future. Jane says. Its a lot of little things do you bother repairing the roof if youre going to have to knock it all down and get nothing for it? You sort of get into a limbo with plans.

Every resident agreed on the difficulty in investing in a home with limited time. To Gillian Beeby, another resident facing a move and future demolition, it was important for her to put a stamp on her home, no matter the consequence.

In the end I did spend a little money on the bungalow. You cant just not do it, because it is going to make you miserable, she explains. You have to make your home as you want it, even if you are going to lose it. I do think it has made it easier for us to live there it has boosted me a great deal.

Dianas found solace too in meeting people through her tea shop. Weve made friends with so many people over the years. Every summer we used to be revisited in the tea shop. We would see the same faces year after year there was a continuity that has stopped not completely though.
The tea shop is now closed, and Diana admits that she has not yet processed the idea of her home for over 30 years being demolished.

The tug will come when I have to move you dont face up to it before you have to move and then you know it will be a terrible wrench. After her home is gone, she hopes to continue living in or near Happisburgh.
With the triumph of the Pathfinder grants, it seems a sea change has finally truly occurred. It might have been very unfortunate, says Malcolm, but it is a totally positive scenario now. It is a message of what you can achieve. If you talk to the experts this would not have happened if it were not for us.

The grants will not save the peoples homes, but it will go towards making a new home. Rather than being left with nothing, the residents now have hope for a future. Despite everything, Gillian leaves her beachside home with no regrets. She and her partner had long dreamed of moving to the tiny village in Norfolk after spending many happy holidays here. Just having lived that dream for a small amount of time, she says, was worth it.

No, we do not regret having moved to the house. It was what we wanted; it was worth it. I look out of my window and I see the sea and the lighthouse what people could have a view like that?
There is something special about the Norfolk coast that makes people fight so hard.

Its more than the coast or the homes, concludes Malcolm, who also moved to the coast after years of dreaming of a simpler, more fulfilling life. There is something about Norfolk that is different from the rest of country. This is living for real. This is the way it should be.

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