Living on an ever-changing coast and an ever-restless sea
PUBLISHED: 15:49 29 October 2017 | UPDATED: 15:49 29 October 2017
The coast of Norfolk and Suffolk is famously fragile, prone to the relentless forces of wind, tides and waves. Trevor Heaton talks to author Stephen Wade, whose new book is an engaging account of its communities and ever-changing shoreline.
Stephen Wade is not from ‘round hare’, as they say. That becomes clear the moment he picks up the phone and his rich Yorkshire tones come through.
And that’s an important consideration, because the social historian believes that being an ‘outsider’ – his term – has meant that some of the people in our coastal communities who he met on his book research travels were actually keener to open up to him than they would have been for a local writer.
“What really comes to my mind was talking to people and I realised that I came to them with fresh eyes, particularly those people still doing a few hours on the boats. They do tell things, they do unload things,” he explained.
The result of his labours is the newly-published book Lost to the Sea, Britain’s Vanished Coastal Communities: Norfolk & Suffolk, an engaging and well-researched account which doesn’t just focus on those communities – most famously, Dunwich – which have been claimed by the waves.
Instead, the book is a look at life over the millennia for those villages and towns strung along the whole of our famously restless coast.
From those ancient Happisburgh footprints to poet Algernon Swinburne waxing lyrical about North Norfolk, all human life is here. Sealife too (as we’d better mention the whelk industry).
Stephen’s first two books in the Lost to the Sea series - East Yorkshire and Norfolk/Suffolk – suggested themselves, he adds. “My two favourite resorts are Filey and Hunstanton, so I thought ‘let’s start with places I know’.”
That means he is also very aware of how his part of the world has been losing its battle against the sea, most notably the Skipsea area of East Yorkshire. He has detected similarities between the two sets of coastal communities. “There is a commonality there,” he said. “Maybe it’s because they’re both seafaring folk.”
The determination and never-say-die attitude of coastal dwellers is an obvious connection. “In Skipsea you’ve got a guy still mowing his front lawn, even though it’s down to six feet by four!”
There are differences. Not for us – and apologies to Sunny Hunny’s stripey cliffs here – the vast rocks and crashing seas of Flamborough Head. Although the sea is just as implacable on our shores, it tends to be a subtler force. Most of the time, anyway.
“You live with water everywhere. It’s cutting in and seeping in everywhere, causing problems.”
And it’s something that’s been going on for a long time. In 1789 geographer and surveyor M J Armstrong wrote of concerns at the sea’s encroachment at such vulnerable spots as Horsey, recording 76 Norfolk parishes and 16 Suffolk parishes affected by such breakthroughs in his day.
Horsey is still one of the most vulnerable places on the coast, its importance magnified by its proximity to the Broads.
But it’s a process which goes back much, much further. One of the sections which Stephen most enjoyed writing was the one on ‘Doggerland’, the area of what is now the North Sea but which was once a plain which connected Great Britain to Continental Europe after the last Ice Age. Rising sea levels put paid to Doggerland around 6,500 years ago.
A string of Roman ‘Saxon Shore forts’ around our coast once included one at Suffolk’s Walton (the clue is in the name). As late as the early 17th century it was probably as massive as magnificent Burgh Castle further up the coast. But by 1766 there were just a few scraps of masonry left.
The place name of Eccles on the East Norfolk coast gives a hint of more Roman links – derived from ‘ecclesia’, a term for a Roman Christian community. But whatever archaeology there might have been is somewhere out there in the North Sea.
And one of the most evocative Norfolk postcards ever has to be one from the 1890s which shows Eccles church’s round tower stranded on the beach. A few years later, inevitably – relentlessly - that tumbled too.
The most famous story of coastal loss, though, is the once-mighty Suffolk port of Dunwich, and Stephen draws attention to the abiding resonance of its fate, its cliffs yielding - as Stephen writes - ‘scraps of the long narrative of death and dissolution that has marked Dunwich as a community condemned to be as permanent as the shifting sands of Arabia.’
That gives a flavour of the author’s well-crafted prose which makes this book a cut above the usual rounding-up-stories-of-the-region titles. Here’s another: referring to the lost village of Shipden which now lies a few hundred yards north of Cromer: ‘Their story is like that of a twin who has lost her partner, and lives with an empty space where the love should be.’
The forces haven’t always been slow, as the December 2013 tidal surge showed all too well. In earlier centuries a storm in 1703 killed 8,000 people and had winds so strong that windmills were set on fire by the friction of their sails turning so fast.
But as the sea destroys, it creates. Not just in sands shifted further along the coast, but also revealing lost communities, from the unimaginably ancient footprints of mankind’s ancestors at Happisburgh to the discovery of ‘Seahenge’. New discoveries such as the medieval graffiti in local churches are also adding to the story.
Stephen has enjoyed the writing process, admitting to being ‘absolutely smitten’ with the story of Poppyland in Norfolk, but the book has also given him pause for thought about how we face up to the powers of nature.
“The important thing is to come up to date and to look at the attitudes in local politics, and wherever the local power and influence is held, and think again about what’s gone – not just Dunwich – and how these vested interests have accepted the view that you should just yield to the sea, that you should give in and adapt to the new coastline,” he said.
“I just wonder whether those who have stood against the tide – literally and metaphorically – should have been listened to. My heart goes out to those individuals who have lost everything, and tried everything.”
Lost to the Sea, Britain’s Vanished Coastal Communities: Norfolk & Suffolk, by Stephen Wade, is published by Pen & Sword, £12.99.