Going, going, gone … but what next?

Byline: Edward Foss, Eastern Daily Press Sunday Supplement

Blame who you will for the desperate situation at Happisburgh. Government inefficiency, red tape, individuals from outside the village opposing to proposed schemes, lack of political will from Whitehall. What is for sure is the loss of property and land will continue in the face of the ruthless North Sea, reports Edward Foss. That is unless a way forward can be identified – and something done to protect people, families and homes. Pictures by Sam Robbins.

There will be slightly less of Happisburgh by the time this article has become tomorrow’s fish and chip paper. A chunk or two of cliff, maybe even a couple of feet – not a big deal in itself. But the residents of Happisburgh have been watching this happen for decades. For many of those who live in the village now or have done so in the past, the experience has been nothing short of distressing.

The recent loss of the lifeboat ramp – the only access to the beach both for boats and for people appears to have galvanised the community in a way not previously seen.

It is no secret that there have been rifts in Happisburgh about the best way forward and who is at fault for delays in building adequate sea defences. But if a recent meeting held in the parish church and featuring hundreds of villagers, a line-up of senior district council officials and the local MP Norman Lamb demonstrated anything, it was that opinions within the village are now more focused than ever.

The loss of the ramp means the economic viability of various local businesses and services is at risk. In turn, the very health of the community itself has come under threat. The lifeboat being forced to temporarily move further up the coast to Cart Gap. But, more to the point, the vital summer visitors may not come in the numbers they normally do. Happisburgh’s main attraction is its beach. No beach, no tourists.

There has been a tendency in the media including the EDP to concentrate on Beach Road when discussing the Happisburgh debacle. Admittedly, this shortening dead end is where the most imminent danger lies. Households including Di Wrightson and her teashop, the Barber family, Mr & Mrs Beeby and Phyllis Tubby. But what has become increasingly clear to all is that this is not a story about Beach Road.

Jack Hall of a previous Happisburgh pressure group is just one person who has warned of what could happen in the longer term if satisfactory sea defences are not brought to the village beach. “It is disturbing to think the church itself is under threat,” he says.

Admittedly, Mr Hall is looking some way down the line – 20 years perhaps. But surely Norfolk should not be in line for losing a church to the sea, how ever many years away? But then – it has happened before. What else? The sentinel lighthouse, the main road, scores of houses? Mr Hall has described the current situation as “manifestly unfair and tragically neglectful.”

And he talks of the unseen decline in commercial life, a point echoed by Ian Chaney who has run the local shop, Wayside Stores, for seven years. “The loss of the ramp has changed things in the minds of people, there is a much stronger feeling,” he says. “More people have realised it is not just Beach Road – it is the whole of the village. There are many people who rely on the summer trade, those six or eight weeks carry us through. If there is no access to the beach, people will not come. Happisburgh could end up a dormitory village.”

There is at least one straw to clutch on to when considering the economic viability of the village, and it comes in the form of talks between Chris Lomax, who owns the caravan site, and North Norfolk District Council. Hopes of a new pedestrian access to the beach are beginning to grow within the village after it was confirmed the two parties were meeting to discuss a way to get something built. But little is certain. All parties hope for a possible outcome.

Many villagers vilify the Department for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (DEFRA) for its failure to give the go ahead for a £700,000 sea defence scheme put forward by the district council last May. Problems with two objectors – local Lord of the Manor Eric Couzens and academic Prof Keith Clayton – and a land ownership wrangle, meant red tape dragged on for too long, rendering the scheme unviable.

But there is great strength of feeling that DEFRA simply failed to get its act in gear over paperwork. Mr Chaney said “people at DEFRA need to get off their backsides and take some action, before it’s too late.”

This is one of the issues where the various sides get tied up in knots. DEFRA accuses the district council for failing to “get its ducks in a row” over paperwork. The district council was reportedly kept in the dark for months as to what pieces of paper were actually required. By the time officials were actually told, it was too little too late.

Add this to the fact that the district council appears to be banging its head against a brick wall of ever changing rules – and it is easy to sympathise with those currently stationed in the Holt Road offices at Cromer.

Don’t even mention DEFRA’s cost benefit analysis, a minefield of a system ostensibly designed to ensure money is spent on the most economically-sound schemes. But some might say it is simply a smokescreen created to allow accountants to juggle their figures and make sure that budgets balance at the end of the year.

Officers at the district council, who these days are generally extremely well received in Happisburgh, have pledged to do whatever they can to help build defences. There seems little reason to doubt them. Coast engineer Brian Farrow, who has worked for the local authority for more than two decades, said that if he could have had his way “I would have built a sea wall 20 years ago.” His colleague, Peter Frew, says the district council will do what it can with its limited resources to maintain sea defences. Meanwhile, the battle with DEFRA to grab serious sums of money, which will enable proper sea defences to be built, will go on.

Councillors have also gleaned some respect recently by putting forward £160,000 to fund an interim sea defence project as an emergency measure after the failure of the bigger proposal. Small beer in many ways, but a good indication on a parochial level of what can be brought about by lobbying.

Malcolm Kerby, co-ordinator of the Happisburgh Coastal Concern Action Group, has one of the toughest tasks of the all – trying to represent the opinions of the community, but keeping a dialogue open with the district council at the same time. There has been great success on this level in the three and a half years he has held this role. And long may this continue.

Talk cost-benefit to Mr Kerby and he will tell you straight – “you cannot put a value on a community.” Too right. But this is just one aspect of his argument. “DEFRA has a responsibility to protect Happisburgh,” he says. “Ignorance is no excuse – everyone is well aware of the situation, but political will is lacking.”

For now, Mr Kerby is confident that the recent meeting in the parish church will be an event that will linger long in the memory of all who attended.

A shame, then, that DEFRA representatives turned down an invitation to come. Maybe they would have learned a valuable lesson about how seriously this problem is being viewed from within Happisburgh.

After the meeting, Mr Kerby said, “we need an opportunity to allow as many people as possible to speak directly to each other, give their opinions and ask questions. Thanks to the meeting, the group renewed its franchise to represent the people of Happisburgh. I think we also reached a much greater understanding of the difficulties faced by the district council, and how hard they have been trying to help us. And the hope is that the people in the village have gained a far wider appreciation of the issue as a whole.”

There is a particular level of hope within Happisburgh, and justifiably so. An optimism that they will not be left to their unsightly fate.

But in a uncertain world, the one thing that is inescapable is that the community must pull together in one united direction, and keep battling on.

On the edge – David Siely’s home on top of the cliff at Happisburgh.
Sea view – Renosteel workers surveying coastal defence work, seen from the kitchen window.

Coming apart – David Siely, left, stripping out the kitchen of his chalet with his brother, Sid.

Stripping out – David Siely working on the roof of the chalet

Empty shell – the chalet is coming to a sorry end during demolition work.

Final farewell – the chimney stack, all that remains of David Siely’s chalet is pulled down.

David’s days of despair.

Plenty of human stories have emerged from the ongoing events at Happisburgh over the years.

One of the most striking in recent times has been the tale of David Siely, who was forced to pull apart his Beach Road chalet before it was claimed by the eroding cliff. EDP photographer Sam Robbins spent many hours with David, who allowed him to record events during the several days of salvage works as the pictures above show.

The operation was carried out on some of January’s coldest days. Now little remains on the site of Oversands, once a treasured home. Save for a pile of rubble, cracked concrete paving and the odd piece of wood, there is nothing to suggest what went before.

The salvage seemed to be a strange mixture of humour and despair – typically British, typically Norfolk perhaps. The humour came in brief moments – David’s decision to dig out some favourite Irises at the end of the garden, some of them literally at the edge of the cliff face as he did so. The despair was all too evident – David inherited Oversands from an elderly friend who he had helped care for as she aged.

It is hard to understand how a person can feel knocking down a place full of so many fond memories. “I have been associated with this house for 45 years and it is very close to my heart,” David says. “I just didn’t want to see it knocked down and crushed to nothing. I am gutted that I have to do this,” he added.

But no doubt there will be more tales like Davids before too long.