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Coastal Erosion

16 May 08 16:17 GMT
Ben Woolvin
BBC South West

England's oldest golf course is being reclaimed by the sea on the North Devon coast. The government agency, Natural England, says it is not sensible to fight the waves, but now local people are offering to take on the storms themselves.

A low-lying bank splash of green sward at the mouth of the rivers Taw and Torridge, Northam Burrows has been a cherished piece of common land for hundreds of years.

With the centuries it has accumulated a rich social and environmental heritage.

Home to England's oldest links golf course, it's also a Site of Special Scientific Interest.

Living on the edge

But it is engaged in a constant battle for survival with the surrounding sea.

A battle many locals fear it is losing.

The waves tore a huge chunk out of the exposed tip of the Burrows during last winter's storms.

Breaking through the pebble ridge, the salt water poured deep into the heart of the Burrows. The resulting lagoon has now shrunk to a solitary puddle. Until the next time.


According to local councillor, Andrew Eastman, the traditional response to this kind of onslaught would be swift and straightforward.

The men of Northam would rebuild the damaged section of the ridge themselves.

Making a virtue out of necessity, they even turned it into a sort of fun day out, known as potwalloping.

The last hole

Today things are very different. Any repair work needs the permission of Natural England, a government agency.

That means no potwalloping or any other form of interference with the sea's handiwork.

This has gone down badly with members of the Royal North Devon Golf Club, contemplating the imminent prospect of several links disappearing beneath the waves.

Hazardous waste?

Astonishing as it seems now, for much of the twentieth century a large part of Northam Burrows was used as a landfill site.

Environmental standards and, it seems, record keeping, left much to be desired in past decades.

There is much speculation that there could be things buried here that you really wouldn't want leaching into the Bristol Channel.

More specifically, Torridge District Council has been advised that among the contents are 350 tons of asbestos from a former power station.

Nobody really knows what lies under this grass, though Devon County Council has promised to undertake tests to find out.

For now the giant pebbles of Northam lie calm and unmolested in the summer sun. But the sea, of course, is just biding its time.

We'll have the full story on The Politics Show for the South West, with Jon Sopel and Lucie Fisher on Sunday 18 May at 1200 BST on BBC One.

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