A four-mile-long dune was built to protect Bacton Terminal, which supplies around a third of the UK’s gas and had been moving steadily closer to the cliff edge, literally and metaphorically. Designed by the Dutch engineering company Royal HaskoningDHV, it involved the placement of 1.8 million cubic metres of sand along the beaches near the terminal.
The design relies on the sand being shifted into place by wind, waves and tides. The Dutch are world leaders in land reclamation and protection, having over the years reclaimed more than a sixth of Holland’s landmass from the sea.
“In the long run,” says Professor Hall, “any coast protection is temporary. We’ve been doing engineering to protect the coast for a very long time. Almost half of the UK coast has some kind of protection – sea walls, revetments, promenades, that kind of thing. The Victorians were inveterate promenade builders.”
Such protections don’t stop the sea rising. They merely fix, for a while, the point of the shore profile. At Happisburgh, near Bacton, wooden revetments did that job, until they collapsed 20 years ago, leading to a sudden and damaging exposure to the sea.
“Once you lose [the protection], there’s a lot of pent-up erosion capacity,” says Hall.
Although there is growing media coverage of coastal erosion, it’s as Alex Clare said: knowledge of the thing isn’t the same as experiencing it. “There’s a bit more recognition that the sea level is rising fast,” says Hall. “But I don’t think coastal communities have really understood what the future holds.” He believes there should be an “honest conversation” between government, local government and the affected communities.
While the money required to protect cities like London and Hull will have to be found, that’s not likely with isolated villages. When I visited Norfolk last month, the locals seemed fatalistic or in denial, pointing out that the situation was worse somewhere else, either up or down the coast. As I drove back, it began to rain, and that night the weather deteriorated. The next day there was a large landslide at Mundesley, near Bacton, with a huge chunk of the cliff face collapsing on to the beach. Above it, houses stood on the precipice, their future looking about as secure as Norwich’s position in the Premier League.
As Pete Revell, station manager at Bacton HM Coastguard, said, Mundesley was viewed as stable by comparison with nearby Happisburgh, and the landslide came as “a bit of a surprise”. It certainly shocked local resident Antony Lloyd, who said he was “very nervous and agitated about any further incidents.” He was finding it hard to sleep and thought he would have to move.
Of course, the occasional landfall or loss of beachside chalets is hardly cause for national panic. But like canaries in a coal mine, the inhabitants of the villages strung along Norfolk’s shifting coastline are a warning of a worrying future. There are processes under way whose outcomes are unavoidable, and those that can potentially be arrested. But it will require unblinking foresight and long-term action, neither of which are our national strong suits.
If you take the path north from Winterton’s beach car park you come to the roped-off seal sanctuary. Beyond, seals and their pups lie still and vulnerable in the dunes, hundreds of yards from the shore, as if waiting for the sea to rescue them. And come it will, not now or next year, but much sooner than we care to think.