Monday, 20 July 2015

The village that fell into the sea

What an amazing day today turned out to be.

My life at home is a very busy routine of school runs, looking after the house, writing for a living and more. So when we do get away for a couple of weeks each year, I’m absolutely determined not to waste the time.

I don’t know if it’s the change of scene, the freedom from responsibility or what it is, but all I know is that away from Bicester and day to day life, I seem to take on an entirely new lease of life. When I'm away and I'm out for the whole day I don't feel tired at all, so pumped up I seem to become just on the adrenalin of doing something different.

Today was certainly no exception.

I have always been fascinated by the British coastline and all the stories that go along with it. The BBC’s documentary series Coast is one of my favourites. I’m just drawn to the sea, and I could sit for hours and hours on a beach or on a cliff and never get bored. One day I hope to live by the sea. 

Every place has a story to tell, be it of smugglers, lighthouses, or the cruelty of the sea. And so it happened today, as we explored the Norfolk Coastline that we happened upon the small and relatively anonymous village of Happisburgh (pronounced Haze – borough).

We’d been travelling along the coastline, investigating various places off the beaten track, so I got my Sat Nav to direct me to Happisburgh which I had picked off the map. When I typed “Happisburgh” in to the device, it came up with “Beach Road” as a suggested destination, so I went for that, assuming it would be by the sea. Quite how close to the sea, I hadn't bargained on.

Being austere as I am, I refuse to pay £50 a year or whatever it is to update my TomTom, so it hasn’t had an update to its maps for a few years. I mean, I always figured, “How much can a place change?”

Well quite a lot as it happens. My Sat Nav was only able to direct me so far along Beach Road before we encountered some “Road Closed” signs. Fortunately, there was a car park across the way with toilets and a play area – both big ticks for the 5 and the 7 year olds in the back who have scuppered the plans of many a day out with the words “I need a wee, Dad”. We then went for a wander around, heading down Beach Road past the road closed signs.

The road ended abruptly. The double yellow lines on either side continued until they disappeared straight over the edge of a cliff. From what I could tell, my nice and friendly Tomtom lady would have quite happily have sent me over this to my doom. Perhaps I really should update my maps – but really? Come on Tomtom, I paid enough for the thing in the first place.

Are you sure this is the right way, Tomtom?

So we wandered back and down the coast path that led to the beach. Here were a number of information boards explaining all about the woes that the residents of Beach Road have undergone in recent years.

We all know that the coastline changes over time, of the dangers of rising sea levels from global warming and erosion. People tend to think of this on long time-scales. There are all manner of legends about other lands that used to exist thousands of years ago, such as the lost kingdom of Lyonesse. This is believed to have existed as a landmass between Cornwall and the Scilly Isles but vanished a long time ago.

In Happisburgh, it’s happened in less than a generation.

Aerial photographs from 1990 show streets of houses, far back from the edge of the cliffs, in no apparent danger from the sea. But now, they are all gone, devastated by coastal erosion that has brought the sea hundreds of yards inland from where it was then.

The reasons? Well, I won’t go into them in detail, as there’s a lot of politics involved to do with the amount of investment into sea defences. Needless to say, whatever was done was not enough and too late to save dozens of houses from the ravages of the sea. Those that weren’t demolished simply fell in. 

Not your average rocks on the beach.
This was part of someone's home.

It really hits home when you go down on to the beach. Nestling among the rocks on the shoreline are all sorts of clues that you are standing on a site that was once solid land. At first we spotted the odd red house brick among the rocks, then great clumps of them, torn off the houses as they fell into the sea. Then, when you look up at the cliff face you see all sorts of pipes sticking out of it – pipes that once carried water to and from the houses.

Clues in the cliffs.

It’s all very humbling and a reminder of how much as a species, no matter how advanced we are, we are still very much at the mercy of the elements.

Thankfully, a lot of Happisburgh is left, and hopefully will continue to be so as sea defences are shored up for the future. I don’t think I’d risk buying a house within a few hundred yards of the sea here, though. It's such a beautiful area, though and one I wouldn't mind living in. Like most of north Norfolk, the property prices are unbelievable compared to what we're used to back home. It does make me wonder why I continue to cling to my Oxfordshire roots when a lovely big 3 bedroomed house can be bought in this area for more than you'd pay for a 1 bedroomed flat in Bicester. If you're not tied to an area by a job, why stay there? The beauty of making a living from book sales is that I get paid the same per sale wherever I live.

In the evening, we went to the races in Yarmouth. Not horse races or dog races but stock car and banger races. What an enjoyable evening’s entertainment that was. Not for the first time, being in my mid-forties I had the exciting thought first of “Wow, I could do that. I’d love to do that”, followed by the more sobering thought of “You’re 45, if you were going to do that, you really needed to be starting at least a quarter of a century ago”.

What a pity we can’t live twice. There’s so many things I’d do second time around I never got round to doing first time up, as well as not wasting so much time on all the trivial things that I did the first time. Oh well, that’s life.

No matter, we got a great evening’s entertainment out of the Banger racing, the first time I’ve ever been, and another box ticked off of things that I really ought to have got round to doing by now.

Let mayhem commence!

The day ended with fish and chips from the seafront at Yarmouth. Which were gorgeous.

To sum up: A full-on and interesting day full of new experiences. Not bad after over 16,000 days on the planet. 

 Jason Ayres is the author of six books, including his brand new novel, My Tomorrow, Your Yesterday, available here:

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