That sinking feeling

Two years ago a storm broke through this shingle ridge and a village was cut off for six weeks. In eastern England's battle with the sea these defences need constant reinforcement. So why have our MPs now decided to surrender?

Ivan Large takes a drag on his fag and peers from under the peak of his denim cap at the grey North Sea which is disgorging white, foaming breakers on to the beach below us. "This is all we've got between us and the North Pole," he says with a wry grin, digging his heel into the shingle ridge on which we are standing.

The ridge is about four miles long and 15ft high. It is the only major deviation from the horizontal in the 1,000 yards of marsh land that separates the sea from the village of Salthouse in north-west Norfolk Every winter since the terrible floods of 1953, bulldozers have arrived to shore up the shingle. Forty-five years on, the locals shake their heads and wonder how long it can last. The sea, they say, sucks back more and more of the beach before renewing its assault on this eroding coastal defence.

Twice it has broken through in recent years - in 1993 and in 1996, when the A149 through Salthouse was cut off for more than six weeks. "If the sea were allowed to get in regularly, it could go six miles inland, come round the back of us and cut us off like an island," says Large, who is chairman of the parish council, and has lived along this vulnerable coastline for more than 60 years.

Like many another fisherman in these parts, he simply refuses to believe that higher tides are caused by global warming. "It's just that we're in the lap of the gods with the weather," he says. "Every now and then we get big tides coupled with fierce north-westerly winds."

Nor does he accept the view of the MPs on the House of Commons agriculture committee that building ever higher defences to keep out the sea is ultimately a waste of time and money.

"If the Dutch didn't look after their sea defences, there wouldn't be no Holland," he says.

On the face of it, the Environment Agency's proposal to spend more than pounds 3m on a secondary defence at Salthouse - a bank built of clay from the marshes and standing more than 12ft high - would seem to go against the committee's recommendations. But the the 1994 European Union Habitats Directive commits the British government to protect important wildlife sites. North Norfolk is well blessed with them, and the bird sanctuary at Cley-next-the-Sea (and next to Salthouse) is the jewel in the crown.

The Countryside Minister, Elliot Morley, has already indicated that the needs of internationally important habitats will override the Government's spending formula. "If they look after the birds, they'll have to look after people as well," says Large with another wry grin. "If we get the bank, it'll be Cley bird sanctuary that gets us the money. There's little doubt about that."

There's little doubt, either, that Salthouse is seen as one of the test cases for the implications of the Habitat Directive in a coastal environment. Brancaster, 20 miles along the coast, is another. More of that later. Suffice it to say that the Environment Agency's proposals for Brancaster are very different: "managed retreat" from the sea, as opposed to "managed realignment". As a result, almost the entire local community is united against them. In Salthouse, the community is more split, even between families. As much of the indigenous population seems to be related, perhaps that is not too surprising.

We climb into Large's battered estate car and set off to see his brother- in-law George Cooke, who is in favour of the clay bank, and George's niece (and Ivan's cousin) Suzanne, who has raised a petition against it. "Mostly signed by holiday-makers and

twitchers," says Ivan contemptuously, as we drive back through the marsh. The clay bank is scheduled to cut across it, roughly 400 yards inland from the shingle ridge. As we pass the spot where work should start next summer, a flock of the aforesaid "twitchers" are standing by the side of the road, with their binoculars and cameras poking through the reeds at whatever bird life lurks within.

"There'll be hundreds of them this afternoon," Large goes on. "There's some kind of rare tit in there."

Surely, I suggest, the birdwatchers are good for the local economy. "Not really," he says. "They're mainly day trippers. Some people come here and buy holiday homes. That's why the prices are going way out of the reach of the working man. Just after the '53 floods, you could have bought half of Salthouse for pounds 1,000."

His brother-in-law George, now 78 and retired from fishing, had to leave his sea-front home in a hurry in 1953. "We moved the furniture upstairs but that got flooded as well," he recalls, as a hen and several chickens scurry into the hallway and begin pecking at a dog bowl. "We've been lucky since then. The downstairs carpet got soaked a couple of years ago, but that didn't bother me much."

All the same, George Cooke has had good reason to respect the power of the sea. "This is such a small island," he says, "and you can't let the sea take too much of it. If you get a really rough 'un, I don't know what'll stop the bugger. But this bank should take the sting out of it."

His niece, Suzanne, who runs Cookie's Crab Shop just down the road, will have none of it. "How would you like to have a 12-ft high wall not far from your front window?" she asks, brandishing a sheaf of signatures at me. She doesn't believe the global warming theory, either, but adds: "If it does get worse, I can't see a wall stopping a really severe flood."

As if to emphasise her confidence, she and her partner, Peter, are moving from their home a little way up the hill into the premises behind the shop which her father bought at a knock-down price in 1956. But they have installed an easy-to-swab floor of quarry tiles and have fitted electric sockets 2ft above it.

A wise precaution in the circumstances. The North Sea has been a fierce and unpredictable foe to the east coast. More than 300 people died in the floods of '53, one of them in Salthouse. Out beyond the shingle ridge and under the waves is one of the buildings that didn't survive. Many more perished before it. Indeed, Salthouse was a thriving port 200 years ago. Just as what is now the tiny Suffolk hamlet of Dunwich was a once a great medieval town. Back in Norfolk, Cromer once stood two miles inland from the busy seaside village of Shipden which now lies at the bottom of the sea.

Stride out from Cromer over the cliffs towards Overstrand today, and you will find signs warning you to "proceed at your own risk." Just down the coast at Happisburgh, meanwhile, local councillors are warning that the Norfolk Broads will be in danger if nothing is done to shore up the cliffs.

There are no cliffs in Brancaster. Just dunes. Like Salthouse, the beach is almost perfectly flat. Unlike Salthouse, there are is no shingle to push up into a defensive ridge. Just soft sand, which looks as though it's lying there waiting to be pounded twice-daily by the incoming rollers.

In fact, it doesn't just lie there. It moves about with every wind and tide. This is what's known to environmentalists as a "dynamic" beach.

Not that it looks too dynamic on a bright, if chilly, late-August afternoon. Holiday-makers on the beach are doing nothing more energetic than hammering in windbreak-supports or making sandcastles. A small dog is cocking its leg up a sign which says: "If you go on to the sandflats, take care. They are quickly covered by the incoming tide."

This is easy to believe. The edge of the sea is frothing angrily in the middle-distance. But the stiff northerly breeze coming directly inland suggests that when it makes a move, it will be with some force. "By five o'clock you'd be up to your waist if you stayed where we are," says Cyril Sutherland, a fisherman for over 35 years, as we stand at the foot of the sand dunes below the Royal West Norfolk Golf Club.

Three years ago, the sea came close to breaking through the dune and flooding the first fairway. Already, the road leading from the village to the golf course can be flooded for anything up to three hours at high tide. Time and tide wait for no member here. Book a round at the wrong time and you could be stranded in the 19th hole for longer than expected.

Faced with a tidal assault on the course itself, the club brought in outside experts who suggested piling up flint to protect the vulnerable sand. Sutherland and other locals knew better. Eventually, 20 of them were commissioned by the club to experiment with geo-textile mesh, a metre high along the base of the dune. They topped it with brushwood to catch the windblown sand. "See how it's building up now into a nice, gentle slope," says Sutherland.

"It's better to take the power out of the sea rather than let it smash into a 90-degree wall. Otherwise the top will eventually cave in. This brushwood method is how our forefathers did it, two or three hundred years ago, when they reclaimed grazing land from the sea. It's a matter of working with nature. A little bit of maintenance could hold this lot together. But the Environment Agency take more notice of outside boffins than of people on the ground."

The Agency is planning a 60-metre (just over 200-ft) breach in the sea defences on the west side of the clubhouse to take the pressure off the dunes. Managed retreat, in other words. Most villagers would much prefer managed realignment, in the form of a secondary buffer bank.

"You can't predict the sea," says Alan Townsend, secretary of the Brancaster Village Gold Club whose members have ancient rights to play on the Royal West Norfolk's course (but not to use the clubhouse). "These boffins come in and think of this and think of that, but the older people here have seen it all before. The defences at Titchwell were breached by 30 yards in '53. Now the the gap's three-quarters of a mile."

But Steve Hayman, a senior engineer at the Environment Agency, insists: "A managed retreat is better than waiting for nature to take its course. We've been struggling in an unequal battle to sustain that short length of dunes. If we get a serious storm, the sea will break through. As for building a secondary defence, it would involve quite an investment. Looking at the area that is protected, it's difficult to see where the benefits are coming from to justify the cost."

The Agency has priced the secondary bank at pounds 539,000, a figure which Janice Howell, chair of the parish council, considers a substantial over- estimate. "We're not convinced by the sums," she says. Nor by the figure put on replacing the freshwater marsh which will be flooded when the sea is let through the breach. "Under the Habitats Directive, they're bound by law to replace that marsh with 80 acres of comparable land, and they think they can do it for pounds 160,000. Well, dream on, chaps. Agricultural land round here is going for between pounds 3,000 and pounds 4,000 an acre."

There is also a compensation bill to be worked out in an area where land ownership is a matter of Byzantine complexity. Steve Hayman concedes: "When the EU directive on habitats was drafted, it's questionable whether enough consideration was given to dynamic coastlines that have been changing for thousands of years."

The experiences of these two towns, separated by 20 miles, also suggests that the Commons agriculture committee may also have been a little optimistic in trying to frame a blanket policy on sea defences for the entire British coastline.

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