A medieval UK village is being swallowed by the sea

A medieval UK village is being swallowed by the sea

View of Beach Road, Happisburgh, in 2009 and 2023 respectively.

When Nicola Bayless’s parents bought a house in Happisburgh, an idyllic seaside village in Norfolk, England, they were told that it would take another 150 years for the erosion of the nearby cliffs to threaten the home. . “They said, ‘We’re long dead and so are you,'” Bayless said. “But we’re here.”

That was 23 years ago. Today Bayless’s home is on the second to last piece of land in the street; Its front window overlooks a vacant lot that used to be a neighbor’s home until it was demolished in October. Just beyond is a cliff that Bayless says has receded eight meters in the past 18 months. Erosion is happening so quickly that a Google Street View of the road, last taken in 2009, still shows it disappearing into the distance outside Bayless’s home. In 2023, however, there was nothing but a “Closed Road” barrier, followed by an absolute drop.

Bayless, 47, a nurse and Zumba coach, said: “It’s been unbelievable. You just don’t realize this place.” “The houses, the friends who used to live in those houses are gone. It’s all gone.”

On the east coast of England, locals have battled the seas for generations; deadly floods date back to the 13th century. In Happisburgh, which faces extreme weather due to its location on the North Sea, an estimated 250 meters of land was lost to erosion between 1600 and 1850. Locals are used to hurricanes, landslides and sometimes deadly floods – a flood in 1953 killed 76 people across Norfolk. But over the past few decades, things have changed faster than people anticipated, and scientists are trying to figure out how global warming could make the devastation worse.

Losing the place you call home in an inconsolable process is a unique kind of grief, but in Happisburgh, that grief is compounded by centuries of history. Traces of prehistoric humans have been found in the village dating back almost a million years. Axes, flints and other tools dating back 950,000 years have been discovered on its beaches, including a set of footprints dating back 800,000 years, the oldest found in Europe. Like everything else, they were washed away by the tides, though not before archaeologists could analyze them.

Happisburgh is also a tourist attraction, boasting a 14th-century church, a beautiful stretch of coastline and a lighthouse built in 1790 – the oldest operating lighthouse in the region. The village’s local pub, The Hill House, dates back to at least 1540 and once hosted Sherlock Holmes author Arthur Conan Doyle (it inspired the story “The Adventures of Dancing Men’s Adventures” his dance”). Even on a bright January day, one can still hear the constant crashing of the ocean waves against the cliffs from its rooms, where leaflets tell guests The House on the Hill will be “preserved as long as the sea did not sink Happisburgh.”

“This is our home and our business,” says Clive Stockton, who has owned the pub with his wife Sue for the past 31 years. “When this happens, we are poor.” Stockton estimates The Hill House is about 20 years away.

The problem is the cliff. In Happisburgh and along the rest of the 21-mile north Norfolk coast, it’s made up of sand, clay and silt – not sturdy enough to hold back the turbulent North Sea, where it rains more heavily, higher tides and rising sea levels. predicted by climate change. By 2100, local sea levels are expected to rise by at least a foot, and possibly up to three feet. Coastal erosion maps published by North Norfolk County Council show a large area of ​​the village threatened by 2055. By 2105, both the tavern and the church will be underwater.

In the early 2000s, the county council decided not to renew the marine defenses protecting the village, noting in the management plan that the risk to property and the community was “not enough to justify economically for the construction of new defenses along this façade.” Today, there is a “rock dock”, crowdfunded in the 1990s, to protect the base of the cliff and buy the residents some time. But other designed defenses – such as embankments, sloping wooden structures to protect the beach; or welding torch protruding into the sea perpendicular to the mainland to catch drifting alluvium – cost millions of dong. Ironically, the cliff’s archaeological value has also earned it a special designation, “site of special scientific interest”, meaning that the land must be allowed to erode in order to be able to emerge. make further discoveries.

Faster erosion in recent years is considered the result of a lack of defenses; a phenomenon known as “coastal catch-up” means that erosion accelerates when such defenses are removed. Many residents are angry with this decision. “We seem like idiots,” says Stockton. “We seem to be stuck with a predetermined decision that Happisburgh cannot defend.” A local campaign group, “SHAG”, which stands for Save Happisburgh Action Group, regularly lobbies for new lines of defense.

The disappointment is understandable, given the village’s long history and the fact that other sites on either side of Happisburgh are protected. Bacton, just a few miles north, has benefited from a sand leveling project funded in part by the oil companies Shell and Perenco to protect the Bacton Gas Station, which processes a large proportion of the gas. Natural combustion is used to heat and light the UK. To the south, Sea Palling and surrounding areas are protected by a sea wall and off-shore reefs due to the risk of flooding.

Rising sea levels are expected to alter tides and wave heights, which could speed things up even more. Laurent Amoudry, principal scientist at the UK’s National Oceanographic Center and head of a project measuring climate impacts, said more rain in warmer climates could also be possible. lead to more cliff collapse, although the overall impact of climate change is complex and specific. flooding and coastal erosion. Normally, natural features such as sand dunes will have space to move inland while maintaining their size, but in the UK “where very little coastline is actually natural”. more… you don’t have space to go back,” said Amoudry.

Managed retreat – moving people and buildings back to adapt to the sea – is one possible course of action. The £3 million government-funded initiative to buy homes in Happisburgh and license residents to plan to build inland ended in 2011 and another government-funded project started. Early last year will explore options including temporary buildings and funds to help residents move. The solution to historic commercial spaces, such as churches and taverns, is not yet clear. In Victorian times, a 14th-century church in nearby Sidestrand was demolished and rebuilt inland, but that is unlikely here.

Like it or not, Happisburgh was destined to become a case in point in the field of adaptation. Sea level rise cannot be stopped, but can help people deal with it. Wildlife habitats such as salt marshes can help protect the coast, but it also means reshaping the coast into a less habitable place.

Britain’s Climate Change Commission, a government advisory body, has flatly assessed that many coastal communities like Happisburgh are “unlivable”. Last year, a report suggested that nearly 200,000 properties across the UK could be abandoned because they are located in places where defense is too expensive or technically impossible.

Richard Dawson, a member of the committee and professor of earth systems engineering at Newcastle University, said: “There are tough decisions to make. Our current approach is not sustainable in the long run due to the fact that we are not sustainable in the long run. increasing climate change and rising sea levels”. “We have to start planning for these transitions now. You can’t just tell a community ‘you have to move out in the next few years’. We have to be honest and upfront about our budgeting.” how far will our books on coastal defense go.”

(Except for the title, this story has not been edited by NDTV staff and is published from an aggregated feed.)


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