Disappearing world: The village falling into the sea

Skipsea is disappearing fast. It sits on the fastest-eroding coastline in Europe and every year the sea swallows another chunk of land. Mark Hughes visits the people living on the edge
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The sign as you enter Skipsea is an immediate indication that something is wrong. "Danger," it reads. "Enter at your own risk." Just ahead, there is a huge hole in the middle of the road, blocking your path.

The village of Skipsea sits, precariously, on Yorkshire's East Riding coastline the fastest eroding coastline in Europe.

As 2008 begins, many of the villagers have a common new year's resolution: to leave their doomed village before their homes are washed into the sea. Official figures estimate that this coastline loses an average of 18 inches a year. The council estimates that 13 homes in the village will disappear in the next five years, with a further 78 likely to be lost by 2058.

But, worryingly, the residents of Skipsea, which has a population of just 600, say these estimates are far too optimistic.

With 2007 being the worst year in recent memory, 2008 is generally regarded as make or break for those closest to the ever-receding cliff-face.

For Josephine and Colin Arnold this will almost certainly be the year they are forced to leave their home of 19 years.

The couple moved to their 11-room farmhouse in May 1988 to set up a business in the village, which is a popular tourist destination.

They bought the house with an acre of land and opened a restaurant, a campsite, a caravan park and a holiday cottage.

But in just 19 years the land behind their home, which once stretched back 100 feet, has shrunk to six feet.

The land where the campsite, the caravans and cottage once stood is gone, washed away by the sea. Last year's frequent storms forced them to start demolishing their home, reducing the 11-room farmhouse, where they housed the restaurant, to to just six rooms.

A 20-foot drop has replaced the space where their kitchen, dining room, living room and two bedrooms used to be. And a wall of tyres sits at the end of the driveway to stop cars driving off the edge of the cliff. They have lost their home and their business. They now live in a renovated caravan and make their living selling doughnuts from the back of a van.

"It's been terrible," said Mrs Arnold. "We never expected the coast to disappear so quickly. It's now got to the point that another big tide will wash away the rest of the house and possibly the caravan too.

"When we moved here we hoped that we could make enough money to be able to move away but we didn't make the money quickly enough and we became stuck here. There comes a time when you just have to accept that it is too dangerous to live here any more. It's at the stage where I dread any bad weather, I panic when I see rain now because it could mean a storm and that's bad news."

The couple say that the problem of erosion intensified in the early 1990s when a developer was given permission by the local council to build sea defences along the coast.

The Arnolds refused to sell their land to the developer, meaning that their property was the only one not protected.

Mrs Arnold, 56, added: "In our opinion the defences were never going to work and that's why we didn't sell the land. And we were right because they have since fallen down. But when they were built it was a disaster for us.

"The experts say that about one foot falls off the cliffs every year, but when those defences went up we sat and watched about 18 feet wash away in 20 minutes. Because we were the only ones without a sea defence all the water was channelled towards our house."

The couple who share their home with their daughter Katie, 30, and Mrs Arnold's brother Alan Lead and his wife Cindy are now waiting to hear from the council what type of compensation they will be entitled to.

A meeting to discuss the matter is scheduled for March and Mr Arnold, 62, hopes that they will finally be able to start planning for the future.

He said: "At first we didn't like to think about moving away because this has been our home for a long time. But we have accepted that it's inevitable and we are ready to move, but we need somewhere to go.

It's not like a normal house sale where we can sell our house and move on; who is going to buy a house that will be gone in a few years? We need the council to give us compensation or land as soon as possible so we can move away from here."

A short walk from the Arnolds' home, on Southfield Lane, takes you to Green Lane. You can't take a car between the houses because there is a huge hole in the middle of the road another consequence of coastal erosion.

Walking down mud track towards Green Lane gives you the feeling that the houses there have already been condemned. The sign as you enter the street reads: "Danger coastal erosion. Enter at your own risk."

Residents of Green Lane have to use the back doors of their houses, as access at the front is hampered by the road closure.

The row of houses on the street hasn't always been right on the edge of the cliff face. Before 1980 another row sat in front of them. Those houses have since been washed away.

Valerie Robinson, 65, knows it won't be long before she, like those in the 1980s, is forced to leave her home.

"Our houses are about 100 feet away from the edge but it's getting closer every year. I've lived here for the past 14 years and more of the coast has washed away in the past two years than ever before. I can only see it getting worse," she said.

"I remember when I used to sit out in the garden and tourists would be envious of our houses. They would tell me that if they won the pools they'd move here. No one is saying that any more. No one wants to live here now. When I bought the place I was told by the estate agent that it would be here for 45 years. That was in 1993 and I don't give it another five years before these houses are gone.

"We've accepted that we will have to leave soon. We are just hoping we get some good news in March with regards to the compensation and then we can think about leaving."

Mrs Robinson's daughter Wendy lives two doors down. She says she is one of the lucky ones because she rents her property and isn't faced with losing her only asset the prospect her mother faces.

Wendy, 36, said: "It's become a dangerous place to live. I have a 12-year-old daughter and I'm forever warning her not to play out on the front. It's a frightening thought what could happen. Only last week an old man was blown over the edge. I only rent, so I'm lucky in that sense, but if the council offered me another house tomorrow I would take it. It used to be lovely living here, 'Millionaires' Row' they used to call it. It's disgusting now and we just want to get out.

"We feel like we have been forgotten about. We are right on the coast, our houses about to fall into the sea, and it seems like no one cares."

Michael Kitchen, a neighbour, echoes her sentiments. Mr Kitchen, 65, has been visiting the village for 50 years and has lived there for the past 12.

He said: "We first started becoming really concerned about coastal erosion in November 2006 and since then I've written letters to everyone: the council, Defra, Tony Blair, Gordon Brown, the list goes on.

"It's the same story though. They say they are discussing it, but no one seems interested in protecting this coastline. It's been more than 20 years since the last row of houses went into the sea and since then we have all been waiting for ours to be next.

"I've been on a deferred list for a council house for the past six years. Every year they ask me if I would like them to find me a new house and every year I say no. This year I'm going to say yes.

"The way this coastline is eroding, the next lot of houses will go a lot quicker than we all first thought. We've to make other plans.

"When the last lot of houses went in the 1980s it was just a handful of people that lost their homes. This time we are talking about a small community that is going to disappear.

"This erosion won't stop at our house. It will eat into the village and before you know it Skipsea will be gone."