Byline: By Georges Weser (Neue Zuercher Zeitung International Edition, 27 September 2005)
The sea is eating into England – the government looks on
Cornwall appears to be smaller than on Ptolemy’s map. The reason far that is that for centuries the sea is taking British coastline. In the South of England and on the North Sea coast whole villages are threatened by the advancing erosion and when they disappear, the British people will lose an integral part of their way of life.
A spectacular example of how the sea has always defined the geography of the British Isles is St. Michael’s Mount which towers out of the Cornish coast. By high tide this rock with its castle, the British counterpart of France’s Mont-Saint-Michel, is separated from the mainland. In the past, according to the chronicles of the monk, William of Malmesbury, it was situated in a forest between five and six miles inland. Not only the Cornish name for St. Michael’s Mount – “the grey rock in the forest” appears to confirm William’s entry in his chronicles: the remains of a sunken forest can just be made out on the bottom of the bay. Apparently the whole of the Cornish coast is bordered by forests and valleys which have been swallowed by the sea. In the Bristol Channel divers have also chanced upon the remains of sunken forests – according to a respected geologist this section of the sea is “the largest underwater valley in Great Britain”. This means that Somerset and Wales were once separated only by the Severn River.
“Making Room for Water”
The fact that this is preoccupying whole communities along British coastlines is with good reason. Global warming in particular is contributing to a rise in sea levels at the rate of approximately five millimetres per annum; and the continuous coastal erosion has recently become an acute danger in many places. The village of Fairlight Cove in East Sussex is just such a case. The rocky cliffs already collapsed in the late nineties and over five years huge limestone blocks as well as five houses disappeared beneath the waves. Although officially the coastline at Fairlight is supposed to have an erosion rate of 1.45m per annum, according to a report in 2003 it could well have been 25m. The report recommends that all the inhabitants in this “critical area” at the mercy of the sea should abandon their homes.
The same situation exists in the area between Flamborough Head and Spurn Head in the North-East of England as in Fairlight in East Sussex. The coastline there is also not made of robust rock. As a result this land too is yielding to the sea. In fact, this had fatal consequences as a glance in “the Doomsday Book”, a record of 34 English counties set down during the reign of William the Conqueror, confirms. Since this register was compiled between 1083 and 1086, 26 in all of the villages mentioned along this particular stretch of coast have disappeared beneath the North Sea.
According to an article which recently appeared in the Observer, the destruction of the British coastline by the sea could mean the loss of their homes for hundreds of thousands of people. And what is the government doing? The Department of the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs which has overall responsibility has published a report entitled “Making Space for Water” – which means that people who live on an endangered stretch of coast are being advised to make room for the incoming water. They cannot insure their homes, nor is the State, which considers protecting the coast too expensive, offering compensation. No wonder that some inhabitants of Dunwich on the Suffolk coast believe that they can hear the knell of doom tolling for them. Dunwich was once an impressive port but today lies for the most part at the bottom of the sea. On still days when the tide is out the ghostly sound of a church bell is said to be heard from beneath the water.
Happisburgh in Norfolk had been founded by the Danes long before the Normans came. For centuries the sea had eaten away the cliffs here and since 1958 the village had put its trust in wooden sea defences. However in 1990 a storm destroyed a section of this construction. As soon as the defences were breached, the sea swallowed up the land behind them. Although the local council promised to build a concrete wall, after a second storm tore half a dozen houses down from the cliffs, the local authorities appear to have abandoned Happisburgh. At present the total of houses which have been lost since 1990 stands at 26. According to a recently published report, even the parish church could have disappeared in fifteen years. It is therefore possible that nothing will remain in 2020 of the village of Happisburgh as we know it today.
The sea level is set to rise by 5 millimetres per annum “and five millimetres per year is a lot of water!”. On a cold, stormy day on the edge of the North Sea, Malcolm Kerby, the coordinator of the Coastal Concern Action Group, has to shout to be heard. Kerby is standing on the edge of the cliffs and turns and points to the nearby houses along the Beach Road. “These houses are unlikely to survive the end of the year!” As Kerby says it is not possible to describe this as a rocky coastline. The ground beneath the Beach Road is composed 70% of silt, 29% of sand and 1% of shingle. Since the land behind Happisburgh is below sea level in places, this village with its sea defences formed a bulwark for the whole area. If no measures are put in place to stop the erosion of the coast, villages such as Lessingham and Hempstead can already be submerged in ten years.
Nostalgia and History
Whereas the coastal communities of Great Britain once lived from fishing and smuggling, in the 19th century they became the favourite destinations for weekend and summer tourists. Since then villages such as Happisburgh have come to embody a part of what the British people love and consider to be “their way of life”: one just has to think of houses with unlocked doors, ice cream comets, deckchairs on the beach and the rhythmic sound of breaking waves. At any rate that is how these places are held dear in the minds of many romantics. However if they disappear one day into the sea, so will their memory vanish with them. In Happisburgh graveyard lie 119 of the 400 men who lost their lives when HMS Invincible went down after sailing from Yarmouth in 1801. Their bodies were washed ashore here. These 119 mariners have moved nearer again to the coast after the destruction of the wooden sea defences. The sea appears to be demanding their return.