The village that reached the end of the road

Managing the coastal retreat
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The Independent Online
The road through Covehithe runs right to the edge of the cliff. Right to the edge. There is a wire barrier with a red sign warning people not to go any further. But they do anyway. Tourists squeeze round the side and wonder why the tarmac suddenly breaks off at the edge of the cliff.

Marjorie Bagley could tell them. Eighteen years ago that road led to her house. She used to sit in her garden and look back inland towards the neighbouring village of Southwold.

Then one night her garden fell into the sea. Soon after that she had to move. Her house, Four Winds, was declared unsafe and demolished by the council.

Now even the land it stood on has vanished into the sea.

And the water keeps on coming. This tiny Suffolk hamlet is being invaded by nature. They say that in 30 years time it will have disappeared.

Mrs Bagley still lives in the village, she has retreated to a "safe distance" of 600 yards from the edge. She reckons she will be all right there - 30 years will see her out. Besides, one house falling into the sea is quite enough for one lifetime.

"The night it happened, my husband, who was an auxiliary coastguard, got a call asking him to look out for a ship that had sent out a distress signal.

"There was a terrible storm with really high winds and as he stood there in the dark with the binoculars he heard a huge crash like an earthquake and he realised that half the garden wasn't there any more."

It was pitch black and the Bagleys could not even see to check the damage until the following morning. "It was all very unsettling," she says with heroic understatement.

When they had rented the house eight years previously the men who did the survey told the Bagleys they would be all right for 20 years.

They received no compensation. None is available.

It is a situation that Major Timothy Gooch is all too familiar with. He owns the land and it has been in the family since 1746. Of course there was a lot more of it then and the major, who lives about 500 yards from the edge, faces up to the possibility that the inheritance will die with him.

In the meantime he reviews his tenants' rents each year: "You can't make a man pay for land he hasn't got," he says. "It is terribly sad that the village will disappear and with it a way of life but there is nothing that can be done.

"We have been told that it costs pounds 6m per mile of sea defence and you have to ask if it is worth spending that kind of money to save a few houses and a field of sugar beet."

Despite his pragmatism, the major nurses hopes of a reprieve. Records from the 1830s show the coastal line disappearing extremely fast. If the erosion had continued at that speed Covehithe would have long since disappeared.

For the moment the local farmers have to put up with constantly shrinking fields.

Simon Rouse, a pigman at Church Farm which nestles 200 yards inland, says the field boundaries have to be moved back twice a year.

"Usually we leave about 20 yards at the edge of a field so we can drive a tractor round a safe distance from the edge. After one huge storm last winter I went down the next morning and in some places the fence was just one step away from the edge.

"We have got used to living with it because it has always been that way."

Terry Oakes, community services director of Waveney district council, might wish all residents were so pragmatic. But they are not.

In 1953, Winston Churchill made a promise of "no surrender" and that the coast should be buttressed against the tides after floods along the Suffolk coast cost 307 lives. It was an impossible ambition.

Now Waveney council has drawn a red line to show what it fears will disappear in the next 75 years.

During consultation, some people argued forcefully that the council should be doing more. "But it would not be economically feasible or environmentally acceptable to spend large sums of money along the whole coastline," Mr Oakes says.

"It's a burden without a doubt and politically it's very difficult for councillors to balance questions of expenditure versus benefit."

The council spends up to pounds 2m a year on defences, drawn largely from grants from the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food (Maff), and another pounds 300,000 a year in maintenance. Maff spends pounds 350m a year on flooding and coastal defence.

There are those who think they should spend more. Not on walls or other defences but to compensate those who stand to lose when the management plans are implemented.

Colin Green, of Middlesex University's flood hazard research centre, says there is a risk of planning blight as a result of the management strategy. "Perhaps people should be compensated if their farm is to be sacrificed to provide sediment for somewhere else," he says.

Professor John Pethick, of Cambridge University's coastal research unit, believes it would be easier to make sensible decisions if compensation was available for those whose homes and land can be defended only at great cost.

He sees the whole plan in far greater terms than Britain alone, looking to the coastline of the entire Continent. Last year he put forward a plan that Europe should compensate Holderness because the sediment from its cliff erosion nourishes and provides protection along the whole North Sea coast. A baffled European Union spokesman asked: "Is this a joke?"

Professor Pethick was not joking. He knows that for the citizens of the East coast the matter is far from funny.

But they have kept their sense of humour. Major Gooch may be resigned to the fate of his land but he still plans to have the church roof re- thatched before the autumn. "A good thatch lasts for 90 years," he says. "You never know."