(extracts from works by Mary Trett, a local historian)
The story of the village is inseparably linked with the sea. For residents of Happisburgh, and for hundreds who visit each year, the sea represents many different things: a source of livelihood; a place of recreation and fun; a sight to gaze at and wonder over; a worrying, unpredictable, dangerous and potentially destructive power.
Happisburgh has lost land to the sea throughout the centuries. The rate of erosion has been erratic – at times large areas have disappeared overnight, and at others the cliff has remained virtually the same for some years.
Whimpwell, was a parish adjoining Happisburgh The Abbot of St Benets was Lord and patron of the church Destruction its was very rapid. By 1183 only one field remained. but the name lives on in Whimpwell Street and Whimpwell Green. In 1987, the Yarmouth Sub-Aqua Club discovered a large stone structure partly buried beneath the seabed of Happisburgh. It is L-shaped, 75 yards by 200 yards and at points rises to 40 feet. Could it be a quay heading from the medieval village of Whimpwell?
1845 A twelve-acre field at Happisburgh was drilled with wheat. A north-west gale raged all night, and by new morning the field had disappeared.
1854 White’s Directory for this year reported that the sea had encroached 250 yards in the last 70 years at Happisburgh.
1855 Doggett’s Farm -the house. a large barn and the premises – were lost to the sea.
1883 The Low Lighthouse was threatened with erosion. It was withdrawn from service and demolished.
1938 The sea broke through at Horsey near the Nelson’s Head forming a gap of 100 yards in the dunes. Land from Horsey Church to West Somerton was flooded with salt water to a depth of a foot for months, killing many willow trees and all other vegetation.
1953 On Saturday 31st January, a strong north-wester of over 110 miles an hour caused the worst disaster since the flood in 1287. The sea claimed the lives of 76 Norfolk people flooded thousands of homes. An exceptionally high evening tide whipped up by the gale was two hours earlier predicted. It surged down the East Coast smashing defences and flooding low-lying land. A bungalow at Happisburgh, which at teatime on Saturday stood 15 feet from the cliff, was hanging over the cliff edge on Sunday morning. By 8.00 p.m. the surge reached Sea Palling and burst through the sand dunes, carrying away four houses, a cafe, a general store and a bakery. Families clung desperately to roof tops until rescued by Stalham Fire Brigade in a commandeered dingy. Twenty or more were saved, but seven died, including a mother and her three children.
1976 During January heavy seas caused considerable erosion on the south cliffs of Happisburgh resulting in two bungalows hanging over the edge of the cliff.
21st February 1993 Ferocious tidal waves again caused considerable erosion along the coastline. At Happisburgh a large portion of the south cliff was swept away causing a bay to be formed and farm land lost.
19th February 1996 During a prolonged gale and snowstorm the defences were breached and another bungalow was perilously close to the cliff top, eventually succumbing to the sea.
March 1999 Encroachment continued, resulting in the destruction of more bungalows and an increasingly large bay.
As a result of these latest incursions a village meeting was held to express concern to the local district council. In 2001 a study was conducted to come up with possible solutions.
Preventative Measures over the years.
Many schemes have been tried over the years to prevent erosion.
1802 The Revd. John Hewitt, Perpetual Curate of Wale Vicar of Granchester, spent £100 in an attempt to fill up the breach between Waxham and Horsey. The Hon. Harbord, the first Lord Suffield, lent implements to aid the undertaking. The dunes were levelled to increase width at the base, the seaward side being sloped at such an angle that, it was hoped, waves would roll up and recede harmlessly. Transverse groynes were also erected. Unfortunately, before the work was completed, a spring tide coinciding with a north-west wind broke through the bank.
1803 During the 18th century land between Happisburgh and Great Yarmouth was flooded on numerous occasions, and disputes arose as to whether 1and1ords shou1d be responsib1e for the protection of their land. In this year the Court of the Commissioners of Sewers determined that ‘No particular persons are bound to sustain or repair the sea walls adjoining their land’.
1836 An entry under Happisburgh in White’s Directory states ‘it is calculated the Church will be engulphed in the ocean before the middle of the ensuing century. In the same year, William Hewitt, MRCS, a relative of the Revd. John and a Stalham surgeon, suggested that breakwaters should be constructed parallel with the cliffs. He believed that these would cause sand to accumulate on the foreshore. He noted that those set at right angles to the cliff caused sand to build up on one side only. His idea was based on observations of the wreck of the Revenue cutter the ‘Hunter’. A sandbank had formed between the wreck and the shore, and stretched almost to Walcott. A violent storm shifted the vessel and the bank disappeared. Hewitt also suggested sinking old ships a short distance from the shore. Some landowners acted upon his advice, but the wrecks became a hazard to shipping and were later removed.
1954 A sea wall was built at Walcott, and a local inhabitant is reported to have said. ‘Do you mark my words. Now they’ve built the wall at Walcott, Hasbro’ Church will be in the sea in twenty years. That’s the southern end, and wherever they’ve built they’ve never been able to stop the sea getting round the southern end of it.’
1958 Early in the year, the 40 feet cliffs at Happisburgh severely from erosion. Falls of cliff were frequent and access to the beach at Town Gap was impossible. No boats could be launched.
1958/59 The first sea defences were built at Happisbugh and were later extended. Steel, greenheart and jarrah wood were used in their construction. The rate of erosion decreased, any loss of land being due mainly to surface water causing falls of cliff.
During the last forty years portions of the revetment have been destroyed, and repairs have been carried out on numerous occasions, but have not succeeded in preventing the formation of a large bay to the south of Happisburgh. To attract grant aid for capital works, stringent Government criteria must be satisfied, which relies heavily on the value of land and property at risk, thus prejudicing the relatively low property value in Norfolk as opposed to for example the South Coast of England. The Government’s declared present policy (1999) is to maintain ‘a sustainable coastline’.