Every year, along with the same group of friends, I walk the North Norfolk Coastal Path which covers about 90 miles of coastline from Hunstanton in the west to Happisburgh and Sea Palling in the east.
The scenery ranges from rugged cliffs through wild salt marshes, bird sanctuaries, stunning beaches and great pubs in the small towns and villages along the route.
What is obvious to us all is that every year, large chunks of the coastline collapse into the sea – in fact two stretches have eroded by over 40 metres in the last 3 years, resulting in the coastal path being redirected.
My curiosity and affinity with this coast led me to study this fascinating yet highly vulnerable part of the UK and particularly the village of Happisburgh, the most at-risk village in the UK, but photographing the area has its challenges of recording both the environmental and personal tragedy that continues unabated.
It has been a privilege to meet a number of residents who are directly involved in fighting to create awareness and those directly affected by the erosion, getting an insight into their concerns about how the precariousness of Happisburgh has affected their future plans.
It has also been a challenge to photograph the area with the dangers of cliff falls being ever present. The estimated rate of erosion for Happisburgh from the position in 2019 is a further 97m in up to 20 years and up to 150m in up to 50 years.
This is in addition to the dramatic loss of cliff face of over 200m in the last 20 years and represents a genuinely catastrophic scenario for the community as little is being done and little will be done to protect its future.
Why is this erosion happening?
There are three key reasons –
1 Historical neglect of sea defences
In the 1950s, the wooden defences were built but maintenance was poor. One could say that those responsible (almost literally) buried their heads in the sand.
The major storms in 2009 and 2013 that claimed over 25 homes demonstrated that the village was defenceless.
Laying the blame for why the defences were neglected is a 60 year-old minefield and probably best left unanswered. However, it is obvious that this is a major factor in the catastrophe.
2 The geological make up of Happisburgh cliffs
The cliffs are made up of soft sediment making them highly vulnerable to water seepage, storms and the higher sea levels caused by global warming.
A large swathe of the Happisburgh Cliffs is designated as a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI) and cannot be protected in any way. The cliffs are unique as they display three glacial deposits from the 1.9 million year-old Pre-Pastonian Stage to the Beestonian and the Cromer Tills of the Anglian Stage, 450,000 years ago, which was the most severe ice age of the Pleistocene Era.
In 2013, the erosion uncovered what are thought to be the earliest evidence of human footprints outside Africa dating back circa 800,000 years!
There were two key elements to this project: the destruction and the human story.
Capturing the destroyed sea defences and the cliff erosion is seemingly straightforward. However, the delicate nature of the cliff edges require care as they have been undercut by crashing waves leaving them dangerously fragile and unpredictable.
The wooden sea defences (revetments) are great to photograph as they differ every day, dependent on both the light and tide. Again though, great care is needed as whilst an incoming tide makes for a more dramatic image, the speed of the tide here can leave you stranded with no escape.
My go-to camera is a Canon 5D MkIII with a 28-135 lens as this allows me to rock hop without carrying a bag of heavy lenses. I also use a DJI Mavic 2 Pro drone.
Whilst 25 homes have disappeared within the last 10 years, the next 5-10 years will see greater damage. Time is not on Happisburgh's side and with the inevitability of higher sea levels and storm surges that have been increasingly experienced in recent years, the danger to the remaining properties in Beach Road and beyond is obvious, with little or no chance of any financial help for those affected.
I have met several of the villagers whose properties are at risk. Three of them in what remains of Beach Road are closest to the cliff edge.
Bryony lost her last home, a bungalow, to the sea in 2013 when she awoke to find her cats staring through the floorboards of her kitchen at the remains of the rear of the property that had fallen on to the beach as the cliff gave way. Her property has little value due to its precarious position but it is her only asset apart from an old camper van that she says is where she will have to live if she has to leave.
Nichola lives next door to Bryony and like Bryony is aware that her home is very vulnerable as the cliff edge gets nearer. She finds the situation unnerving and is under no illusion that she will lose the house without any compensation.
She confides that two sets of neighbours have divorced over recent years due to the stress of finding their only asset had collapsed in value and their ability to move dramatically restricted.
Sue and husband Rob's bungalow, "Seashell" is now only 15m from the cliff edge. They bought the property in 1979 when it was over 100m from the cliff edge. Erosion over the last 40 years has left the property valueless and due for demolition before it falls on to the beach.
They are both fully aware that demolition has to take place before the property surrenders to the sea, otherwise they will be liable for the clearing up costs should it collapse on to the beach.
What could be done?
Only a few miles up the coast is the village of Bacton where the gas terminal is situated. Protecting this facility is a priority and Shell (mainly) and the North Norfolk District Council have funded the £20 million sandscaping exercise that has dredged millions of tons of sand and subsoil from the sea bed creating a protective barrier across the beach. This has protected the terminal and also given the village a fortuitous 20 year breathing space to allow it to adapt.
What is being done?
The simple answer is nothing.
Sandscaping is clearly an option for Happisburgh. However, government guidelines on cost/benefit mean that there is no hope in funding a similar exercise. Additionally, with a large swathe of the beach under the SSSI, the village is being left to the elements.
Within the next 5-8 years, the vulnerable houses on Beach Road will disappear. Grade 1 listed St Mary's church and the iconic Happisburgh lighthouse have a life expectancy of up to 40 years.
However, if storms like those of 2009 and 2013 are repeated, which is likely, and sea levels continue to rise through global warming, the erosion will accelerate leaving the village decimated and the inhabitants with valueless assets.