Page last updated at 01:42 GMT, Friday, 12 September 2008 02:42 UK

Coastal village living on the edge

These images by photographer Mike Page show just how much the cliffs have eroded behind the Happisburgh guest house over the last 10 years.

By Tom Warren
BBC News, Happisburgh

Thousands of homes along England's coastline are under threat of destruction because of rising sea levels and poorly maintained defences.

Campaigners in Happisburgh, Norfolk - one of the villages at most immediate risk - are now demanding more help for their community.

When Di Wrightson bought her Happisburgh guest house in 1981 with business partner Jill Morris it seemed an idyllic place to live.

Visitors came from far and wide to enjoy the sea views and cream teas served in her garden.

We are climate change migrants - we're the first wave and we get no assistance whatsoever
Malcolm Kerby, Coastal Concern Action Group

But today Ms Wrightson's home lies just metres from the cliff edge and will soon be lost all together.

A concrete base, where a garage once stood, is now all that separates her back lawn from the beach below.

"We're having a tsunami of our own, only it's in slow motion," the retired teacher said.

"It wasn't until the bungalows started collapsing that we found that no one was doing anything and it all started to fall apart.

Defences removed

"Nobody believed that nothing would be done before it reached here, we thought somebody would do something."

But so far, no one has.

Di Wrightson
Di Wrightson has run her guest house since the early 1980s

The wooden revetments and groynes, built in the 1950s to protect the cliffs behind Beach Road, were removed several years ago when they began to fail.

And villagers say this dramatically increased the speed of erosion.

Since 1995, 26 properties, along with the village's lifeboat launching station, have crumbled away.

A new bay formed from sand washed down the shoreline has also been created.

In 2000 a report was produced saying that measures would be taken to "hold the line" against the sea.

This gave hope to villagers, particularly those living along Beach Road who face the most immediate threat.

Uncertain retirement

But in 2003 the local council called a meeting and told Beach Road residents to prepare for the worst.

The government's current policy is to leave some communities to the sea's mercy if defending them cannot be economically justified.

"They said nothing could be done, we must steel ourselves to the idea of leaving, and handed us forms," Ms Wrightson said.

"I looked at the top and it said 'homelessness'. I had worked hard all my life to have my guest house and it was shattering.

"I wanted to have a comfortable retirement, but what sort I will have I can't imagine."

Cliff behind Beach Road
Most properties in Beach Road have now been abandoned

Malcolm Kerby is coordinator of Coastal Concern Action Group (CCAG), formed to fight for the future of Happisburgh, but which now lobbies on behalf of coastal communities along England's coastline.

He said the government should take urgent action to replace failing defences or compensate those whose homes were lost.

"We are climate change migrants - we're the first wave and we get no assistance whatsoever.

Home for 1

"[The government] is creating third world conditions around the edge of this country."

Two years ago a property on Beach Road was valued at just 1. Other homeowners have had problems with insurance premiums or remortgages, he said.

"If we put in a proper programme of works it would be expensive, but we're an island nation."

Eventually all of Happisburgh will be lost to the sea. But it is impossible to know how long this will take.

Malcolm Kerby by the recently formed bay
Malcolm Kerby says the government is failing coastal communities

In the meantime, those not under imminent threat must get on with their lives.

Sharon Chaney, 47, who runs the post office and shop with husband Ian, said Happisburgh was still a successful "close-knit" community.

"[Erosion] is a worry because it's constantly on your mind, but we're just hoping we can get something done.

"We have still got a shop and a pub and a really thriving primary school and a lot of villages have lost that."

Peter Ottley, 52, bought a property in the village two years ago.

"Everyone gets hyped-up about Happisburgh, but there's a lot worse places," he said.

"I didn't have a problem with a mortgage. There's not many villages left like this now, it's so quiet and beautiful, and you couldn't wish for a better place to live."

Wrecked lifeboat station
The sea has destroyed the village's old lifeboat station

Neighbour Mike Price, who moved to Happisburgh less than a year ago, agreed.

"Living here is like stepping back in time, because it's like it was when I was a boy.

"We are in dire need of places like this for people to come on holidays and people to come and live."

A Defra spokesman said: "Spending on flood and coastal erosion risk is at record levels.

"We have plans agreed with local communities to protect the coast where that is practical.

"However we must ensure taxpayers' money is used to best effect, which is why we are working with local councils to ensure that adaptation measures preserve local economies."

In pictures: Village under threat
12 Sep 08 |  In Pictures
Climate study findings revealed
29 Mar 07 |  England
Last rocks arrive to save coast
13 Mar 07 |  Norfolk
Minister rules out erosion help
22 Aug 06 |  Norfolk
Guest house teeters on the edge
29 Jun 05 |  Norfolk

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