The last stand of Fairlight Cove, the village crumbling into the Channel

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The Independent Online

Nick Carter is looking out over a cliff on the edge of the English Channel, gazing at the place where his home and garden used to be. The landslide has already swallowed his bungalow, and the cliff is creeping towards the place he now calls home: a caravan.

Nick Carter is looking out over a cliff on the edge of the English Channel, gazing at the place where his home and garden used to be. The landslide has already swallowed his bungalow, and the cliff is creeping towards the place he now calls home: a caravan.

The edge is now just five metres away, and the drop could swallow the rest of Mr Carter's property in months. Yet the former RAF warrant officer is remarkably phlegmatic about his fate. "I'm 84," he says calmly. "Which will go first? The cliff? Or me?"

On either side of his tiny patch of lawn, Mr Carter has filled in the deep fissures in the steadily crumbling cliff which now threatens Fairlight Cove, a secluded retirement village five miles east of the East Sussex resort of Hastings.

About 50 metres below lie the sun-bleached ruins of Boma Cottage, the timber- framed bungalow his parents bought in 1947, lying on the huge chunks of clay that began slipping into the sea six years ago.

But very few people in Fairlight Cove - a pretty village of about 720 properties - are as fatalistic as Mr Carter. The landslip is threatening up to 400 homes, and its residents are squaring up for a fight with the Government's powerful conservation agency, English Nature.

Five homes in Fairlight have already been evacuated and some of those have been lost over the edge. The cliff is marching inland at 25 metres a year - a consequence of the heavy rains, winter storms and poor drainage which has saturated the dense clay soil that Fairlight was first built on 70 years ago. Unfortunately for the villagers, Fairlight Cove sits within one of Britain's rarest and most important dinosaur fossil sites - the home of 135 million-year-old pterosaurs, crocodiles, forests and dinosaur footprints. And they are fossils that English Nature is jealously guarding. That has put Fairlight Cove on the frontline in the Government's battle to protect the UK from the worst effects of climate change - a strategy called "managed retreat".

Faced with rising sea levels, scientists insist it is inevitable that many small coastal communities will be lost to the sea. As a result, only the largest, most important ones will be protected by concrete and stone sea defences.

The frontline at Fairlight is a quiet back lane. On one side is a scene of English bliss. Thick hedges and weathered wooden gates protect gardens where closely cropped lawns, neat flower beds and trees sit in spring sunshine.

But immediately over the road is a cataclysm. Here, the gardens have disappeared down the raw clay slopes and deep fissures cut through the last patches of lawn. A large derelict house, and the foundations of another demolished bungalow are waiting to fall. Greenhouses lie at 45-degree angles over the edge of the cliff. At its foot is a rotten sofa, a wrecked lawnmower, piles of shattered glass and a telephone pole.

However, English Nature is resisting residents' calls for a concrete wall or a vast bulwark of boulders to be built along the cliff foot - a scheme which could cost £10m per kilometre. Its officials want to see whether a study commissioned by the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will come up with a better, more cost-effective solution in September.

The local Green MEP, Caroline Lucas, is trying to find common ground between the two sides, but ultimately, that will only buy Fairlight some extra time.

Tony Cosgrove, a senior geologist with English Nature, said: "The challenges we're looking at in Fairlight are going to be faced throughout the country in years to come. We can't allow ourselves to get into a position where our automatic response is to spend millions of pounds on engineering schemes that ultimately won't work, and could damage some of our most precious wildlife sites."

He admits the situation at Fairlight is a paradox. "These cliffs are clear and bright because the waves lap up against them," he said. "It erodes them, and frees up the fossils, giving us access to them. If it wasn't for thisnibbling away, we wouldn't have access to the geology."

This approach incenses Paul Capps, treasurer of the Fairlight Cove Preservation Trust. "Why should 20, 30 or 50 people pick up the tab for English Nature? They really have to understand that fossils don't pay taxes," he said. "If English Nature want to say 'let Mother Nature take its course', then they have to persuade the Government to pay compensation to people who lose their homes."

John Sinclair, the trust's chairman, insists the villagers are simply looking for a stay of execution - not a permanent reprieve. "I'm hoping all this slippage will slow down. But what I want is engineering work that will give the houses on the edge another 20 to 25 years, and then I would like to see the Government have a good policy of compensation.

"We know it's going to erode at a slow rate indefinitely. All we want to do is slow it down."