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Landmark church may be victim of sea

PUBLISHED: 08:15 07 January 2008 | UPDATED: 14:00 22 October 2010

It has stood defiantly for five centuries as a beacon of peace for its village congregation and a focus for historians. But as it clings to the beautiful but vulnerable clifftop in north Suffolk, St Andrew's church at Covehithe will soon be lost beneath the waves ...

By CHRIS HILL

It has stood defiantly for five centuries as a beacon of peace for its village congregation and a mecca for historians.

But as it clings to the beautiful but vulnerable clifftop in north Suffolk, St Andrew's church at Covehithe will soon be lost beneath the waves as its foundations are ravaged by the onslaught of the North Sea which it has proudly surveyed for so long.

Environment Agency (EA) officials have identified the coast north of Southwold as the fastest eroding in the country and predicted the church will be consumed by the deep within 60 years.

And as the destructive power of the ocean creeps steadily and unstoppably closer, church leaders and heritage enthusiasts have mourned the inevitable loss of this precious piece of East Anglian history.

The Rev Leonard Payne, team vicar with the Sole Bay Ministry with responsibility for Covehithe, runs regular services in the smaller 'church within a church' - dwarfed by the medieval ruins of its predecessor.

"It is a magnificent building in terms of its historic significance," he said. "We have had major historians from Oxford and Cambridge visiting to look at the quality of the work.

"It also still fulfils a need. It is very traditional so it seems to gather people whose spiritual needs are not met elsewhere.

"It is more than just a place. Christian theology says the church is the people, not the place, but in many ways the building becomes the font of local history and that is very important. Where will it go now? It will be lost forever.

"When you look at that history and all the people who are buried there, it is very sad."

The church was most likely built in the 15th century, but was dismantled in 1672 to build a new building within the old one - seemingly because the cost of maintaining the giant building was too high for the small parish, then known as North Hales.

Much of the material from the original church was used in the construction of the new one, with several lumps of masonry in its east wall containing decorative carvings from the shrines of the earlier structure.

Mike Coleman, chairman of the Suffolk Preservation Society, said: "At the moment the church is a ruin but it evokes a lot of East Anglian history. You can't put a value on something like that as it means a lot of things to many different people.

"The nearby town of Dunwich was lost at the turn of the century, so this has been going on for generations. We just have to accept it, but I don't like to see it go. To protect it would be tremendously expensive."

EA figures show a loss of 75m of cliff at Cove Point between 1992 and 2006 at an average rate of 5.3m per year - higher than the average 3m recorded at Holdeness, which is considered the country's highest erosion rate for an entire coast. The church at Covehithe now stands just 330m from the receding cliffs.

Waveney District Council adopted a policy of 'no active intervention' for this section of shoreline in 1996.

Coastal planners said their limited budget must be directed to protecting homes and valuable infrastructure elsewhere, leaving the village of Covehithe to be sacrificed along with much of the picturesque Benacre estate and the Benacre National Nature Reserve which surround it.

Julian Walker, principal service manager for coast protection, said: "Covehithe has little in terms of man-made assets in comparison with Lowestoft and Southwold.

"All we can do is provide defences where it is appropriate. The area around Covehithe is an area of outstanding natural beauty and the wider community wants to see an open coastline without the eyesore of coastal defences.

"When we do these studies we consult English Heritage with regard to ancient monuments at specific sites. We evaluate these sites as best we can with the tools available and within government guidance."

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