‘Warrior spirit’ keeps the Hemsby community fighting after last year’s tidal surge

PUBLISHED: 13:11 05 December 2014 | UPDATED: 13:19 05 December 2014

Lorna Bevan-Thompson from The Lacon Arms, Hemsby.

Lorna Bevan-Thompson from The Lacon Arms, Hemsby.

The devastation wreaked by the North Sea at Hemsby during last December’s tidal surge may have broken buildings, but it has strengthened a community determined to save itself. STACIA BRIGGS reports.

As a child, Lorna Bevan-Thompson would play cowboys and Indians in the sand dunes at Hemsby and would occasionally make the trek to the sea for a paddle.

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“In those days, it really was a trek because the dunes were more than 100ft from the sea – now it’s a matter of feet. You get used to losing the beach when you live in Hemsby, but when the sea starts taking the houses you’ve grown up with, you have to stand up and take action,” she said.

Lorna, her husband Jonathan and the dedicated members of Save Hemsby Coastline knew that they needed to be far more than keyboard warriors dispatching endless letters into a multi-layered bureaucratic log jam: they needed something concrete.

To be precise, 1,031 four-tonne concrete blocks in a line stretching from Newport to the Long Beach boundary.

Sitting back and waiting for governmental action simply isn’t an option for the residents of Hemsby – with the £10 million for sea defences it needs unlikely to materialise in the near, or even distant, future, villagers started building.

Powerless against the might of the North Sea, the villagers need a solution now – and although they can’t be sure that the DIY scheme will be successful, it’s the best option on the table and at £128,000, it’s realistic and achievable.

“Our village changed overnight last December and that could happen again at any time – we can’t wait for people to help us, we have to help ourselves,” said Lorna, who runs the Lacon Arms pub in the village with husband Jonathan.

“We were devastated because we felt no one official wanted to help us or take ownership of the problem, so there was no choice: we had to do it. We need volunteers, we need money, we need people to know the situation here.

“I have warrior spirit like lots of people in the village. We will keep fighting.”

Lorna’s family is part of the fabric of Hemsby: her father Mervyn Bevan was chairman of the village’s parish council, a role her brother Lyndon later took on, and the family own several businesses in the village.

She has watched the coastline change since she was a child and in recent years has campaigned hard for the village to receive the help from the environmental agency that they believe it is entitled to.

Not only do villagers vividly remember the night of the storm, the attack was captured by a film crew who, by coincidence, were capturing Hemsby’s fight to protect itself from the ravages of the sea.

After months of discussions with the BBC, villagers had been delighted when they were told a camera crew would be with them on December 4 and 5 to watch them create the concrete sea defences and hold a fundraiser to finance more blocks.

Aware of tidal warnings in other parts of the county, Hemsby residents were unaware that the surge was likely to affect them. Practically the entire village turned out to the Lacon Arms for a spirited night of fundraising.

But landlord Jonathan, a former lifeboatman, was taking no risks.

As the locals partied to raise funds for Save Hemsby Coastline, less than 100m away that very coastline was receiving a merciless beating from the sea. Armed with a powerful battery torch, he realised the old lifeboat shed had been destroyed by the sea. And that homes were following its path into the furious waves.

“It was pitch black but with the torch I could see that a lot of dunes had just disappeared. I’ve seen some rough seas and been out in some bad weather but I remember thinking that night that if someone went in, they wouldn’t come out again – the sea was raging and it had just chewed the dunes away,” he said.

“It was roaring like a lion. I knew things were bad. One house that had already been abandoned was gone and I saw that Steve and Jacquie Connelly’s house was in a bad way.

“I walked up to the house. They’d left their lights on and I went and peered over their back fence – the house was in mid-air. The sand had gone from underneath their kitchen, it was obviously about to fall.

“I had to come back and tell the Connellys the news. It was awful. They’d left their house safe and sound, come out for a good night and in a matter of hours their lives had changed, just like that. They were stunned, just couldn’t understand it.

“I went back with them and urged them to get the important stuff – passports, paperwork, the things that are hard to replace. Then I phoned Lorna and asked her to get people in the pub up to the house to help. It was clear it was going to fall.”

Back at the pub, Lorna stopped the music and made an appeal over the microphone. In minutes, a human chain of residents, BBC crew and fundraisers were taking as many of the Connolley’s belongings – and their beloved kittens - to safety as possible.

Back at the pub, arrangements were made for those whose homes were gone or too dangerous to return to. The village hall was filled with people who had been evacuated from Great Yarmouth, so other arrangements had to be made.

“It was the early hours of the morning and everyone had gone but we just couldn’t sleep,” said Lorna.

“We went back up to The Marrams, I think because we couldn’t believe what had happened. There, in the dark, were two of the people who had been rehomed just standing there in the dark, silent. We had to gently get them away.”

Seven bungalows in The Marrams and around 30ft of dunes were lost after the high tides, strong winds, huge waves and storm surge of December 5 2013.

Despite Hemsby being the poster village for the tidal surge with its striking images of tottering houses hanging from the dunes, the residents don’t feel their moment in the limelight has helped their cause.

“Lots of the people who went to live in The Marrams went there to escape, for some peace. Now they have to live with worry every day of their life and it’s not right – they pay their taxes, they have a right to live in their house without fear,” said Lorna.

“It’s a year since the storm and we’re still fighting as hard as we were in those days that followed. We won’t stop until Hembsy is safe.”

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